Battle of the Budget Brands
Low-cost pellet stove alternatives that give consumers the best bang for the buck
I can remember a time when the only place you could shop for pellet stove would have been a specialty hearth shop. Back then, these shops mostly sold wood stoves and fireplace accessories. The first pellet stoves of the 1980’s were a marvel of mechanical engineering and for roughly $1800.00 ($400 more than a very good wood stove at the time) consumers could buy into an automated wood burning experience that was viewed as better for the environment.
Today, pellet stoves from top brands such as Harman™ or Quadrafire™ will cost consumers over $4000.00, and yeah, these pellet stoves come with all the bells and whistles, there are a growing number of box-store and internet only brands that offer everything the big boys have but with a price tag that is more in line with 1993 pricing. Heck, if adjusted for inflation, these units may only cost $750.00 in 1993 dollars.
I’ve been in the business of installing, repairing and maintaining nothing but pellet stoves for more than a decade. Back when I started the internet was only a few years old. The prospect of buying stuff on the internet was kind of a foreign concept. Specialized hearth shops still maintained exclusivity to top brands, all of the necessary repair parts and to that end, all of the training and skilled labor that pellet stoves require to keep them operational. If you needed anything, you had to go to the dealer you bought your pellet stove from. It was such a captive market that manufacturers’’ websites often wouldn’t even have a phone number listed where you could call for technical help or parts…contact your dealer.
Then something happened. I’m not sure if they were the first company to do it but they very well could have been; England’s Stove Works commonly known as “Englander”, developed a pellet stove that was sold exclusively at Home Depot, directly to consumers without the distributor-to-retail mark-up that specialized hearth shops have built into their pricing structures. It was experience without salespeople. This DIY approach encouraged consumers to install the pellet stove themselves. If you need assistance, give us a call. If you need parts, give us a call. Have a simple question, give us a call. It was like magic! As it turns out, it seems this was just what consumers were looking for because while specialty shops have been getting hammered by the slow in pellet stove sales since 2014 it seems the only folks actually selling anything are the internet and box stores…so let’s see what these brands have to offer. Here is my list of the most popular, low-cost pellet stoves on the market and what I like and don’t like about each.
Englander™, Summer’s Heat™, and TimberRidge™ 25-PDVC
England’s Stove Works, located in rural Virginia is the parent company for these three brands and the brilliant company responsible for bringing their 55-PDV pellet stove into the Home Depot box store chain and giving consumers a cheap DIY alternative. All of their pellet stoves are made in the USA, 100%.
England’s Stove Works makes both wood and pellet stoves and markets the units under three different brands. Englander is exclusively at the Home Depot, Summer’s Heat is exclusively at Lowe’s Home Improvement and TimberRidge is everybody else, including units sold by ESW directly via their NASCAR funding website, amfm-energy.myshopify.com where they sell off customer returns and factory seconds. Currently, the company manufactures 7 different pellet burning stoves but their most popular pellet stove they sell is the 25-PDVC under the Englander Brand, the 55-SHP10 under the Summers Heat Brand and the 55-TRP10 under the Timber Ridge Brand and is the stove pictured here. All three are the exact same stove and for simplicity, in this article, we are going to refer to this stove as the Englander 25-PDVC even though it is marketed under to other brands with different model numbers.
I’m not sure of the exact number of units they have sold but according to Englander, it’s their best-selling unit and I believe it! I have over 600 customers using this stove to heat their home. It may even be the best selling pellet stove of all time, eclipsing sales of the Whitfield Advantage which was the world’s first pellet stove. The 25-PDVC is a no-frills, heating powerhouse that just works. This stove has a retail price of $1199.00, it’s often discounted to $999.00, can be bought refurbished through AM-FM Energy for $650.00 (complete with factory warranty) and is commonly found used for under $500.00. This stove offers a BTU output that will comfortably heat 1500 sq ft when centrally located, it has automatic electric ignition, a 40 lb hopper that allows burn times from 6-15 hours. The pellet stove weighs only 210 lbs so it can be easily carried inside by homeowners and at 28” wide it will fit through any standard door opening using a simple furniture dolly or hand truck.
Here are some things I really like about this pellet stove.
Did I mention the price? You’ll be surprised how well it works for what you going to spend. For what it is, it’s perfect. It’s not pretty but it’s cheap and it kicks out some heat!
You can use a thermostat
It can be run on a thermostat which not only saves money on fuel consumption but if the stove is properly located within a 20-foot radius of where folks spend most of their time in the house, the stove can automatically cycle up and down to keep the area comfortable. Unfortunately, the unit will not turn on and off via a thermostat but it will automatically cycle between the user’s selected heating preset when calling for heat and a low maintenance burn when the heating demand is met.
