Thursday, March 6, 2014

Counting the costs of wood pellets

I have been wanting to post something concerning the relative cost benefits of burning pellets over other fuel sources. This is information that you will not find on the back of a bag of pellets, or information that your average stove shop could quantify this thoroughly.
 
There are a number of great reasons to burn wood pellets as a source of heat for your home. Pellets are made from manufacturing waste material, and burning them is a carbon neutral event. So if  spread all that saw dust out on the field to decompose into the soil it would release the same amount of carbon as if it was burned. So whether you're concerned about carbon in the atmosphere, or just general conservation and avoiding waste, wood pellets are a great way to go.

But beyond all the tree hugger business there is a significant cost savings to be had with a pellet stove. It is a challenge to compare home heating costs to one another in an "apples to apples" way, because each heating appliance expresses efficiency in different ways, prices its fuel in different ways, and has more or less volatile priced fuel. What I am going to illustrate for you is as close to a fair comparison as one can get to compare various fuel sources.

 

The way we are going to compare the costs is to look at the cost for a net BTU output. More accurately a net 1,000,000 BTU output of heat. Now what makes this even more confusing is that most heating appliances are rated not by their BTU output, but rather by their BTU input. When you look at the efficiency of an appliance you are essentially gauging the differential between the input and the output. For the numbers that I am showing you I have selected relatively generic efficiency numbers for the given appliance, and also average prices for the specific fuels. To borrow a term from the EPA, "your mileage may vary". But this graph gives you a good idea of various heating systems real cost. The other thing to keep in mind is some of these prices are much more stable than others. For instance, because electricity is produced by a number of different types of fuels the likelihood of its price jumping is much lower than other types of fuels. As an example of a volatile fuel a significant disruption or conflict in the Middle East can send oil prices up significantly overnight. Natural gas would be somewhere between the two, seeing as we produce much of it domestically and it is a little more challenging to export to other continents.

So if you're considering buying a pellet stove, or wondering if it is worth the trouble of loading a stove once a day this graph should be an objective look at actual cost differences.

Friday, November 29, 2013

New internal pellet rating system









The gold pellet rating is for the best of the best, a great pellet. Great BTU output, clean burning with little to no carbon build up, very few fines, and consistent sizes. These are pellets that should burn well in just about any stove. This rating is to basically indicate the best pellets available on the market, with no significant flaws.

The silver pellet is a good pellet that has a some flaws that keep it from being a gold pellet. For instance I just tested a pellet that was close to being a gold, but the pellet sizes were wildly different. The silver pellet is still a step above the bronze, and performs well in more areas than it performs poorly in.


The bronze pellet is the pellet that gets a PFI rating of premium (just like the gold and silver), but is just a generally low grade pellet. It is not to say these pellets will not work for you, but they likely have a number of significant issues. Lower BTU output, high ash production, significant carbon build up, high fines content, and so forth. It is not to say a bronze pellet will have all of those issues, but just to say they do more things poorly than they do well. It is also not to say that they will not burn well in your stove, but if you do get them make sure they are cheap.

Reviews not done by me will not receive this rating.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

PFI- Pellet Fuels Institute- Help

So PFI or the Pellet Fuels Institute is a North American trade association that does a number of things, but the thing that they do of primary interest to this website is to rate home heating pellets. There are 3 categories that pellets fall into with the PFI system- premium, standard, and utility. 

The problem is most pellets you will find at your local store are all rated "premium". There are huge variations in in what is considered a premium pellet by the PFI. I have gotten pellets that are total junk that carried the PFI premium rating. It is an issue of the bar being too low for the premium rating. For years I have been hearing chatter about an "ultra premium" rating being established, but to the best I can tell it has not happened. 

This lack of meaningful ratings leaves consumers in the dark about what pellets are good and what pellets are bad. I would say one could probably break up the premium range into 3 distinct classes of pellets. And as for the standard and utility grade pellets, I have  seen some rare standard grade pellets around, and I have never seen utility grade pellets sold for home heating. (keep in mind I go out of my way to look for this stuff)

I really enjoy the pellet fuel world, and appreciate the the PFI exists. As the biomass pellet industry has matured the need for a 3rd party rating system that communicates information about pellet quality is more important now than ever. 

The current delineation's between premium, standard, and utility pellets are all but useless to the average pellet stove owner, because both the good, not so good, and really good pellets will carry a "premium" stamp. 

To the PFI- please rework the rating system, it would make us all smile. Even if the "ultra premium" rating materialized it would be super helpful. 

