Pelletized – IV

Wood pellet sellers are worse than plumbers. And surgeons.

I wrote that “the highest [price] I’ve seen so far is $300” for a ton of hardwood pellets. That was way back in August and early September, four or even five weeks ago when supplies were apparently plentiful.

So we bought a stove.

Then I tried to buy pellets for it.

Vermont has more than two dozen dealers. I found, listed, and called the 15 or so within 50 miles of North Puffin. The typical response has ranged from “Gee, Dick, we don’t have any in stock right now” to “We’re simply not accepting orders–try calling back in November.”


My best local fuel dealer still says, “Soon.” One hardware chain told me they had “one pallet of softwood pellets. Do you want it?” Not for the $313 they planned to charge. Another store said they had none in stock but I could keep calling on Wednesdays when their delivery truck arrived. A farm a long hour away by truck offers a “softwood single species from the Midwest” but they were sold out and didn’t know when any more would arrive. An outdoor furnace rep is “searching for a Canadian supplier.” Unsuccessfully so far. A couple of lumber yards and a couple of stove dealers sold stoves but no pellets.

The Energy Coop sells stoves but no pellets and has no plans to sell pellets.

I finally found a stove dealer 50 miles away with “truckloads coming in every other day.” He sells a premium-hard/softwood mixed-low ash pellet from Canada for $235/ton. I asked for two pallets.

“Sure,” they said.

That seller may have the most disorganized store I have ever done business with. I borrowed a 7,000 pound flatbed trailer, hitched it to the truck and drove right down.

Me: I called this morning for two skids. Where do you want me to park?
Them: We don’t have any left. Where’d you call from?
Me: North Puffin
Them: You’re the woman who called from Petuniaville?

I just looked over my glasses at them.

Anyway, they had promised me three tons and the woman from Petuniaville four tons. They had two wrapped skids (1.5 tons each) and one already opened skid with about one more ton. I arrived first so I got one wrapped skid and the still wrapped bottom half of the second, leaving a wrapped skid and 25 loose bags for the woman from Petuniaville.

She’s a stove buyer so she is gonna be mad.

The boss was on the phone when I arrived. He yelled at his peeps and said that from now on, only one person takes phone orders. He didn’t identify the order taker and I ‘spect nothing will change.

{shaking head}

I managed not to give them the benefit of my management expertise which is to say I carefully applied my management expertise not to give them the benefit of my thoughts.

I parked the pellet pallet porter and pickup by the porch where Anne and I pulled and pushed and packed 4,000 pounds in place.

Pallets o Pellets

I am pleased to report that the pellet stove just lit again. I am not pleased to report that I’ll have to do it all again in less than 100 days.

Running a new appliance means we accumulate some cost and usage info. I’ll post that next.

Pelletized – III

Oooh, my back is gonna hurt tonight.

We bought a Quadra Fire Santa Fe pellet stove in Massachusetts. Then we drove it home. Then we had to move our existing “heating appliances” around to make room. See, we already had a Vermont Castings Vigilant in the great room and a cast iron “Franklin” stove in the parlor.

I over-engineered moving the Vigilant and thought that might take care of setting a new stove in place as well: attach a couple of 2x4s under the body, rig a cable or chain cradle, rent a pneumatic-rubber tired engine hoist, and simply roll it into place.

Oops. The feet of the hoist have to go under the body and the raised hearth in the parlor knocked that idea out. Not to mention that engine hoists have solid wheels.

The good news is that I have an engine dolly that is strong enough for two stoves and is just about the right height. The coal stove sits on it, awaiting a buyer. Rocking the coal stove turned out to be pretty easy. I lifted one end (the light one) and our son-in-law blocked the feet. He lifted the heavy end while I blocked the other feet. And the dolly slid right out. First time I’ve seen it in 20 years.

I disconnected and moved the server tower to make room in the front hall. Moved some furniture out of the way. Rolled up the rugs.

The Franklin stove weighs about 400 pounds. We tipped it to take off its feet and lowered it on to a pair of “one-by” fir strips. Slid it across the fir onto the dolly. Rolled the dolly onto the front porch. Drove up in the tractor and just lifted it off the dolly and put it down in the barn. It was waaaaaaay easier than it had any right to be.

The Vigilant was already up on 8″ blocks, so we lifted it to add a 2×6 and a 1×6 under each pair of feet. That brought it even with the top of the dolly so we simply “walked it” over. Backed and filled a bit with the dolly to get to the parlor hearth which turned out to be exactly the same height as the dolly. This was also remarkably easy.

