Are Pellet Stoves Safe?

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Last Updated on February 17, 2021
pellet-based heating

The ever ballooning energy costs, in addition to the heightened social consciousness in relation to the environment, have ostensibly pushed many people towards cheaper, and more sustainable energy sources such as pellet stoves. 

Of course, the traditional heating systems that use oil, gas and electricity are still very common and unlikely to be phased out any time soon. However, there has been a remarkably consistent increase in the use of wood pellets as fuel across multiple regions and industries over the last decade, which signifies good days ahead for pellet-based heating. 

Admittedly, not all wood pellets are used in pellet stoves as significant amounts are also used in pellet boilers and stove-boilers. Further, the underlined energy efficiency of pellet stoves makes them only suitable for homes and small offices. That, combined with the fact that they are quite expensive, makes them out of reach for many people. Seeing that they’re a recent invention (first launched in the 1980s), however, it is admirable that we are even considering pellet stoves as a viable heating solution for the future. 

So, Are Pellet Stoves Safe?

Well, the answer depends on the angle you’re approaching the discussion from and the variables at play. I mean, you can’t logically analyze the safety of any machine without factoring in the probability of human error, can you? 

Below’s an outline of the major safety threats posed by pellet stoves and how probable they are.

Fire Safety

Naturally, the biggest risk presented by pellet stoves is potential fire accidents. 

From a statistical perspective, pellet stoves are pretty much harmless but not entirely safe. While there's no official data tallying the number of fire accidents caused specifically by pellet heaters, a report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) suggests that heating equipment, in general, contributed to 15% of all reported home fires in 2018. Included in the numbers are portable tent wood stoves, gas fireplaces, and the like. 

Nonetheless, when it comes to fire accidents, any number above 1 is too much, and if you decide to buy a pellet stove, go all out to prevent unforeseen incidents that may endanger your life and those of your loved ones. It's a good thing that most fires caused by these stoves are as a result of human actions (and inactions), and are thus completely avoidable.

How to Prevent Fire Accidents from Pellet Stoves?

house burning

1. Know Your Stove

Pellet heating is a relatively new idea, and as such, there are so many types of pellet stoves with varying functionalities and safety levels, with the fundamental concept being the only similarity. On the upside, this means more variety and options for consumers, with the downside being that there's no universally agreed safety standards for the manufacturers to follow. 

For that reason, we strongly recommend familiarizing yourself with your particular stove and its operating modules. Imperatively, make sure to read and re-read the owner's manual and take note of the manufacturer's warnings and operating instructions. And if you still have any misgivings after that, you can do further research (the manufacturer's blog or credible user review sites would be great starts).

2. Observe a Regular Maintenance Regime

Poor maintenance is the biggest cause of fire accidents associated with pellet stoves. This may be occasioned by ignorance, forgetfulness, or simply laziness on the owner's part. 

Advisable precautions to prevent pellet stove fires include:

  • Regularly inspect the ash traps and flue and remove any ash trapped in there. Unchecked accumulation of fly ash can lead to blockage of the key parts of the stove, leading to malfunctioning or, in worse case scenarios, fire outbreaks.
  • Periodically check the burn pot and get rid of the accumulated fly ash therein, as well as in the fly pans.
  • If you use the stove more than 3 times a week, ensure that you empty the soot, creosote, ash and sawdust accumulated in the hopper and feed at least once per week.
  • Have the stove inspected and serviced by a qualified fire inspector or stove-repair technician at least once per year. If the manufacturer has a local dealership, contact them to do the servicing instead. Among the things a dealer can do that you (probably) can't include: lubricating moving parts, and check for and correct issues in the hopper, pressure switches, igniter and combustion motor.

3. Safe Location

A pellet stove is technically a free-standing machine, and thus, should ideally be installed in a secluded spot and far away from any combustible item including wood, clothes and plastics. 

For enhanced protection from both fire and damage to your floors and walls, you may want to place the stove on a specially built brick flooring space. You can also go full old-school and pop it inside a free-standing hearth (again, at a safe distance from flammable items).

4. Get Professional Help During Installation 

This one is a no-brainer, really. 

On this end, I wouldn't recommend buying a stove from an online dealer, unless you live in a remote area, or they offer installation as part of the delivery package. If possible, buy from your local dealer and request them to install it for you, or at least connect you to their trusted technician. 

They may not be as risky as gas stoves, but pellet stoves still require professional installation and operational guidance. Some key things the installation technician will do include: advising on the best location, installing and calibrating a smoke detector, and setting the magnetic flue temperature gauge.

Health Safety 

Pellet stoves have very low chances of catching fire. However, this does not mean they are completely safe. The fact of the matter is that, they - like all stoves that use fossil fuels - have a tendency to produce carbon monoxide (CO). There's even an alert issued by the UK's Health and Safety Authority (HSA) warning on the dangers posed by wood pellets, which are basically the key components of pellet stoves. 