Independent heat and room blower functionality
The heat output and the room fan can be used independently of each other. This allows the user to burn the stove on any heat level they want (preferably hotter) and the circulating room fan can be set low. Not all pellet stoves allow for this and it’s really a great feature. Stoves that have the ability to get hot to the touch created an abundance of radiant heat. This is the invisible infrared heat that warms other solid objects and creates that “cozy” feeling you get from traditional wood stoves. When burning in this manner you get lots of heat and minimal noise. It’s really a great feature especially if you have a TV or stereo system in the same room. Folks often think that in order to generate a lot of heat (especially if you’re trying to heat a large space) that the room fan needs to be on “high”, it’s actually just the opposite. The room fan only needs to be on to circulate air. It’s far more efficient to slowly circulate hot air than it is to quickly circulate warm air when trying to heat a larger space.
No tools required
This Englander pellet stove allows users to perform their daily, weekly and monthly maintenance tasks with using any hand tools. You don’t need to take anything apart. Aside from a scraper for the burn pot, a brush to knock down ash and a vacuum to clean up (all pellet stoves require at least these tools) you’re done.
It’s super accessible
Do you have a Home Depot or Lowe’s in your neighborhood? They stock the stove seasonally, they sell pellets, and they sell the hearth pad you need to put under it. Need venting or tools to install it? No problem. They will even deliver it. Don’t want to go to the store? Hop online and order it up. Short on cash? These stores’ accept credit cards and even have their own with 20% off the purchase price if you’re approved. Consumers can purchase and install it on the same day. That’s awesome.
England’s Stove Works Customer Service
It’s the best in the business. No joke. Call their toll free number and anything you need, from installation help to technical questions, they are available 7 days a week.
This unit, however, like many in its class, does have a few drawbacks when compared to high-end, more expensive pellet stoves.
There is no ash pan
You have to shut down the stove to clean it and cleaning the stove is required slightly more often. Ash pans if they are incorporated properly into the pellet stove allow the user to remove and dispose of ash without turn off the unit. However, there is a way around this. If very low ash pellets are burned (single source softwood pellets like Spruce or Douglas fir) it’s really not an issue and you’ll get a full week or more between maintenance cycles. Every pellet stove should be turned off and cleaned at least once a week. This pellet stove is also a bit louder than most and because of the way it’s sold, you cannot go to a showroom and see and hear it prior to purchase. If you are sensitive to sounds this pellet stove or any of the Englander pellet stoves may not be for you. There are quieter stoves in this class and I am going to discuss a few of them in this article.
Small fuel hopper
The hopper on this stove only holds 40 lbs. of fuel. There are a few issues I have with this. If you want to add a full bag of pellets to the stove the stove basically has to be empty. If it’s not, you can top off the hopper from a full bag but you always have a partial bag of pellets sitting next to the stove that wouldn’t fit into the hopper. Now pellets are compressed to a relative density of 40 lbs. per cubic foot but it’s never exact. The standard for making pellets actually allows for a density anywhere between 36 lbs. to 43 lbs. If you are filling an empty hopper and the whole bag doesn’t fit, you have pellets that are less dense and take up more space per volume. No, you didn’t get extra pellets in the bag!
The stove may require more replacement parts than its competitors
This stove was basically a redesign of its big brother; the 55-PDV which was the original pellet stove in the Englander line up that was designed in the early 1990’s. In 2004 the 55-PDV underwent a redesign to make it cheaper to produce and a smaller version of the same stove was offered. What makes the 25-PDVC so successful is its price. It’s cheap. It could have components that age better but that would drive up the cost to manufacture. The stove could actually stand for another redesign to allow components to function and wear better but that would drive up costs, but remember…you are paying rock-bottom prices. Even with every part in the stove replaced over 10 years (you most likely won’t need to) you’re still way ahead of the game when you realize that a high-end pellet stove will cost you more than 3 times as much and they still may require parts over time too.
