People still want to know

Saturday December 15, 2012

A couple of years ago I wrote about my experience with burning wood pellets in a regular wood stove ie: not a stove originally made to burn pellets. This seemed to pique a lot of interest. Folks would stop me on the street and ask "How’s that pellet insert working out?" It still happens some two year later, and the answer is yes, it is working wonderfully. The more that I have used it, the more proficient I’ve become at burning wood pellets in my Woodstock Soapstone stove. The soapstone stove is the perfect compliment to this form of "free range" pellet burning. For those who missed it, here’s how I burn pellets.

Shoehorned into the firebox of the Woodstock Soapstone stove is a metal cage made from small diameter steel rod. The cage is open at the top. I have a cast aluminum grain scoop that I fill the cage with. In the first year I used alcohol based gel firestarter to get the pellets burning. Being the tight fisted Yankee that I am, I experimented with other ideas to start the fire that cost less than purpose made starter gel. For a period of time I mixed half a bottle of gel starter with the remainder in vegetable oil. It works fine, but it still costs too much. Then I started experimenting with wax covered disposable Dixie cups that had been already used. I take the rest from my junk mail, like white envelopes and letters that are balled up. Then I torch this concoction with a gooseneck refillable butane lighter. Works like a charm. I wait until the entire top layer of the pellets in the cage are burning, then I completely close the door and let them slow cook. A full cage of pellets can burn for five or six hours, and the soapstone stove will keep giving off heat long after the fire goes out.

More efficient ways of starting the pellet filled cage are being experimented with at this time. Egg cartons are a great place to start. If you are going to throw these things out anyway, why not try a bit of bacon grease (a very small dollop) in each cupped indentation. Break all of the cupped indentations with grease in them apart, and use them to start the fire. Another idea is to use dryer lint with a touch of vegetable oil on it in those egg carton cups. The idea should be to use things that are going to be thrown out anyway. Going out and buying paraffin and melting it down and pouring it into the egg carton cups seems as though it runs counter to the whole idea, because you had to go out and buy something. However, I’ve heard that it does work.

Back to the pellet burning insert: Not knowing of any local source for the pellet insert, I found one online made in Florida. That’s the one I still use. I also built my own pellet burning insert for my small Jotul wood stove. It works OK, but the lack of soapstone in the stoves’ construction causes it to radiate less heat after the fire goes out. Building the cage myself was a very time consuming task. I sourced the steel rod, measured and cut to size, and welded every single piece together with a MIG welder. Trial by fire revealed two welds that were not up to snuff, so I redid them and now the insert works fine in the Jotul. However, burning pellets in a wood stove is not as efficient as burning pellets in a purpose built pellet stove. I got a new Bosca pellet stove last season, and moved the Jotul out to the garage to heat that space while doing oil changes on the vehicles.

The Bosca works great in our open concept living/dining/kitchen area with cathedral ceilings and lots of windows. The heat output is excellent, however, it has an auger and a fan that require electricity to allow the stove to function. Out in the new addition, the Woodstock Soapstone stove with the insert heats that space beautifully, and if we lose power, the Woodstock stove can keep the entire house warm enough to avoid frozen pipes.

One of the joys of burning wood pellets in the insert is the stoves’ need to be refueled every few hours. I enjoy the process, and it seems to fill the void left by not burning cord wood. It is also a great deal cleaner, and the heat is more uniform than cord wood. If anyone doubts that you can burn pellets in a wood stove, I’m here to say that I’m in my third heating season with this device, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Your results may vary and I make no claims as to what your pellet burning experience will be. It’s probably not for everyone, but I like it just fine.

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.


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