We took one enclosure panel off, backed up the truck to the porch, and lifted the new-to-us Quadra Fire Santa Fe pellet stove down off the tailgate. I opted not to carry it in, so I did get to use my brand new, pneumatic tired hand truck. (As an aside, if you know who has my old red hand truck, let me know. I stole it fair and square 30 years ago and I want it back.) I rolled the stove right around the great room furniture and Bob’s yer uncle. It is sitting on the hearth right now.

We have moved all the furniture back that we moved out of the way and reconnected the server tower.

The next decision point was whether to sit it directly on the hearth or raise it another 8″ so its vent will go straight in to the chimney thimble. It was a looks v. convenience v. efficiency question. We opted for floor height and connected it up. It looks and works just fine.

I lied, though. My back already hurts.

Know anybody who wants to buy a nice Franklin stove or an even nicer Home Comfort coal stove?

Next up: Buying pellets. That turns out to be a trip in itself.

Pelletized – II

Who ever thought we would celebrate oil going through $100? Crude prices have dropped close to 40 percent since shooting the moon at prices near $150 a barrel on July 11. In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures fell 7.12 cents to $2.72 a gallon, while gasoline prices dropped 10.04 cents to $2.461 a gallon. Natural gas for October delivery fell 8.7 cents to $7.29 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Anne’s hot flashes are so bad that she thought Global Warming was her fault and Al Gore keeps following her around.

I rather wish we could bottle that.

Oil is still waaaaay too expensive to burn.

We also have no cattle barn from which to bottle methane. The ground water heat pump presents too many obstacles to install this year. Coal is too difficult to use here. An outdoor wood furnace gives up too much heat to the outdoors and makes us slog through the snow in the middle of the night. That means we’ve decided to buy something that burns wood pellets.

Is a pellet stove really cheaper to run?

Pellets cost not less than $199/ton. The average is about $250 and the highest I’ve seen so far is $300. Pellets give up 24,500,000 BTU/ton. Most pellet stove makers advertise 75-80% efficiency although I used 70% in the spreadsheet last week. The numbers work even at 60% .

Oil will still be there as a fully automated backup, right?

Oh, yeah.

No matter what we do, I’ll either leave the existing oil fired boiler or upgrade the oil fired boiler. A pellet boiler would either be an add-on or have its own oil burner as a backup. The heat pump is more difficult because I can’t reliably get its transfer liquid hot enough to run our baseboards and its power draw would be more than I have generator capacity for during a power outage.

There must be a catch.

The downside to a pellet stove or furnace is its need for electricity. Unlike the wood stoves we rely on now, a pellet stove has two or even three fans and an auger without which there is no fire. If the power goes out today, we can crank up the wood stoves and keep from freezing, If the power goes out when we have a pellet something and an oil-fired boiler or an electric heat pump, we lose all our heat.

There is also the little matter of loading pellets by the ton.

What’s the Bottom Line?

I don’t know how to justify a pellet furnace on cost alone. The models I’ve found would heat the entire house at a capital cost two to four times that of a pellet stove and the savings fall in the diminishing returns category.

So. We’ll continue using the oil furnace as back up. The Vigilant, a wood stove now in the great room, will move to the living room. A pellet stove gets installed in the great room. Just as soon as I find one.

I narrowed the pellet burning field down to a few reliable products with automatic operation that runs on a thermostat, multiple heat settings, and cast iron construction. I have investigated Brosley, EKO-Vimar, Harman, Pinnacle, Viessman, and Woodmaster pellet furnaces as well pellet “parlor” stoves from American Energy, Bixby, Bob England’s Stove Works, Enviro, Harman, Hearth and Home Technologies, Pelpro, Thelin, and Whitfield.

The Harman PB-105 furnace or Harman Accentra stove at the top of my list are sold out until late next Spring.

I’ve chased stoves and furnaces from dealers in places wood burning appliances don’t sell nearly as well as they do here in New England. That search has yielded no furnaces and darned few stoves. I thought about going a little farther afield, like Florida or Arizona except Florida and Arizona probably don’t burn coal or wood because they think the economics of transporting the solid fuel is against them.

That brings us to an interesting fact.

Last year, we burned about 5 tons (10,000 pounds) of oil plus a couple of tons of firewood. If we switch to coal, pellets, or chunk wood, we will burn about 7 tons of coal, or 7 tons of pellets, or 7 tons of firewood.

Next time, I’ll tell you all about which pellet stove we bought and how I installed it.

Pelletized – I

I’ll send $5,313 to Saudi Arabia this winter. I’ll receive $720 back in ExxonMobil dividends.

There is an inequity there and it bugs me.