Outside air kit is mandatory (OAK)
It’s hard to get into this without a whole chapter full of technical information, but to put it simply, in order to properly install any of Englander’s pellet stoves, they must be installed with an outside air kit or OAK for short. This kit is supplied with the stove and is a secondary flexible 2’ hose that connects to the stove and draws air required for combustion from outside the house. When a pellet stove is burning it requires oxygen. If you have a pellet stove without an OAK the air for combustion comes from inside the house and most pellet stoves allow for this but will mention that installing an OAK is “recommended” but isn’t “mandatory”. If the installation manual says that an OAK is “Mandatory” then it will be required to pass inspection, otherwise, installation of an OAK is “optional”. So what’s the big deal? Well, if you have t install an OAK the stove has to be against an outside wall and the access to the outside air needs to be within 3 feet if you want to use the supplied kit. If you have to get up over a foundation knee-wall, you can’t do it. If you want to install into a brick hearth you have to bore through the brick. If you want to install on the leeward side of the house the stove will burn poorly on windy days with an OAK. Simply put, having an OAK can sometimes be difficult to install and will limit where a stove could possibly be installed.
At the end of the day, the 25-PDVC from Englander is a really great, accessible and cheap pellet stove option that given its track record, is a really great buy. It’s no wonder that it’s the perhaps the best-selling pellet stove ever made. Ask your friends and neighbors where they got their pellet stove, chances are someone you know has one. Go check it out and I wouldn’t hesitate to install one, you’ll be surprised.
United States Stove Company – USSC- King/Ashley 5500m
USSC advertises itself as America’s Oldest and largest wood stove company and while some or all or none of that may be true, they certainly do have a large presence in the availability of their products. If you want to go to a retail big-box and see their products you can find them Tractor Supply Stores and Ace Hardware and they can be purchased online through Home Depot and Lowe’s as well as a host of other online-only outlets like Northern Tool.
USSC has a lot of models that they offer but what you may not know, USSC is an acquisition company. They do not R and D really anything from the beginning but rather purchase existing units from others and market them under their name. For example, Ashley was one of the oldest companies producing heating equipment is the US, they merged with King which was a fabricator or steel, the companies merged and were then sold to Martin Manufacturing (which had its own pellet stoves at one time) and were then acquired by USSC. Every model pellet stove they offer existed as a different company that was acquired. In recent memory, I can tell you USSC have acquired Breckwell, Eagle, Upland, Wiseway and a few others. All of their pellet stoves are manufactured in China. But then again, so are iPhones. It’s not surprising.
I chose the King/Ashley 5500m for this review because it’s easily their best seller. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this stove. I’ve had really odd service calls for the stove that ended with me not being able to fix it and not able to get anywhere with customer support and I’m left hanging in the lurch to either condemn the stove to death or replace every single part until I solve the issue and in the end I never get have the reward of knowing what the actual problem was. That said, it’s not common that this happens but it’s happened too many times for the number of these stoves my customers actually have in service and that’s not good. It’s like technical at USSC either doesn’t know their products very well or they are keeping information from folks and I'm inclined to think the latter. It worries me, that as a seasoned professional, with more than a decade of intimate pellet stove knowledge, I cannot speak to anyone at USSC that can communicate with me on a professional level. It’s depressing to have a non-technical person read from a flowchart and questioning my ability to properly troubleshoot or validate an installation. However, I think it’s fair to note that this scenario has only happened 3 or 4 times, but it's 3 or 4 more times than with any other company I’ve had to call for technical support. All that said, and with my overall experience with King/Ashley 5500m model, if you get a stove that’s not a lemon, you’ll have a pretty good heating experience. Overall, I have about 100 customers that heat with this stove so my lousy experiences with USSC products are less than 4% of my customers using this stove.
One thing to note, the King/Ashley 5500m pellet stove body is generic and is available from many other manufacturers that use their own components. Additionally, USSC has had at least 5 other versions of this stove using this stove body. Most notably, this stove was also made by Breckwell and they called it “The Big-E”. Truthfully, Breckwell’s version of the stove may be more reliable but it costs nearly $1000.00 more. Breckwell is also now owned by USSC. Confusing isn’t it? Chances are, if you like this design and start looking around online or in the used markets you are going to see this stove everywhere though I think that USSC may now have bought up every brand using this shell, who knows.
The King/Ashley 5500m I a 50,000 BTU freestanding pellet stove capable of heating a 2000 sqft space when centrally located. It can be purchased at retail for about $1100.00 and is often discounted to around $750.00 mid-season. It features auto ignition and a digital controller with error reporting and plenty of tuning adjustments to allow users to dial in the stove or make it burn all out of whack. Here’s what I like.
The hopper for this stove is huge!
You can easily fit 3 bags of pellets in this stove and if that isn’t big enough, they make the same model 2 feet taller so you can fit an impressive 6 ½ bags of pellets in it. If you are short or you have trouble lifting bags of pellets I’d shy away from the taller model. It’s really high and somewhat difficult to load the pellets but the 5500m is just right.
