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Reliable Pellet Stoves

Date posted: October 4, 2011
Objective ratings of pellet stoves are nearly impossible to come by. At a recent conference we met Scott Williamson, an independent pellet stove technician who runs Pelletstoveservice.com. In recent years with heating oil prices remaining high, pellet heating is in demand and Scott�s company has kept meticulous data on repair histories from more than 5,000 house calls. Below, Scott rates what he found to be four of the most reliable pellet stoves.

He agreed to let us take a peek at a spreadsheet containing service records dating back to 2005 when he first started recording information. Nobody has real world service data on as many pellet stoves as Scott and few are willing to share what they have. Currently, his data lists 147 models of stoves from about 35 different manufacturers, yet there are still brands and models he has never seen. His company now employs three full time technicians year-round, and serves customers from Maine to New York.

Scott uses detailed service records to recommend very reliable stoves in four areas:
  1. Large stove: England Stove Works, model 25-PDV (also Summers Heat SHP-55 and Timber Ridge TRP-55 )
  2. Small stove: Sherwood Industries, Enviro Mini-A
  3. Fireplace Insert Stove: Harman, Accentra
  4. Freestanding Cast Stove: Travis, Lopi Leyden (also Avalon Arbor)
Pellet stoves are an excellent way to reduce heating costs if you heat with oil, propane or electricity. If you have access to natural gas, the fuel savings will likely only be significant if the layout of your house allows you to effectively space heat the part you need warmest. Regardless of savings, a pellet stove will enable you to heat your homes without fossil fuels, and keep your heating dollars in the local economy. The automation of the pellet stove is a huge attraction and a trap if you don't clean it regularly. One of the best services that stove companies and technicians, like Scott, can provide is to teach owners how to clean their own stove and troubleshoot minor problems.

All pellet stoves require routine maintenance andthe dealership of any specific brand becomes the default service provider. If service after the sale is important to you, then you need to choose a dealer with a good reputation. Buying a reliable stove is not hard to do, but choosing the right dealer often is. In many parts of the country, dealerships for any specific brand may be few and far between. In saturated markets, dealerships are spaced out so that they will not compete with each other. If your research leads you to a brand or model you're dead set on buying, there may only be one choice that will provide service in your area.

To be fair, Scott has his own agenda and we want to be upfront about that. First, he is trying to grow his service business. Second, he wishes that all manufacturers would support the many highly qualified independent service companies like pelletstoveservice.com with training and parts. Most manufacturers only offer this type of support through their own dealers. Scott believes that consumers should be able to choose between using an authorized dealer or an independent one, just as we do with servicing our cars. Despite Scott's belief in consumer choice when it comes to installing or maintaining pellet-heating equipment, two of the stoves he recommends here are from companies that prefer not to work with independent technicians.

As a non-profit, the Alliance for Green Heat is always careful not to promote particular brands without good, objective reasons. We do not take advertisements or accept donations from industry in return for any form of publicity. We think running this profile of stoves from four different companies is an important resource for consumers. None of the companies were consulted or knew they were being profiled in advance of publication.

In addition to being highly informative about the types of problems pellet stoves experience and the sometimes-simple fixes, these reviews bring experience, humility, wit and humor to the subject. Enjoy.

Product Recommendations and Reviews

By Scott Williamson,
www.pelletstoveservice.com

Large Stove

This pellet stove is made by England's Stove Works, Inc. from Monroe, VA. If buying something made in the USA is important to you, this is one of the few remaining companies that keep all their manufacturing here in the US.

First introduced in 1990, the 25-PDV is one of the oldest stoves still in production. It is also one of the few remaining horizontal feed pellet stoves available on the market. Whether you are looking at the Englander, Summer Heat or Timber Ridge brands, they are all exactly the same and all have come to be known as Englander's or mistakenly, as New Englander's.

This stove and its smaller version the PDVC (without front facing vents) are sold in catalogs, box stores, hardware stores, on-line and all kinds of other places you might be surprised to see a pellet stove for sale. I once saw a showroom of these stoves in a gas station.

This is one of my favorite stoves of all time. This stove isn't trying to be anything it isn't. It may not be pretty but that's what makes it beautiful. I like it because it's simple, it's heavy, the workmanship is terrific, and it works. Oh, and did I mention that this stove often sells for about half of most stoves in its class?

The unit will provide heat for up to 2200 sqft when centrally located within a home. It boasts a 60 lb. capacity hopper for extended burn times on a lower setting or enough fuel to run the unit hot all day long.

