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Feel the Burn! (With Pellet Stoves)

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Josh Brown
Photo credit: Jesse Baum

Source: Jesse Baum EAN/University of Vermont Clean Energy Internship Program

Josh Brown, the senior writer for Science and Environment at UVM, is not content to simply write and teach about environmental issues. His home, where he has raised three children with his wife Zoe, exemplifies Brown’s commitment to sustainability. Perhaps the feature that he is proudest of is a handsome wood pellet stove that sits in the corner of the family’s living room.

In 2006, Brown and his wife moved into their new home in the South End of Burlington, an area known for its industrial warehouses-turned-breweries-and-art studios. However, the area is also home to streets of pastel Victorian-style homes and cottages, like the tree-lined street where Brown and his family live. The house came with an old oil furnace that was used for heat.

“We had to look for some other form of heating, because we knew it was going to be expensive and inefficient.” Brown says.

After looking into heating alternatives, they decided to invest in a wood pellet stove, and paid $2,600 for the Empress pellet stove by Enviro. They selected a slightly more expensive model (the cheaper pellet stoves can be about half the price) because they wanted an attractive piece for the living room. For their first three winters with the stove, they virtually never used the oil furnace, relying on only the pellet stove for heat. During those years, they burned about 4 tons of wood pellets each winter, at about $240 per ton. That means they were spending less than $1,000 for each (Vermont) winter’s worth of heat!

The fan itself uses electricity to power a small fan, which circulates the air in the stove. The stove is incredibly efficient; it burns wood pellets made from sawdust  at a very high heat, to create maximum heat with minimal smoke. Pellet stoves therefore have a much lower impact on air quality than a traditional woodstove. The stove is cheaper than an oil furnace because one ton of pellets is equivalent to approximately 120 gallons of heating oil. One ton of pellets has about 13.6 million BTU (British Thermal Units), and heating oil has about 115,000 BTU per gallon—meaning that the pellet stove may be around 18 percent cheaper for the same amount of heat.  

Brown also persuaded VT Woodpellet Stoves, the distributer that he bought the stove from and currently buys wood pellets from, to buy FSC pellets (Forest Stewardship Council) certified to be harvested sustainably. He notes that though there is a price premium (about $40 more than conventional wood pellets), it is worth it to support sustainable silviculture practices. The pellets are provided by company called Curran.

Brown emphasizes that, after deciding to stop using the oil heating, there were still hard choices to make. He notes that traditional woodstoves have become more efficient and clean-burning, and that buying cords of wood locally can support the local woodshed. However, there are definite perks to the unconventional pellet stove.

Brown affectionately calls the stove “The lazy guy’s woodstove.”

 “You just turn it on, throw a bag of pellets in, and you can do your thing, then at the end of the day, it’s still going.”

Throughout the family’s transition to alternative heat, they have also continued to try to reduce their fossil fuel use in other aspects of their lives. Brown bikes to the UVM campus for work year-round, and the family of five only owns one car (when another is needed they use Car Share VT, a non-profit that allows members to use cars for low rates). By gardening, and keeping chickens and bees (a new development that Brown is “absolutely loving”), the Browns produce some of their own food in summer and fall. That way, the food is produced without the air pollution greenhouse gas emissions that come from transportation.

Brown stresses the need to think carefully about personal choices and their effect on the environment.  “The point is not pellets versus wood.  Rather, it’s: what’s the technology that captures the most advantages—in terms of ground level pollution, contribution to climate change, supporting local economies, ease of maintenance, cost, being able to be repaired. It’s a complex equation.”