On pellet stoves in the boonies…

My neighbors D&L have a very large house, post & beam with strawbale & adobe exterior and earthbag interior walls. I do believe it’s got more thermal mass than Ian’s Cave, which is great in the summer but a surprising liability in winter because you can’t ever afford to let it get cold inside if you aren’t prepared to let it take weeks to warm back up. A couple of years ago they had to be gone for a few days and they actually hired me to come stay in their house, to take care of their animals but mostly…

…to keep their pellet stove running. Which I found kind of ironic, and also supplied quite an education in the advantages and disadvantages of pellet stoves.

Advantages: They’re super efficient. That one stove is their primary source of heat for the bulk of a 4000+ square foot house, and it does its job really well.

Disadvantages: Everything else. First, they require not only fuel but also electricity and lots of it. In town that wouldn’t be a problem but when you’re rolling your own juice that means you need sizable infrastructure just to run the heater, and you’d better hope nothing ever goes seriously wrong with it. You’re always one lightning strike or gloomy spell away from getting cold with no Plan B. I lived for five years in an RV trailer whose heater needed propane and electricity to work, which was connected to a really iffy power system, and I can tell you from experience that that isn’t a good situation to be in.

Of course D&L have a SUPER electrical system, with a big dual-fuel backup generator, so they don’t worry about that. But they paid a lot of cash for the privilege.

Second, the fuel…

…is expensive, and – around here anyway – kind of hard to get. You mustn’t ever let it get wet. And that pellet stove goes through a lot of it. D&L order theirs from the local feed store by the pallet-load, and during full winter they go through one and a half of those sacks every single day. Of course, it’s a big house. Also it turns out that there’s quite a quality difference between various brands of pellet, which leads us to…

Third, they’re complicated to maintain. Pellet stoves have a lot of moving parts, and like a revolver everything has to be working smoothly and freely or nothing will work at all. If your pellets happen to have a lot of grit and crumbles, expect the hopper and auger to gum up and stop the show every so often unless you thoroughly clean the whole damned thing, in each of its many crevices, daily. And maybe even if you do. D&L are very picky about the pellets they buy, and they still sift every bucketful before it goes into the stove. That little vacuum cleaner in the picture above is just for cleaning the stove. They had a lot of stoppages during their learning curve.

The reason all this has been on my mind is that in a year or two when I’m living on SS which will greatly increase my monthly income, I’d kind of like to replace the woodstove in the Lair’s main room with something that’s … not a woodstove. I have come to dearly love the thermostat-controlled propane heater in the bedroom but it doesn’t have the horsepower to heat the whole place. If I could afford the cost of another stove and the fuel to run it, it would be nice not to have to gather and chop wood every year. But I’m pretty much settled in my mind that if I ever do that, the woodstove will be replaced with one that burns propane, not wood pellets.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to On pellet stoves in the boonies…

  1. Bob says:

    I frequent a bbq website & the new thing has been pellet grills & smokers for a few years now. Everyone loves them until they get it going then go to bed & wake up with a cold smoker & ruined meat . Auger clogged up, pellets damp or it’s tripped the breaker. That’s no way to bbq & doesn’t sound like a very good way to heat a house. But there’s a hurricane coming & I need beer.

  2. Ben says:

    I would say keep the wood for a plan B, and go for a new thru-wall propane furnace as your new plan A. But you won’t always be able to throw around propane bottles like you do now, so if direct bulk delivery really isn’t an option, then you will need a largish tank mounted on a trailer so you can meet the bulk propane truck at the county road to buy months of fuel at a time.

