Alternative energy

Pellet stoves and solar water heaters could take decades to pay off

Last reviewed: October 2009
Senior program leader Emilio Gonzalez checks surface temperatures on the top-scoring Harman P68
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Senior program leader Emilio Gonzalez checks surface temperatures on the top-scoring Harman P68, which costs $3,900.
Photograph by Michael Smith

Higher energy bills, lofty promises, and tantalizing tax breaks are fueling rising interest in replacing conventional energy with heat you produce yourself.

Pellet stoves are a prominent example. Wood stoves still outsell them by far, but sales of pellet stoves surged nearly 180 percent last year. Instead of logs, pellet stoves use short, thin rods of compressed sawdust or other renewable resources that burn more cleanly and are easier to load.

We tested six models that are claimed to heat roughly 1,500 to 2,200 square feet and found that a pellet stove could help you save if your current fuel is pricey. All that we tested qualify for a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the purchase and installation costs for a principal residence, up to $1,500, if installed in 2009 or 2010.

Solar water heaters with the recently enacted Energy Star qualification are designed to slash at least 50 percent off your water-heating bills. We installed four systems on the roof of our Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters. All of them qualify for a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the installed cost with no limit. State and utility incentives could add to those savings.

That's the good news. But we found you could easily pay $4,000 to $8,000 to buy and install a pellet stove or solar heater and wait years to recoup the costs. Those systems also need more maintenance, and one of the pellet stoves we tested has a glitch that could leave you shivering this winter.