Most stoves at this price utilize 1/8 stamped steel for their outer construction and shield the inner firebox to make them cooler to the touch on the outside. Englander doesn't skimp on the steel and uses heavy gauge plate steel of 3/16 or better for nearly all of the stove's construction with minimal shielding of the firebox. The heavier construction creates a stove rich in radiant heat. Radiant heat is the silent and efficient heat that is transferred directly to solid objects. A heavy steel stove has the ability to keep living areas much more comfortable with far less work once they get hot.

A glutton for punishment, the Englander has a very high tolerance for neglect and poor burning habits. Yes, dealers of competing brands scowl and roll their eyes whenever they hear the word Englander, because it's an inexpensive brand, but let it be known; Englander has been making this pellet stove for over twenty years with an original design largely unchanged. Moreover, many of the original units are still in operation. What other company can boast such a success record? Who else has engineered a product so simple it can be sold by workers with no professional training or certifications in hearth or heating products to consumers who purchase largely on price and convenience? Englander's distribution model defies the myth that only products supported by full service retailers can ensure customer satisfaction.

Service Support
While most dealers for their products do not provide much to consumers for service (other than selling or delivering the stove), the folks at Englander's factory in Virginia dish out advice and troubleshooting to thousands of consumers each month. If you're somewhat mechanically inclined and open to phone support, their support team can guide you through most issues.You can reach Technical Support at (800) 245-6489 or the parts order line at (800) 516-3636.

A visit to Englander's website, www.englandsstoveworks.com will allow consumers to research product, order parts and get other support.

Data
According to our repair data, of the 674 Englander stoves serviced (12% of our service volume), there was a 69% chance that only a cleaning was required to make a non-operational stove run again. There was a 3.59% chance of needing new parts within the first year of ownership (covered under warranty), a 78% chance of needing new parts within the first three years and a 37% chance of needing new parts in years 4-7. The most common replacement part was a lower auger motor ($140.00). Also to note, out of 674 stoves serviced we have only replaced two control boards. This is the best electronics record of any brand we have ever serviced.

Common Problems
This model of Englander has a tendency to burn through lower auger motors and toss out E1 feed error codes related to loss of negative pressure by the combustion motor air flow switch. related to loss of negative pressure by the combustion motor air flow switch.
  1. Auger Issue: The problem has to do with the carbon that builds on the lower lip of the lower feed tube, right above the burn grate. As the carbon builds over time, the tip of the auger gets pinched within the exit tube. This creates resistance on the motor and causes the coil of the motor to heat up, which in turn shortens the conductivity life of the coil. A burnt out motor or a motor almost gone is easily spotted though. When a coil is cooked, the cellophane tape used to protect the coil darkens from a clear-milky-white color to a yellowish-brownish-orange color.

    A lower auger failure is dangerous because it can lead to a burn back situation under the right circumstances. Our suggestion is to replace the factory supplied motor every 3 years whether it has stopped working or not. One trick to extend your motor life, swap the upper and lower motor after year 2 or 3 and go 4-6 years without a new motor but you'll have to replace both by year 7.
  2. E1 Error Codes: This problem nearly always has to do with a melting of the high-temp vacuum hose off of the combustion motor housing. In a pellet stove, convection air is used to remove heat from the exhaust via a heat exchanger. When transfer is efficient, the heat from the exhaust rarely reaches temperatures over 350 degrees. Poor air flow to the heat exchanger because of a dirty blower wheel (think dog or cat hair in the blower wheel) or a user's attempt to raise the heat level of the stove higher than the blower speed can cause the exhaust housing to overheat and melt the vacuum hose at the fitting. This is a simple fix which can be done simply by making a fresh cut to the brittle hose end and refitting it the port. Relocating the switch closer to the barb as your hose gets shorter and shorter is helpful.

Small Stove

Sherwood Industries Ltd. is the manufacturer of the Enviro brand of heating products. They are located in Saanichton on Vancouver Island (approximately 16km north of Victoria), in British Columbia.

Sherwood Industries has developed a very good reputation for making reliable products and has become one of the largest manufacturers of stoves. Originally they started with the Enviro-Fire brand which became shortened to Enviro. Sherwood has also become involved in the production and private labeling of the GF-55 (Meridian Freestanding and insert) and the GC-60 (M-55 Cast Multlifuel Freestanding and insert) for Regency, all of the stoves bearing the Vista Flame label are exact replicas of the Enviro Meridian, Maxx, M55, and M55 Cast. The Kinderhook, Davenport and Westpoint by Hudson River Stove Works are also made by Sherwood. These stoves for Hudson River are unique because they are completely new designs made for a third party.