  3. Wayne Dygert says:

    30 years ago I used wood which I bought by the truckload. Cost about $1200 a winter for my 1200 square foot place Then I switched to a pellet stove which took between one and two pallets of pellets a winter. Cost more or less the same as the wood but not as backbreaking or messy. Now I’m on a heat pump running on utility supplied electricity at a cost of about $200/month in winter months with a 25 KW generator backup running from a 350 gallon propane tank as backup. Much easier on a somewhat beat up 76 y/o body but I really miss having a warm toasty spot to warm my arthritic old behind on bad days. FWIW in my opinion propane heaters and old farts go together pretty darned well

  4. Id like to offer my two cents. I’ve often thought that propane was an ideal choice for heating, and it really does have a lot to offer for it except for one thing – transportability. If I had, say, an oil or kerosene heater I can buy/borrow from a neighbor and only need a five-gallon bucket to make the transaction work. Propane, broadly speaking, isn’t that easy to ‘borrow a gallon’ from a neighbor without some special equipment and skill. Sure, there’s tricky valves that let you refill smaller units from larger ones, but for transporting a BTU source with a minimum of fuss, a liquid fuel like kerosene has a lot going for it.

    Additionally, kerosene stores virtually indefinitely, has the highest BTU’s of any source, and can be used for lighting and cooking as well as heating.

    For my emergency fuel needs (heat, lights, cooking) I go with kerosene .

    Just something to think about.

  5. jabrwok says:

    The pellet stove sounds like a rich man’s folly, though I suppose it must have some redeeming qualities.

    As for liquid fuels (propane or kerosene), I wonder whether you might be able to find (or manufacture) a trailer for the jeep on which you could permanently mount a couple of larger fuel tanks. Park it next to the Lair, run a hose over, and when one runs dry just switch to the other until your next town-run, at which point you could top them both off again. Or maybe just one big tank, and switch to one of the smaller ones you use now when the big one is emptied. Probably easier on your back.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Just for ideas, check these guys out:
    Steve in MN

  7. MN Steel says:

    Is it windy enough in the winter to run a vertical windmill made from 55-drum halves? You can dump excess electricity into a water heater that runs the hydronic heat, baseboard in your case.

    Lots of places on The Big Island run those windmills, they are omnidirectional.

  8. Doc J says:

    In the US Army we used a big keg-like thing with a stovepipe. It has a chamber that has a fire. Then a five-gallon can of some flammable liquid drips into the fire chamber. Of course, we always had a fire guard when it was running but it heated well. Commander Zero and his kerosene heater is also a good choice BUT the heater flares. And often smells. As a Army Doctor I saw my share of singed eyebrows and forehead hair. And heard of burned down tents. So fire guards for kerosene heaters per regs. Remember the Three Laws of Life Thermodynamics: 1) You cannot win 2) You cannot break even 3) You cannot get out of the game.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Build another wing and put in an indoor pool. There’s thermal mass, fun, and bikini girls.
    You’re welcome.

  10. Ernie says:

    Some years back, I had a neighbor in Florida who had a 100 gallon horizontal propane tank; a quick internet search for one turned up nothing, so it may have been something provided locally by his propane supplier.

    IIRC, one gallon of liquid propane contains 92,000 BTU, so a 30 lb tank holds 5.85 gallons = 538K BTU. The standard “100 gallon tank” actually holds 96 gallons so that’s 8.8 million BTU. A 100 lb tank holds 19.5 gallons = 1.8M BTU.

    It should be easy to estimate BTU/month with those numbers based on your current tank refill schedule (since you use LP for bedroom heating AND cooking, winter months will be higher, but it all figures into an annual monthly average). How to get an accurate BTU consumption figure on the wood you burn, I dunno; most pallets are made from oak, both red and white oak have about 7000 BTU/lb.

    Just spitballing here, but I’m guessing 3X 100 lb tanks would probably be the way to go, assuming there’s some way to transport them. You already have a two-tank management system installed, so when one empties, swap it for the 3rd full one and haul the empty to be refilled. 4 tanks would would even better, two per “mobile travel unit” whatever such a device would look like, and could be connected in manifolded pairs – two tanks coupled together to act as one 200 lb tank, the pairs managed by the same two-tank system you already have. The handicap with 100 lb tanks is they can be transported horizontally but need to be vertical for use.

    Refilling your 30 lb tanks, it’s impractical to go too far for frequent refills, but for a pair of 100 lb tanks it might be practical to travel farther, to someplace with multiple competing propane dealers that might lead to lower prices. And fewer refill trips. However a maniflded pair of 100 lb tanks would last, having a “hot pair”and a cold” pair would give som eflexibility on refill schedule.

