Get Your GreenBack: Wood, Pellet Stoves May Save the Most

Wood or pellet stoves can save you money and energy through this winter...

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By Guillermo Metz via the Ithaca Journal, 1/9/13

Unlike last winter, this one is shaping up to be more typical for our area. That means a return to high heating bills. But fear not, there are several things you can do to save on heating costs.

As others have pointed out in this column, the most important thing is to first make your home as energy-efficient as possible. This will give you the greatest savings in the long run — and the greatest comfort.

Once that is done, you will find that you can heat your home with a smaller appliance. Rather than firing the old furnace like you used to, you may be able to get by with using it less often and relying more on space heaters.

This may bring to mind the small electric heaters some people tuck under their desks at work, right next to their feet. While these can sometimes be effective in heating a small area, they might not give you the savings you were hoping for, because electricity is much more expensive than just about any fuel.

According to a study conducted by Mark Pierce, extension associate in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology and an expert in energy efficiency issues in residential buildings, turning the thermostat down from 70 to 60 for the whole house and heating only one room with an electric space heater will save you very little money, if any.

“It’s confusing,” Pierce said, “because we pay for electricity in kilowatt hours, for oil in gallons, for wood pellets in tons, for natural gas in therms, etc., but it all comes down to BTUs. When people start seeing oil prices approaching five dollars a gallon, they freak out. By comparison, 10 cents a kilowatt hour sounds really cheap.”

But comparing the heat value, measured in British Thermal Units, or BTUs, gives a clearer picture of how much each fuel costs. Taking into account appliance efficiencies makes it even more accurate (see chart).

Consumer Reports recently ran an article looking at space heaters in terms of performance, reliability and safety. One of their conclusions was that space heaters could provide space heat for a few pennies, which is true. If you want to use it to heat a small space for a short period of time, a space heater may not be a bad choice. But if you’re trying to decrease your overall heating with electric heaters all over the house, or even to heat one whole room in the evening, it will be very expensive.

“Electric heaters deliver heat mainly as convection (with a fan) or radiant heat (so, they work if you’re sitting right next to them),” Pierce said. “The basic law of physics is you will never get more than about 3,413 BTUs for each kilowatt of electricity. You can’t get more out of the electricity. There are no ‘miracle’ space heaters or revolutionary technology that delivers more.”

Another factor is that, by law, space heaters cannot be sized greater than 1,500 watts, which is able to deliver about 5,120 BTUs, which isn’t much.

Instead, you may want to consider a wood stove or pellet stove. These can heat most of an energy-efficient home most of the year and save you significant amounts of money. While pellet stoves require a small amount of electricity to run the fan and auger, the savings associated with pellets will easily offset it. And you’ll be shrinking your carbon footprint by using a renewable — and locally sourced — resource.

You may be familiar with our program on pellet heating: we are collecting data on just how much money homeowners can save by combining energy-efficiency upgrades with the conversion from heating with oil or propane to heating with a pellet stove. The program, which offers a $500 rebate for homeowners, is still enrolling participants. So far, homeowners in the program have reported very impressive results: they are saving money and are more comfortable in their homes. For more information on the program, visit ccetompkins.org/warmuptompkins.

For more information on the benefits of heating with wood and pellets, visit ccetompkins.org/woodheat.

Comparison of energy Prices (cost per million BTU)

Electricity: $55.68 @ 100 percent efficient = $55.68

Kerosene: $32.57 @ 85 percent efficient = $37.46

Heating Oil: $29.70 @ 85 percent efficient = $34.16

Propane: $29.17 @ 85 percent efficient = $33.55

Natural gas: $16.79 @ 85 percent efficient = $19.31

Premium wood pellets: $14.71 @ 80 percent efficient = $17.65

Cord wood (depending on species): $8 @ 70 percent efficient = $10.40

*prices based on state average for September, the last month available, from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.