American Wood Fibers White Pine


 I have used American Wood Fibers pellets before, but they were the hard wood version. The "White Pine" pellet is a new thing to me. The AWF hardwood pellets are a good pellet themselves, along the lines of a Hamer. The AWF white pine pellets say on the bag "ultra premium" for which there is no such official PFI rating (although one has been considered), but if there was such a rating (which I wish there was) I believe these pellets would indeed qualify.

Contrary to conventional wisdom softwood pellets are among some of the best out there. The AWF white pine pellet is an excellent example of how good a softwood pellet can be. These have noticeably increased heat output over even the best hard wood pellet. The actual pellet is a very light tan color, and pellet length is very short, but consistent. The bags had an average amount of fines.

 Because of the smaller pellet length these pellets will feed very well in just about all feed styles. Because of their small pellet length in may appear in stoves with fixed feed rates (which is most of them) that they are putting out even more BTUs than they actually are compared to other pellets. The reason being that one turn of the auger delivers more pellet because the shorter length.

Although the increased BTU output is exaggerated by the small pellet size, these pellets likely put out around 400 BTUs more than an equivelant hard wood pellet. What I found amusing was the sales guy where I bought these was trying to tell me that they were dramatically higher output than hardwood pellets. The truth is the majority of pellets on the market are in the 7500-8500 BTU range. My unofficial educated guess is these AWF pellets could be pushing or exceeding the top of that range. That is not that dramatic, and probably only makes up for the AWF white pine premium cost.

Besides good heat output these pellet leave a very light ash, and not a lot of it. I did not observe any clinkers in my stove from these pellets.

I can give these pellets a strong recommendation. The cost a little more than some other pellets, but if you want a hassle free pellet this your pellet. The challenge is they are hard to find, and AWF at the time of this review does not even mention them on their web site.

Check out their site here





Curran soft/hard wood blend

The Massena NY based Curran is an interesting pellet compy in that they produce 4 different varieties of pellets for home heating. They have a hard wood, a soft wood, a 70/30 blend of hard and soft wood, and a FSC (Forrest Stewardship Council) unspecified soft/hard wood blend. This is a review of the 70/30 blend.


Curran Blend pellets are 70% hardwood and 30% softwood. They are PFI "premium grade", and claim an ash content of 1% 0r less. Fines of less than 0.05%, and the sodium content is less than 300PPM.

These pellets are being burned in a basic Englander model 25-PDVC stove. The pellets have a pleasant scent when opened, and are fairly light colored. The pellets are varied in length with most being around 1/4 of an inch, and there is very little in the  way of fines in any of the bags. These pellets burn very clean, leaving only a fine ash and no clinkers at all.

These pellets come on 1.5 ton pallets, and the bags seem to be fairly thick plastic so there was no problems with ruptured bags. I did keep a few bags left over from last winter, stored outside under a lean to, and probably close to 50% did take on noticeable moisture, so bags are not water tight. Upon closer inspection I have found tiny little compression holes in many of the bags which possibly due to being stacked on higher 1.5 ton pallets and travel stresses.  I now store any extra bags inside my home until I'm ready to use them.

This will be my second season using Curran Blend. So far, this years pellets seem to burn even cleaner than last years with very little residual ash. I've been very happy and would have no reservations about purchasing this brand again.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pre-order your pellets and save

My advice is to pre-order as soon as you are able, and let me tell you why.

The price of pellets from the mills are almost always cyclical. Late spring/early summer they drop, and continue to rise until the next late spring/early summer. It is all about supply and demand, and if you are able to buy when demand is low you can save serious money. The challenge is that on a warm 85 degree June day the last thing on your mind is dumping hundreds of dollars on pellets for use 4-5 months later. Keep in mind that these pre-buy deals are not so much the dealer giving a big discount, but the mills lowering the prices so they can keep demand strong through the summer.

The thing of it is that it is almost always a winning hedge. The question of prices increasing on pellets after spring is not a question of will they or not, but rather by how much. Say a certain pellet is at $215 in the spring pre-buy season, the only question is will it be at $235 or $295 by December. Either way if you purchased them at $215 you have done well.

Some dealers will even store the pre-buy pellets for you, and allow you to pick them up later. Each dealer will have a little different policy, but I would look for a dealer who will allow you to pre-buy.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Back in Bussiness

After a bit of a hiatus I am planning on planning on many more reviews this year. I am looking at some new (to me ) pellets and updating some previous reviews. Remember is you have a review you can send it to me at gscreely@gmail along with a picture of the bag and I will most likely post it.

Here is one update-
Barefoot-
The original review is still accurate for this year. I have burned several bags this year already.