  11. Malatrope says:

    I don’t think kerosene is the way to go. It is very expensive, and the government is at war with it which bodes poorly for the future. Propane is also a “fossil fuel”, but they don’t seem to dislike it as much. Wood burning (which I do) involves a lot of fussing around, and constant attention. In your case, my recommendation would be propane.

    I have the luxury of having a county propane company that delivers. I use my 250 gallon tank just as a way of refilling a collection of 20 pound and 40 pound tanks as needed. Wet taps aren’t difficult to use and relatively available. The tanks run the kitchen range, a couple of small portable heaters in the shop, a 9500 watt generator, and a flame thrower I use to control weeds. I may get a propane forge to tinker with for no good reason other than “fun”.

    Because I’m a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy, I can heat with electric (both heat pump and resistive), propane, and wood. I expect one or more of these to become unavailable during the coming Trials, but I’ve hedged my bets as to which.

    I second the motion on getting a through-wall heater, but forget the idea of a 55 gallon drum windmill. Not only are those Savonius mills the absolute worst aerodynamic efficiency, you can’t generate enough electric to run any significant heater. Solar panels are better than any windmill, by a large factor. I speak from experience, living in a windy area.

  12. Dave Mansfield says:

    A wise man once told me, Son. . . use every tool available, to get the job done.

  13. Joel says:

    Around here, kerosene is $10/gallon and not available in bulk. One winter while still in the RV I borrowed a kerosene heater and bought fuel cheaper from the local airport. That was nice while it lasted but the next winter the rules changed and I wasn’t allowed to buy it unless I had it pumped directly into a jet. Don’t know why, but kerosene is not a viable option here.

    Also, on the subject of wind generators: When I moved here 17 years ago there were several dotted here and there. They’ve all disappeared, for excellent reasons having to do with unreliability, sometimes destructively excessive wind, and lightning. We’ve pretty much settled on solar and gasoline- or propane-powered generators as the only practical way to make electricity.

  14. snuffy says:

    I have a standard pellet stove. Haven’t used it in a few years. Cleaning it out every few days is a major pain. Emptying the vacuum in below 30 degree temps, with the wind blowing powdered ash back in your face, no matter where you stand, just got to be too much. You can’t empty the vac in the house, because the ash, which is like talc, goes every. fricn. where. Wish I had gone with propane or lng instead.

  15. EdH says:

    I have an ancient Whitfield Advantage II pellet stove, circa 1989 make, as my primary house heat. It’s the Willy’s Jeep of pellet stoves, reliable, aftermarket parts available on Amazon, not finicky about pellets, needs the ashes cleaned only after 24 hours of continuous use (less than a wood stove). Downsides: does pull 3 amps, too much heat for small areas, and manual lighting means you hate to turn it on/off.

    I also second the use of kerosene as a backup. The little cabinet style will run about a half day on a gallon of kerosene. Downside is the smell – mostly when turning off, and the kerosene cost, a ridiculous $10/gal delivered from Walmart.

  16. bill says:

    Growing up I watched Granny (knowing she grew up living in tents while traveling by wagon with her family), and my first memory was a big wood fireplace we sat by in this old farm house. Over the years she had gas heaters, kerosene, and central heat. But in the later years her favorite was a pot bellied stove she sat by in her rocking chair while cleaning her little .38 pistol. Kind of like the old tried and true being the best I reckon.

  17. Annie in ocala says:

    Late to the conversation here I know but my response is Wood! Wood! Wood!
    Propane is a good backup to have and I know wood is a chore but without taxing exercise we may not be living independent as long as we’d like.
    Some kind of thermal mass collector+/-rocket mass heater might help but for me in north FL its really not an option. Can easily be 35 and humid (cold!) at sun up and 80+ and dry mid afternoon… Frequently in the winter months. An it doesn’t get cool quick when the sun sets.
    And I imagine it could be a problem more so for you.
    And of course, the overseers are saying shipping oil, gas lp, is a sin against humanity.
    So there’s that……..

  18. Noman says:

    Coal if you can get some.

To the stake with the heretic!