Critically, unlike carbon dioxide (which has a distinctly sharp odor when present in high concentrations) carbon monoxide is both colorless and odorless irrespective of the concentration. 

The obscure nature of CO means that you are more likely to notice its effects on your body when you have inhaled copious amounts. Moreover, it is quite a dangerous gas and can even lead to death, as it replaces the oxygen in the bloodstream, which leads to oxygen shortage in vital organs like the heart and brain. Intermediate effects of the same include loss of consciousness, confusion and muscle weakness, and miscarriage if pregnant. 

Of course, CO poisoning is reversible if medical attention is sought in time but permanent organ damage may still occur if the poisoning was acute. All in all, the point is not to frighten or discourage you but rather inform you of the potential risks and how to prevent them.

How is Carbon Monoxide Produced in A Pellet Stove? 

There are various ways in which carbon monoxide can be produced in pellet stoves. Some of these include:

  • High Temperature Combustion - Leaving your stove operating on too high temperatures can accelerate the production of carbon monoxide. It is also a waste of energy as pellet stoves generally tend to lose heat when operating on super high temps. So, keep your stove at a moderate heat, at level 2 or 3 as opposed to 4 and higher.
  • Using Newer Pellets - A common industry assertion is that pellets produce more CO within their first 6 weeks of manufacture than they do during the rest of their existence. Hence, you may want to keep your pellets locked in their air-tight containers until they pass this toxic stage.
  • Poorly Ventilated Areas - Carbon monoxide is typically produced when the oxygen in the air is significantly less than the carbon gases produced by the heating of the fossils. So, unless otherwise stated in the manual, avoid using your stove in enclosed areas such as inside a garage or cabin.
  • Faulty Hopper - A hopper is basically an inbuilt storage room for pellets, and its air-tight construction makes it easy for carbon monoxide to be produced. Now, that's not really a problem as it's expected. If the hopper gets a dent or hole, however, the CO inside leaks out in varying amounts, whether during combustion or even when the stove is idle.

How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning From Pellet Stoves?

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Photo from DDRC Healthcare

In light of the above section, here are 5 effective ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning when using your pellet stove.

1. Only Use Approved Pellets 

Yeah, you can pretty much use anything combustible on your stove, from dried corncobs to little wood pieces. But then again, if they're not fully dry, or are not fully combustible, the outcome may be fatal. 

As such, you are better off sticking to the list of burnable substances outlined in the user manual. Don't try to be clever by improvising solutions. If your supply of approved pellets run out, it's best to get another heating solution and let the pellet stove rest until you can replenish them. 

2. Proper Location 

Proper location is as important in preventing CO poisoning as it is in warding off fire accidents. And since a pellet stove is not something you can just pick and move around at your leisure, you need to do all the location scouting and testing before installing the stove. 

I would suggest putting it near a window or other ventilation structures which can help get rid of some of the toxic fumes released by the stove. Also, remember that the pellets can also release CO even when stored away from the stove. So, store them in an airtight container and also in a well-ventilated spot. 

3. Observe Proper Maintenance 

Some defects in the stove, such as a faulty vent installation or a leaky hopper, can cause leakage of CO to your home. And such problems don't just occur in a day, seeing how well-built most pellet stoves are. In short, poor maintenance will lead to an increased risk of carbon monoxide emission and potential poisoning. 

Therefore, it is important to check and maintain your stove often to ensure it's functioning as it should. In particular, regularly inspect the combustion chamber, hopper and the vent for signs of damage or corrosion and contact a technician if you spot any suspicious spots. Also, have your stove inspected by a credible technician at least once a year (or in the interval specified in the manual) to be on the safer side. 

4. Read The Manual 

Every pellet stove comes with a user manual that outlines, among other things, the likelihood of carbon monoxide emission and how to deal with such a situation. There may also be a few pointers on ideal locations, recommended cleaning techniques, and best maintenance practices. 

As soon as your stove is installed, go through the user manual several times and keep note of any highlighted areas as well. Yeah, I get it, no one likes reading a protracted booklet of technical prose and you'll be more tempted to virtually click "Accept" as we all do when those irksome pop-ups that show up in the middle of a page when browsing. However, when it comes to pellet stoves, you can't ignore any instruction, since non-adherence may lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, or even worse, a fire accident. 

5. Install a Carbon Monoxide Detector

Your stove's manufacturer or installation technician will probably tell you this, but I'll say it first: don't use, or install a pellet stove without first installing a carbon monoxide detector. Some stoves are sold with detectors, in which case, you don't have to stress. If not, you can find one on Amazon for less than $100.

Take Away: Here is what you need to know...

Pellet stoves are undoubtedly the heating solution of the future. They're cheap (in the long term anyway), very efficient, and can use waste products as fuel. They are also largely safe if installed, used and maintained in the recommended manner, which explains the low number of accidents and deaths associated with pellet stoves. 

Buy one today and let us know how it goes!