The Enviro Mini-A is one of my favorite stoves and it is in a class with little competition. It measures in at 18w x 19d x 34t and delivers 30,000 BTUS of heat. The Mini is acclaimed for its European Styling and a built-in hearth pad, which makes it ideal for tight and awkward installations. The control board will support either a wireless or double wire thermostat for simple operation in hi/low or on/off mode.

Got a cold room you want to make cozy? Small living spaces simply embrace this little heater. I see this stove installed in 3-season porches, mobile homes, apartments, condos and occasionally at the top of the stairs in a spacious New England McMansion.

While most Enviro stoves burn similarly to the old Whitfield Advantage pellet stoves(prior to Lennox), the Mini-A is a new generation of Enviro stoves that utilizes the ash basin as a port for the exhaust. This is very similar to all Harman designs. The top down exhaust exchange makes for a very clean and hot burning stove that can seemingly run forever without the need for a real intensive cleaning. However, Enviro burn pots tend to need daily maintenance depending on the quality of your pellet fuel, and the Mini is no exception.

Service Support
All Enviro stoves are sold exclusively through dealerships supplied through regional distributors. Your new stove will come with a warranty which provides both parts and labor. Although Enviro provides a dealer service training program as well as technical manuals (to the public) for all of its products, they do not require certifications or minimum service standards for dealers. Consumers who need technical help are encouraged to contact the dealer that sold them the stove. Support calls which are directed back to Enviro are funneled back to the distributor.

For used stoves, you may or may not be eligible for service. Dealers are not required to provide service for products they did not sell. In this event you will need to contact the distributor that will find a service solution for you or find an independent provider.

The Enviro website, www.enviro.com, contains all of the currently supported products Enviro offers for sale. You can browse new stoves, get literature, search for dealers, download manuals and search for parts although all parts need to be purchased through dealers. There is no contact phone number for Enviro listed. Fortunately, there is an email address listed for Other questions:info@enviro.com.

Repair Data
According to our repair data; of 379 service calls for Enviro (6 % of our service volume) there is a 70% chance that the stove will only need a cleaning to make it operational if it is experiencing problems. Enviro has a 12% chance of needing new parts within the first year (covered under warranty), a 27% chance of needing new parts in the first three years and a 47% of needing a part years 4-7 with an average cost of parts per service call being $173.00. The most common part we replaced was the burn pot ($100.00) and the second most common was a combustion motor. Enviro is noted for having some of the highest prices going for OEM replacement parts.

Common Problems
Enviro had a long run of production where the control boards were bad. Most were covered under warranty. Control issues are a real inconvenience to consumers as service calls for electrical components are often misdiagnosed. The Empress, Milan, Meridian and Mini were most affected but not all of the units sold presented problems. Service technicians that are not experienced troubleshooters will often swap out parts under a warranty claim one, two or three times before the root of the problem is identified as a control board. Trust me, it's even difficult for an experienced service tech.

The problem Enviro had with its early model control boards was not the company's fault per se, but a problem shared by many different manufacturers with control boards manufactured by a single source. The maker of these boards, also supplies St. Croix, Breckwell, Kozi, Hudson River, and others. The problem usually presents itself as a convection or combustion motor that is noisy or not working properly. A cursory glance of the stove would suggest that the motor in question is somehow defective. The root of the problem has to do with microprocessors in the motherboard called TRIACS. If you have replaced the same motor in your stove more than twice, you may have a bad control board.

A common problem with the Mini, and shared by most Enviro stoves, is the need for the draft of the unit to be set by a professional using either a magnehelic gauge or a manometer. Enviro stoves can be very temperamental. Because each installation is unique, each stove must have the draft of the stove set at the time of installation. If the draft is set properly, the user will enjoy the stove. If the draft is not set properly, the user may have trouble maintaining a fire on low levels or have trouble getting the stove "hot".

Lastly, there are problems unique to the Mini: the igniter and burn pot. The problem has to do with these parts fit in to the machine. The problem presents itself as failed ignitions, even though the igniter rod is visibly hot. These problems have been corrected in all newer models. If you have a Mini made prior to 2010, you may be eligible for an igniter sleeve which is of a different length, a new lock for the burn pot or a new burn pot altogether.