Impressive output for a budget stove
The King/Ashley 5500m has a BTU output of 50k BTU’s. This stove can potentially be installed in your basement and still heat the house as the heat rises, though installing in this manner is never going to work 100% of the time. What it can do is operate at a very low output remain quiet while heating the house. Another advantage with a powerful output stove is that it can heat up space quicker than a low output stove. This is called recovery time and generally higher BTU stoves can make a house warm quicker than smaller stoves.
It’s fairly light-weight
This stove weighs in at 254 lbs. so homeowner’s can easily bring the stove inside. Unpacking the stove is simple and there are plenty of places to grab the stove if you’re carrying it in and you may have to because of the way the corner legs are shaped, the stove doesn’t sit well on a hand truck or furniture dolly. It’s really a two-person job; two strong people.
Here are the things I don’t really like.
The stove oscillates when burning
I actually hate this and it’s the only stove I know of that does this. After start-up, when the stove is burning, the combustion blower that brings in the air and pushes the exhaust out ramps its voltage up and down so the fire inside goes bright, then dark, then bright, then dark. Not only is there a visual aspect to this nonsense, but there is an audible sense to it too. You hear the blower going up and down, up and down. If it stayed constant you’d get used to the white noise but it you don’t. At least I don’t. I spoke with a rep about this at a trade show and he said it was designed like this to save energy, but for a stove that only uses 3 amps to begin with, I think savings are negligible. It’s just silly and it’s unnecessary.
Confusing owner’s manual
The manual shows where a thermostat can be used, the controller has connections to it but it is disabled and cannot be used. Their troubleshooting section has error codes that do not exist and gives examples of installation requirements like using HVAC tape to seal venting which is against the guidelines venting manufacturers’ instructions.
Useless customer support
If your stove isn’t working properly the default pretense from USSC is that YOU did something wrong. They are going to ask you to describe your installation and regardless of how you have it installed, they are going to find something wrong with it even if it’s exactly as described in the installation manual. For example; I once had a problem with a combustion blower not getting power and after explaining the installation of the venting, they determined the problem to be too much venting, when in fact the installation was exactly the minimum amount required in the manual and that the air space between the venting was too close to the wall. All of this had nothing at all to do with the power to the blower; very frustrating. This wasn’t a one-off either. I had this conversation with them several times on different installations and different homes.
Heatilator Eco-Choice CAB50
Back in 2011, when Heatilator hit the market with their low-budget, entry level pellet stove I was really excited. They have three models in their line up; two step-top stoves (PS35 and the PS50) that kind of look like boxier versions of the Harman™ P Series stoves, and the CAB50 which is depicted here. Aside from how they look, they all use the same exact components. Even the controller is the same and it can be programmed for the stove it is installed in. This is the most expensive stove in the line-up and had a retail price of $1649.00. You won’t find many of these in the used market though I have come across a few and they still fetch $1000.00 or more and they are used.
Essentially, the Heatilator™ Eco-Choice™ pellet stoves are Quadrafire™ pellet stoves in a cheaper steel stove body. That makes sense because Heatilator and Quadrafire are owned by Home and Hearth Technology (HHT) which is the parent company of nearly all of the big name brands still making pellet stoves. Harman™, Quadrafire™, and Vermont Castings™, to name a few, are some popular brands you may have heard of and they are all owned by HHT.
HHT is a powerhouse in the hearth industry and is USSC is the company that buys out all of the little known, less performing brands, HHT owns all of the big names, high-end brands so when Heatilator™, another HHT brand develops a low-cost pellet stove, those in the market for one should consider it.
Here’s what I like about the Heatilator™ Eco-Choice™ CAB50.
You can use this stove on a thermostat
In fact, you can only use this stove on a thermostat! It comes with one and the pellet stove is designed to use this TSTAT as it's on/off switch, just like all Quadrafire™ pellet stoves. Set the desired temperature and the stove do the rest. When the room reaches temp the stove will shut down and when the call for heat comes back the stove will start back up. Do you want to use a programmable thermostat? No problem. You’ll have to buy your own but any programmable thermostat will work. You can even use Wi-Fi learning thermostats with these stoves because the output control voltage for the TSTAT is 24 volts.
Simple to clean
Absolutely no hand tools required to perform routine maintenance. The stove even has an ash pan which can be removed and there is a lever on the side of the unit you can pull to clean out the burn pot.
It’s nearly impossible to have an auger jam on this stove
As with all Quadrafire™ pellet stoves and also with the CAB50, the feed motor can sense an auger jam and spin backward intermittently to free the obstruction. There aren’t many stoves that can do this and it’s a nifty little feature.
