Living off-grid is often an exercise in self-denial. There are certain things you know you cannot have, not because they cost too much money but because they take too big of a bite out of a finite energy pie. Electric heaters top the list of forbidden appliances, followed by electric clothes dryers, electric water heaters and electric stoves. And, until recently, I reluctantly included wood-pellet heating stoves on this list.
This is really quite a shame when you stop to consider what a useful appliance a pellet stove can be. For starters, they are, as a rule, very clean burning, which means they are also quite efficient. And since they’re self-feeding, pellet stoves can keep your house warm throughout the night and during times when you cannot be home to stuff it. Contrast this with a regular woodstove that requires about as much attention as a newborn and the advantages become clear.
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But although pellet stoves are efficient and reliable, for off-gridders they have always been taboo. The reason is not that they use electricity, but that they use so much of it, mostly to run the electric auger that transports pellets from the hopper to the primary combustion chamber and the blower fan used to disperse heat throughout the room. Although it doesn’t seem like much, over the course of 24 hours this can add up to a fair amount of wattage. The one stove we personally had tested used in excess of 3.8 kilowatt hours of electricity on an average setting during a 24-hour period, which is enough to run three efficient refrigerators, and a toaster and coffeemaker to boot.
This considerable need for electricity underscores another problem with conventional pellet stoves, namely that they become inoperable during power outages. Ironically, this is often the time people need them most, since it’s when most other heating options—such as boilers, furnaces and space heaters—are also useless. It’s the reason I’ve always steered people away from pellet stoves, whether or not they’re hooked into grid power.
But recently I’ve had occasion to rethink my position on the matter, thanks to an innovative new design introduced by machinist, welder and inventor Gary Wisener of WiseWay Pellet Stoves, Inc.
Ways Of The Wise
Wisener’s idea was conceptually simple: Create a pellet stove that could be used practically anywhere at any time. This meant that it had to be lightweight, portable and, of course, electricity free. Considering that most pellet stoves on the market use electricity for fuel ignition, fuel delivery, temperature regulation and heat dispersion—and that they usually outweigh an NFL lineman—this simple idea became a pretty tall order.
But Wisener persisted, and after more than a decade of tweaking and re-tweaking, the WiseWay pellet stove reached its current incarnation. Since then, it has been tested to UL standards by Omni-Test Laboratories and approved by the EPA.
At first glance, the WiseWay stove looks more like modern art than an efficient home-heating unit. At 113 pounds and 52 inches tall, it’s a far cry from the heavy, blocky designs that have become the industry standard. To accomplish this portable design—which includes optional, removable wheels—Wisener had to think outside the box, both literally and figuratively.
In modern pellet stoves, heat is released within the combustion chambers. In the primary combustion chamber the cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin in the pellets are converted into a number of volatile hydrocarbon compounds, including CH4 (methane), CO (carbon monoxide) and creosote. These gases then move along to the secondary combustion chamber where they are further broken down into water vapor and CO2, releasing a great deal more heat in the process.
In a conventional pellet stove, pellets are fed into the primary combustion chamber via an auger. The gases produced there then rise into the secondary combustion chamber where they are further broken down.
In the WiseWay pellet stove, however, the pellets are gravity fed into the primary-combustion chamber, which is situated above the secondary combustion chamber. Once liberated, the secondary combustion gases are drawn downward by convection into the secondary chamber, where they are burned at a high temperature and drawn out through a long, multi-angular burn tube, releasing heat along the way.
It’s a clever design requiring a radical architecture, and while you may or may not like the looks of the thing (for me, it evokes fond memories of a clock I used to have which kept time by rolling steel balls down a series of tilted chutes), the real proof of the design is in the stove’s performance.
Stove With Options
Running on high, the WiseWay pellet stove produces up to 31,000 BTUs, which puts it on par with our DutchWest wood burner, a stove that keeps our 1,600-square-foot log home cozy on the coldest nights. At the high setting, the WiseWay stove will burn through a 40-pound bag of wood pellets in 10 to 12 hours, while on the lowest setting it will produce steady heat for up to 32 hours.
Initiating a burn in a cold WiseWay pellet stove is easy, albeit a bit unconventional. To get it started, a propane torch is trained on the firebox for a minute or two, until the flue temperature reaches about 200 degrees, at which point the burn is self-sustaining. As long as there are pellets in the hopper, the burn will continue unassisted. Your only job from then on is to regulate the burn rate, which is accomplished by adjusting the amount of air allowed into the square burn tube, and to clean the secondary-burn screen and the ash drawer once a day.
For distributing heat throughout a room, an optional electric blower can be attached to the stove, although Wisener recommends using one or more Ecofans, instead. Manufactured by Caframo Limited, Ecofans use no electricity, instead producing power by tapping into the temperature gradient existing between the top of the fan and its base.
For those wishing to get double duty out of their stoves, an optional water jacket provides hot water that can be fed into a home’s water heater or boiler, used as a water-purification system, or, as Wisener suggests, to produce steam to run a steam-engine generator to provide electricity during power outages.
As for the stove’s portability, it’s light weight and mover-friendly shape mean that it can be moved from place to place—from the home to the patio, to a canvas wall tent in a hunting camp (though, admittedly, it might take a seasoned trail hand to figure out how to tie it to a pack saddle). The fact that it only requires a 3- or 4-inch chimney for venting (depending on the model) is another plus for anyone planning to move the stove from place to place.
What’s a WiseWay pellet stove going to set you back? First there is the cost of the stove itself, which is currently $1,899 for the basic model, not including installation or installation hardware. If you choose to use an Ecofan for heat distribution, plan on another $80 or more for each fan.
As for operating costs, Wisener calculates that an average home will require about 3 tons of pellets over the course of a heating season. At $5 per 40-pound bag (a recent Home Depot price), this works out to $750 per year.
How much heat will that produce? In terms of heat value, wood pellets store about 14 to 15 million BTUs per ton, which is about equal to the heat value in one cord (2,300+ pounds) of ponderosa pine, two-thirds cord of red oak (again, 2,300+ pounds) or 160 gallons (680 pounds) of propane.
That’s not bad when you consider the alternatives. With propane looming near $3 per gallon, a pellet stove is certainly cheaper per BTU and a good deal for anyone without easy access to cheap cordwood, although loading a ton of pellets in the old Chevy does lack the rustic romance of felling 80-footers in the gloomy depths of the Dark Forest. But after the last tree falls you have bucking, splitting and stacking to contend with, as well as chainsaw maintenance, sore muscles, ripped clothing, assorted cuts and bruises, plus expenditures on oil, gasoline and time. All of which goes to make a boring bag of pellets seem just a little more glamorous.
Now that the WiseWay stove is in full production, Wisener has taken on two partners: Matt Aguirre oversees production at the Central Point, Oregon, facility while Gene “Smokey” Bradley takes care of sales and distribution.
Visit wisewaypelletstoves.com or call 541-476-2174 for more info.
This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.