Fireplace Insert Stove

Harman is another company that makes its products here in the USA. Their motto is built to a standard, not a price, so you will pay more for their products. But if weight is any measure, you'll feel like you got your money's worth.

Within the stove you'll notice areas that have been shaped by grinders and occasionally some registration marks or measurements chalked off. These indications represent the work of actual human hands crafting the steel to exacting specifications.

Harman Stoves has a history dating back to 1979, the year Dane Harman made his first stove in his garage. A neighbor bought one and the rest is history. Their first pellet stove hit the consumer market in 1991. It was called the Pellet Pro, later the Pellet Pro II, which became the first of the P Series stoves.

Clever engineering is the basis of Harmon's success. All of their pellet stoves utilize a feed system design all of their own. They are the only company currently making pellet stoves with a bottom feed delivery. The major advantage of this is that unburned pellets push ash out of the way as they enter the burn pot. Because of this, Harman stoves can burn pellets of any ash content as well as other fuels such as paper pellets and other biomass pellets, although a better fire will always come from a low ash fuel like wood.

If you are looking for a pellet insert that looks and feels like a traditional wood insert, look no further than the Harman Accentra. There is no other pellet insert on the market that is built like this. Many companies will attempt to offer something that looks like the classic styling of the Accentra, but they are just that: an imitation.

This is the most expensive stove in my list of greats and I offer it up simply because as inserts go, there is nothing else that comes close in terms of functionality, aesthetics, simplicity and quality.

Because of the restrictions of fireplace openings, most pellet inserts need to rest on the floor of the hearth; thus, pellet inserts usually have no ash bin. Stoves without an ash bin tend to need more frequent cleanings, but not the Accentra. With a burn pot raised to almost the middle of the viewing glass, the Accentra creates plenty of space for ash collection as well as a handy removable tray. The interior of the firebox allows for the user to access the heat exchangers via removable baffles.

The best part about all Harman pellet stoves is that they were designed with the end user in mind. Regular maintenance is quick, as all parts requiring regular cleaning are located through the front door and, making it possible to perform an annual service cleaning with no tools.

All Harman pellet stoves, with the exception of the P38, utilize Harman's own patented control board.This allows for auto ignition and two running modes; room temp mode that senses and maintains a constant room temperature with an off and on feature as needed, or stove temp mode that bypasses the room sensor and allows for a constant flame at any desired heat level.

Because not all pellets are manufactured equal, or to give the end user more control over the kind of pellet they want to burn (wood, grass, paper, bark, etc), the control board also allows for a feed adjustment that takes the density and combustibility of the fuel into consideration. Unlike most control boards which allow for minor feed and air trimming on low settings only, Harman delivers a product that can burn just about anything that will properly feed through the system.

Service Support
Harman Stoves is now part of the conglomerate Home and Hearth Technologies (HHT Brands: Heatilator, Quadrafire, Harman) and are distributed and sold exclusively through HHT dealers. Most of these dealers are independent and became HHT dealers because they carried the Harman or Quadrafire Brands. In some parts of the country HHT has started opening its own stores, Fireside Home and Hearth, which carry some or all of the HHT products.

Although Harman's website claims that Bronze, Silver and Gold level dealers have received training in sales, installation and service; HHT does not enforce nor require any dealer at any level to certify employees through NFI, maintain a service staff or a service standard to keep a dealership. In our neck of the woods we know of more than 4 dealerships with no service technicians on the payroll.

The State of Massachusetts requires all individuals engaged in the installation or repair of solid fuel burning devices to carry a State issued license. Out of the 25 nearest Harman Dealerships we queried, only nine had owners with the SFCSL or CSL and only three had employees with NFI Certifications in wood pellets. HHT does not offer parts, education or support for professionals outside of their dealers and does not openly support independent service providers, as far as we know. HHT products make up a large part of our service spectrum; however, repeated attempts to become a dealer for parts and service have been meet with resistance.

Repair Data
According to our repair data of 897 service calls (12% of our service volume), Harman products will have a 62% chance of only needing a cleaning to make a non-operational stove operational. There is a 12% chance of needing new parts within the first year (covered under warranty,) a 17% chance of needing new parts in the first 3 years, and a 64% chance of needing new parts within seven years of ownership. An average cost of parts per service call was $147.00. The most common part we replaced was an igniter ($89.00).