I am pugnaciously–perhaps pathologically–parsimonious so I decided to do something about it.

Let’s start with the facts. That $5,313 check I will write won’t all go to Saudi Arabia. Some of it will go to Hugo Chavez. Some will go to the shipping companies and the refineries and the distributors. Some will end up in the pockets of speculators who drove the market to nearly $150/barrel. And some will stick locally because I do, after all, buy my oil from a local fellow who has taken care of us, winter and summer, for 30 years.

As an aside, I’m hoping the foreign oil speculators discover what the holders of junk mortgages already know.

We have already done (some of) the things one is supposed to do when one lives in a leaky old farmhouse on the 45th parallel. We have storm windows. We have insulated. We have turned down the thermostat so far that even the neighbor’s cat is cold and he has a fur coat. We burn as much firewood as one can put through a Vermont Castings Vigilant. We still burned more than 1,200 gallons of dead dinosaurs last year and the Old Farmer’s Almanac says this year is going to be colder.

I’m an engineer so I made a spreadsheet before I did anything else.

Cost to Heat North Puffin House

Sorted Alphabetically
Fuel Used
Fuel Type Fuel Quantity $$ Cost Efficiency
Coal 6 Tons $1,947 75%
Corn Pellets 442 Bushels $1,435 60%
Electricity (Air Heat Pump) 13,531 KWHr $1,488 225%
Electricity (Ground Heat Pump) 9,226 KWHr $1,015 330%
Electricity (Radiant) 30,446 KWHr $3,349 100%
Natural Gas (condensing) 113,314 Cu Ft $1,976 89%
Propane or LP Gas (condensing) 1,298 Gallons $4,276 87%
Oil (Current) 1,250 Gallons $5,313 60%
Oil (“mid-efficiency”) 882 Gallons $3,750 85%
Wood 8 Cords $2,332 50%
Wood Pellets 6 Tons $1,817 70%
Sorted by Cost
Fuel Used
Fuel Type Fuel Quantity $$ Cost Efficiency
Electricity (Ground Heat Pump) 9,226 KWHr $1,015 330%
Corn Pellets 442 Bushels $1,435 60%
Electricity (Air Heat Pump) 13,531 KWHr $1,488 225%
Wood Pellets 6 Tons $1,817 70%
Coal 6 Tons $1,947 75%
Natural Gas (condensing) 113,314 Cu Ft $1,976 89%
Wood 8 Cords $2,332 50%
Electricity (Radiant) 30,446 KWHr $3,349 100%
Oil (“mid-efficiency”) 882 Gallons $3,750 85%
Propane or LP Gas (condensing) 1,298 Gallons $4,276 87%
Oil (Current) 1,250 Gallons $5,313 60%

We already knew that our current oil burner needs to be history. It is 30 years old, inefficient, and not likely to heal itself. I could simply swap it out for a new “mid-efficiency” oil burner, but the bottom line isn’t much better. Propane or LP Gas is not enough better to pay for the conversion, especially since its pricing here is so volatile.

OK, then. We’ll look at the good choices from best to worst.

I would have loved to install a ground water heat pump but there are a few kinks to work out. Kink #1: no one in this area sells and services them yet and I don’t have time to dig the ground loop myself. Kink #2: It does draw a lot of increasingly expensive juice and losing our heat each time we have an ice storm is a serious worry. Saving 80% is a real boon, though, so we’ll hang on to that idea.

To burn corn pellets requires a pellet furnace or stove and the ability to handle bulk fuel. It also means taking the food out of the mouths of the cows I eat, so I simply won’t consider that one.

An air heat pump works a lot better in Florida than in Vermont. The worry about the increasing cost of drawing power from the grid and of losing our heat with each ice storm remains.

Wood Pellets are a pretty good choice. The furnaces and some stoves are automated so they keep running (or stopping) when we stop paying attention or leave the building, just like a regular heating system. And the operating cost looks like it’s pretty good.

I grew up in a house heated with coal. That was before the advent of “clean coal” and it wasn’t. Coal is harder to find here, more expensive, and harder to use than pellets. That’s out.

There is no natural gas in northern Vermont. Yeah, yeah, Vermont has lots of cows but I haven’t managed to get the pipeline hooked up from Jack’s barn down the road.

Solid wood remains a good choice. No electricity needed. Local harvesting. Reasonable cost. Unfortunately, it is still less efficient than other wood burning equipment and it is much more work for the homeowner.

Plugging in electric radiant heaters has all of the other grid-based disadvantages plus relatively high cost. That’s out, too.

Next time, I’ll tell you more than you ever wanted to know about buying a pellet stove in 2008.