by Gina Hamilton
Coastal Journal staff
BATH — There are sometimes happy situations where ecology and economics come together, and wood pellets are one of those circumstances. Wood pellets are much more convenient than wood. They always come in the right size. They can be handled in 40 pound bags, which can sleep most of the winter right in the snow and still be able to be used immediately. And they are less of a hassle to clean up. They are also cheaper than oil, gas, or even, in many cases, seasoned hardwood. And they are much better for the environment than fossil fuels.
But what if you already have a woodstove, and don’t have the money or wherewithal to purchase a pellet stove this year?
The simple answer is you can still use pellets.
To do so, you will have to purchase a pellet basket. One company (JCM Enterprises) sells them online at www.burnwoodpellets.com. Depending on the size of your woodstove, the company has different sizes of pellet baskets, beginning at about $125 for the smallest basket (12 inches wide x 8 inches deep x 9 1/2 inches tall), which holds 12 pounds of pellets, ranging to $150 for the largest one the company makes (17 inches wide x 8 inches deep x 9 1/2 inches tall), holding 16 pounds of pellets. The smallest pellet basket fits into a quite small woodstove. The company also indicates on its website that it will make baskets to order if these sizes do not work for your stove.
A pellet basket is a small grate, made of welded steel, which is inserted into your woodstove. From the top, you fill your basket up with pellets, and use a small amount of gel firestarter on top. Both pellets and the gel firestarter can be purchased at any local hardware or home improvement store. You can also have a large shipment of pellets delivered by many merchants, and stored in your shed or even just under a tarp in your yard. Because they are wrapped in plastic, they do not get damp (most are stored outside at the stores, in any case).
The gel firestarter gets the pellets going, but they burn for several hours unattended, just as wood does. Like wood, and unlike a true pellet stove, there is ash to be removed every other burn or so. However, the amount of ash and unburned material is much less with a pellet basket than with wood.
In deep winter, you will need a covered metal ash can near the stove, because you will not want to wait until the ashes cool completely before removing them. You may also want to invest in an ash vacuum, which are handy things that quickly clean out your stove and store the ashes in its own metal container until they are cool enough to remove and add to your compost or other ash pile.
Because your woodstove doesn’t have its own blower, unlike a pellet stove, consider adding a few fans to circulate the warm air to and from your stove. There are some rather nice corner-mounted fans now that are up in a corner of a doorway and stay well out of your way, while moving the warm air where you want it to go.
Another option is to use your regular summer fans. Use a small one to bring cool air from other parts of the house toward the stove, and use a larger one to blow the heated air back. Since warm air rises, the two air streams won’t cancel one another out.
With a quite small woodstove converted to pellets, you can warm a fairly large section of your home for a lot less than you would spend on oil. Currently the price is about $5 per 40 pound bag, although that will go up as winter advances, and a small woodstove goes through about a bag a day.
Another benefit is that wood pellets are usually made from flash-dried hardwood in Maine, and they do not generate the same amount of creosote that even seasoned hardwood does. Converting to pellets gives a boost to Maine’s economy.
Best of all, pellets are far more eco-friendly than oil or gas. The carbon that is being burned when you use pellets or wood was absorbing carbon within the last year or so, not lying underground, out of the carbon cycle, for millions of years. The carbon you emit will be reabsorbed into hardwoods that will furnish pellets and firewood in years to come.