Common Problems
The only real issue we have encountered with Harman products is with the igniters. Harman utilizes an air foil igniter, which is a horizontally mounted heater cartridge with metal fins to direct the air flow behind the burn pot. This igniter had 11 fins initially; it was changed to 13 fins and now has 15 fins. The 13-fin igniters in some, if not all product lines, have been recalled and a 15-fin igniter will be exchanged.

Now and again we will replace a flame guide ($27), an ESP probe ($45), a control board ($278) or a combustion motor ($115) but there does not ever seem to be a run on any certain part.

Freestanding Cast Stove

Travis Industries is the largest, privately owned stove company in America and encompasses two high-quality pellet stove brands: Avalon and Lopi. All Travis products are manufactured in the United States within the 11-acre Mukilteo, Washington facility called the House of Fire.The factory employs up to 600 people just thirty minutes north of Seattle.

In our opinion, the Lopi Leyden (also the Avalon Arbor) is the best cast iron pellet stove on the market today. No surprise, Travis also maintains the lowest percentages for replacement parts according to our repair data. What's odd? Consumer Reports gave this stove a "DO NOT BUY" status in its 2009 pellet stove review based on an erroneous assumption (they could not get it to ignite).

This little monster of a heater will comfortably heat up to 2300 sqft when centrally located and it sacrifices nothing to the eye. The Leyden is a great looking and high performing cast iron stove, big on style yet smaller looking on the hearth. There is a certain aesthetic that folks are looking for in a cast iron stove and this stove delivers the goods.

Most of our customers who own this stove have owned something else previously and are knocked out by its ease of use, simplicity of controls and very high tolerance for cleaning vs. performance. The Leyden, as with all of the Travis stoves, employs a design very similar to the classic Whitfield designs for exhausting flue gases within the stove. Although digital, the control board doesn't look like a planes cockpit when lit.

To judge this stove and understand why we like it so much you really have to compare it to others in its class. Unlike the Enviro Empress, the front doors and top of the Leyden do not rattle. Unlike the XXV or Accentra from Harman, ashes do not come falling out every time you open the door.

My mother-in-law has this stove and has had no trouble with it since she bought it five years ago. This is the same woman that wrecked a Harman, an Englander, and a Rika prior to owning the Leyden. Trust me; she punishes stoves with her half-hearted and lackadaisical approach to routine maintenance. She was my first customer and I owe her a debt of gratitude, since without her I wouldn't have gotten into this business.

One evening I was called to her house because she had a hopper fire when she had the old Englander. I was beside myself to see that she had actually added pellets and forgot to remove them from the bag. There was a lot of finger pointing going on that night, but you get the idea of the kind of punishment her stoves receive.

It has been four years since she got the Leyden and to date she has had no problems with the stove. Perhaps it is coincidence, but the fact remains; she has had no problems with this stove and nothing but problems with four other brands.

Service Support
Like HHT Dealers, Travis maintains exclusivity to its brands through dealerships. Travis dealers exercise and probably coined the phrase for servicing what they sell. If you get a used Lopi or Avalon stove and need parts or service you might be in trouble. I have called dealers looking for parts and was told that they only stock parts for their existing customers and they want to know the serial number to see if they sold the stove. Other times I have been informed that they cannot service a stove if they cannot verify the installation.

Up here in Massachusetts folks do not have much choice in dealers if they are looking for Travis products. Dealerships seem to be rightly spaced just so as to not be in competition with each other, but if you are shopping for a product that requires warranty service, in-home service or a "qualified installer" you better like your dealer a lot because you may have no other choice. Is there a directive or policy from corporate to suggest that consumers come second to Travis dealers? We get customers all the time that cannot get service (including warranty service) because their stoves were installed by a homeowner or third party other than the dealer.

Repair Data
With an attitude such as Travis toward service I would not recommend them. But here's the thing - they make awesome products. According to our repair data, of 433 service calls (7% of our service volume) Travis products as a whole will have a 71% chance of only needing a cleaning to make them operational again. There is a 6% chance of needing parts within the first year (covered under warranty), a 19% chance of needing parts in the first three years and a 15% chance of needing parts within years 4-7 with an average cost of parts per service call being $112.00. The most common part we replaced was an igniter ($67.00).

Common Problems
With older analog stoves we used to replace control boxes; with the advent of the digital control board the most common repair is an igniter or possibly one of the blowers. Gaskets for motor housings tend to shred away at first sight and we often replace them with a hand cut gasket of a studier material. To be honest, Travis products do not require much in the way of new parts nor do they present many "problems".

 
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