Getting Burnt… Pellet Quality

The burning season is almost at an end, while I’m impressed by the progress in the stove technology, the quality of pellets is somewhat less sparkling.    Since it has been 20 years since my last pellet stove experience, I decided to purchase pellets by the bag this time around.   The idea was to try various brands in the stove, gauge the amount of pellets used, so as to make a smarter bulk purchase in future seasons.   Here are some brands I tried in our Quadrafire Mt. Vernon AE…

Barefoot

Barefoot Pellet Co. produces a super premium pellet.   Very low dust, very uniform pellet size, neutral odor, extremely low ash.   After burning a week of Barefoot, there was noticably much less ash.   The stove was dramatically cleaner.   In the cleanup of the heat exchanger, there was perhaps only 30% of the ash buildup compared to any other pellet below.   The difference was so dramatic, it was almost unbelievable.   The other notable difference is the density of the pellets.   They were more dense, and that means you can pack more BTU’s into the hopper.   For me, they are a comparatively local source ( they are in western PA ), which reduced the carbon footprint of shipping the product.   The biggest issue is cost.   They were perhaps 30% more expensive than anything else.   So unless I can get a super duper deal on them, I can’t see using them for general heating.

Treecycle

I like the idea of Treecycle.   Trees from forest management operations are mulched up and then pelletized.   So taking a waste stream and turning it into a fuel source.    The first thing I noticed about them is that they smelled…. good.   Like a tree.   They were very clean burning.   The window glass was noticably cleaner.   Much of the ash seemed to form a loose cake which the auto cleaning system could deal with.   The downside was the density.   It was a very low density product, and was obviously much bulkier compared to Barefoot, Lignetics, Peddington Oak, …    I think if they were to increase the density, it would be an ideal product.    The pellets did tend to crumble, and there was more dust than other brands.   Again, higher density might have helped.   But they are a local company, less than 15 miles away, so have almost 0 carbon footprint from transport.   And the cost seemed a bit higher than average.   But I liked them, and if the price were right, I’d burn them exclusively.

Peddington Oak

I have seen reviews that the Peddington pellets were great, garbage, awesome, terrible and everything in between.   I had a good experience with them.    I don’t know if they make multiple varieties of them.   But the product I was burning said they were made from 100% Oak Hardwood.    The pellets were not quite as dense as Lignetics or Barefoot.   They had somewhat more dust than average.   But they burnt cleanly.   They also can be had very cheaply.   So if you care more about BTUs / $ this may be the way to go.   My issue with any product that is also sold at Wal*Mart is that the margins are squeezed so tight that quality can suffer.   I’d rather pay a but more, give the company more margin, and let the focus on product quality rather than quantity.

Lignetics

Well I have a TSC down the street and they carry Lignetics.   So perhaps 70% of my pellets this season have been Lignetics, mostly out of apathy, as the TSC is 3 minutes from my house.    TSC does not penalize you much for buying bags.   And the price was midrange, on a ton basis, compared to the rest.     So the first 1.5 tons were a light colored, not unpleasant smelling, comparatively little dust.   They produced a lot of fly ash, with perhaps less than 30% of the ash ending up in the ash tray, and would dirty up the glass more rapidly compared to Treecycle, Barefoot, or Peddington Oak.

I get the impression that whey they say less than “> 1% ash,” they literally mean .999999… %.   But it was a uniform, predictable, product that worked.   So I was a happy camper initially.   Then in January I got another 20 bag batch of them which were complete and utter garbage. To give you an idea, here is a comparison of my initial batch, the bad batch, and what I am able to purchase currently…

So in looking at the lot numbers, above, I was initially burning the right most pellets.     Then in January I got 20 bags of the crap on the left.    They smelled like smoked ham.   The exterior and interior of the pellets was very dark.   Perhaps black walnut.   They produced huge clinkers, the size of a lemon, that had to be removed every day or so.   Also the fly ash would congeal and form pea sized clumps all over the back wall of the firebox.   It was a mess.   My 8 year old was calling them “ham pellets.  The most recent batch was somewhere inbetween.   Not quite as bad as before.   But still pretty bad compared to the prior 1.5 tons I had.

So what sort of an opinion am I to form, other than “inconsistent crap?”    As one of the largest pellet producers, I would expect them to be able to deal with variations in source materials, and blend materials over time to produce a more consistent product.   Apparently thats too much to ask.   Based on the date codes, I assume the “good” batch were manufactured in 2009, and the “crap” batch in October 2010.     The issue with buying multi-ton lot is “which pellets will I get?”   Because burning 4 tons of the pellets on the left would give me an aneurysm.

Advice To Wood Pellet Manufacturers

Consistency. You need to make a consistent product.   If you have seasonal variations in your source materials, then find a way to mix them to make the changes less dramatic.   I don’t care about color, I care about burning characteristics, and the dramatic shifts in clinker production – apparently over just a 4 week period between the left and middle batches – is enough to turn me off to purchasing a multi-ton lot.   Remember the lesson of McDonalds: people will buy an inferior product on the basis that they know what they are getting.

Density. Higher density pellets always win.   They always tend to have less dust, they are less friable, and hold up better in transport, take up less room in the truck, and on my back porch.   Also you maximize the amount of fuel I can cram into my stove’s tiny hopper.   Barefoot wins in this dimmension, with Lignetics coming second.

Odor. Look, we all have spouses who don’t like their home smelling like ham, fungus, mineral spirits, or whatever else.    Treecycle wins in this dimension – it was a “delightful sawdust potpourri.”   Lignetics ham pellets is the loser – disgusting.

Dust. Frankly I could care less about dust.   It all seems to make it through to the firepot.    But I have noticed that lower density pellets always have more dust.   Make your pellets better, and the dust will be less of an issue.    The Treecycle pellets were very crumbly and dusty.

Comments are closed.