Wood pellets are a convenient, economical and efficient way to heat a home or business with domestic and North American sourced fuels. Installing a pellet stove is a much simpler process than a woodstove, furnace or boiler because in most situations, they can be direct vented through a wall with small clearances to adjacent surfaces.
Hardwood vs Softwood
We all know that wood stoves love hardwoods like maple, oak, birch and ash. And we all know that putting softwoods like pine, fir and spruce in a wood stove is a bad idea. In terms of pellet stoves there is a common misconception that hardwood pellets are the best fuel. The truth isn't intuitive, but pellet stoves absolutely love softwood pellets and will happily burn them hot, with little ash, all day long. They will also burn hardwood pellets, but only the highest quality will yield high BTU's and low ash and typically these are made from wood that has previously been kiln dried. The reason that pellet stoves will burn both hard and softwoods is due to the pelletizing process. Hardwood is denser than softwood, and softwood typically contains more moisture, which is why hardwoods burn so much better in a wood stove. But to make a wood pellet, wood chips are ground into sawdust which is then dried to a consistent moisture level. The dried sawdust is then compressed into the pellet form at approximately 40lbs per cubic foot. So after the moisture has been removed, hardwood and softwood will have very similar densities and properties. Softwoods tend to make the best pellets because of the higher resin level in their composition.
BTU's and Comparing Wood Pellets
BTU is an acronym for British Thermal Unit. When comparing wood pellets, or any fuel type for that matter, the amount of energy the fuel contains per pound, gallon, cord, cubic foot or watt is expressed by the number of BTU's. The higher the BTU, the greater the heat content of the fuel. This allows us to compare various types of pellets and other fuels in an apples-to-apples fashion.
If you're using the BTU output to compare wood pellets, you need to understand a few things. Wood pellet mills will send their pellets out to independent, third-party labs to be tested for qualities like ash, moisture and BTU's. They measure the amount of BTU's two ways:
Some mills, brands and dealers will list a BTU output for a wood pellet product but not indicate which metric of lab testing that this represents. Obviously it's favorable for anyone selling wood pellets to list the higher number. On the North Atlantic Fuels website we have listed the "As-Received" BTU output, unless otherwise noted. We list the "dry-basis" BTU output when the "as-received" figure isn't available. The other thing to remember is that wood pellet characteristics will fluctuate slightly, even from the best mills on the planet. We do our best to report the latest testing and provide the most accurate information to our customers.
Choosing the Right Pellet
When choosing which pellet to burn, you should consider the type of stove you have, your budget, and how much you are inconvenienced by cleaning the stove. Ultimately, you will get what you pay for. A higher priced softwood or douglas fir pellet contains more energy and will throw more heat than a cheaper hardwood. The higher priced pellet will also leave less ash and require less stove cleaning. A clean stove will operate more efficiently. Wood pellets from mills that are PFI Certified meet strict standards for quality and their pellets are analyzed by independent labs.
Always do your research before you buy wood pellets - we did! Here are some great websites that rate, review and discuss the pros and cons of dozens and dozens of wood pellet brands.
For an excellent heating cost calculator from our friends at PFI you can click here. This will help you compare the cost of wood pellets with #2 home heating oil, propane, natural gas, electricity and wood stoves.
Here is a great quick video from Forever Fuels in the UK about the environmental footprint of heating with wood pellets.
The Pellet Fuels Institute is a North American trade association promoting energy independence through the efficient use of clean, renewable, densified biomass fuel. You can visit their website by clicking here.
The Forest Stewardship Council is a global not-for-profit organization that sets the standards for what is a responsibly managed forest, both environmentally and socially. You can visit their website by clicking here.