Very large hopper
The Heatilator™ Eco-Choice™ CAB50 can hold 3 bags of pellets just like the King/Ashley 5500m.
It’s stupid proof to a fault
While this stove was designed operate as a “set it and forget it” there are issues that can arise and if the stove does have an issue, there is absolutely no error reporting. There is a decent troubleshooting flowchart in the manual but if you don’t have that handy you have to have a technician’s brain to sort it out.
It’s not very accessible
Heatilator™ Eco-Choice™ pellet stoves were designed to give Harman™ and Quadrafire™ dealers something to sell in their showrooms that was part of the HHT brands. So you have to go to a specialty hearth shop that carries them and unless it’s in stock you’ll have to order it. Most likely you won’t be leaving with the stove, but on the upside, if you want a professional to install it, the stove shop will be happy to accommodate you.
The steel could be better quality
Do you live in a damp environment? If so, this stove is going to rust, inside and out. I’ve seen many of these actually lose sheets of paint from where rust has got underneath it. I suppose you can paint it again, not an issue, but it’s worth mentioning.
PelPro™ PP130 and PPC90 Pellet Stoves
For the PelPro™ Brand of pellet stoves, I’m actually going to include a review on two of their three models. They have a third model which id the PP60, and it’s really the same as the PP130, just smaller, but the PPC90 is my favorite. Normally, as with the other companies, I just review one stove but PelPro is unique, here’s why.
In 2010 a new stove came on the scene and it was called the Pleasant Hearth pellet stove by the GHP Group. It was in all of the stores and all over the internet and a lot of people bought them. In fact, there are tons of outlets still selling them but I’m fairly certain that any stoves under the Pleasant Hearth brand are leftover stock because the GHP Group, at least the Pleasant Hearth pellet stove division was bought by HHT in 2014. If you look at the PelPro PP130 and the Pleasant Hearth PHCAB50PS they look nearly identical and that’s because they are, kind of.
PelPro stoves available since 2014 should not be confused with any PelPro pellet stove made prior to 2014. PelPro stoves prior to 2014 were made by Danson’s in Canada. HHT also bought PelPro from Danson’s around the same time that they bought Pleasant Hearth. Essentially the PelPro PP60 and the PP130 are a stove body of a Heatilator™ Eco-Choice ™, the components of a Quadrafire™ and the controller, motherboard and burn pot from the old Pleasant Hearth pellet stoves from the GHP Group. But, unlike the Eco-Choice™ stoves from Heatilator that are only available through HHT Harman™ and Quadrafire™ dealers…PelPro is sold online and in many box stores.
The PelPro PPC90 is the only cast iron pellet stove competing in the low-budget pellet stove arena. The retail price for the PelPro PP130 is $1100.00 and is often discounted mid-season under $1000.00 and the PelPro PPC90 Cast pellet stove retails for $1699.00 and is often discounted to $1299.00 mid-season.
All of these stoves have largest hoppers in their class
The number in the model number refers to how many pounds of pellets the hoppers will hold. This equals more than 3 bags in the PP130, a bag and a half in the PP60 (which is a lot for a small stove) and the PPC90 has the largest hopper capacity of any cast iron pellet stove made. Impressive.
All of these stoves are fully automatic
The PP60 and PP130 each use a thermistor probe on the back of the stove to monitor the room temperature and turn the stove on and off to keep the area you are trying to heat your desired temperature. The PPC90 uses a slightly different controller that allows for the use of an external thermostat, which is cool if you want to program on and off times or monitor via Wi-Fi.
These stoves are super quiet
Undoubtedly, PelPro pellet stoves are quietest pellet stoves in the low budget category. They are almost even too quiet to a fault because you can actually now hear the pellets fall into the burn pot.
These stoves do not ship very well
This is really my only issue with the PelPro brand and I’m sure HHT will eventually figure it out. HHT uses a lot of inventive recycling products in its shipping material, unfortunately not all of the components on the stove are held down very well and they tend to shift around damaging the paint and other aspects of the stove. When you receive a PelPro pellet stove, open it and check for damage before the delivery truck drives away. You may need to make a claim or send it back.
The PelPro PPC90 Cast Pellet Stove is very wide
This stove isn’t easy to unpack from the pallet and is a difficult move into your home unless you remove the cast iron top, front and sides. It isn’t difficult to do but before you try and unpack it and put it on a hand truck, let me save you the hassle; disassemble it and take it inside once piece at a time, then use a hand truck for the body of the stove.