Pellet Stove Prowess

Scott Williamson, the "Pellet Guy," shares insight based on his extensive knowledge and experience in pellet stove installation, service and repair.
By Anna Simet | March 18, 2018

When it comes to pellet stoves, there isn’t a model in existence that Scott Williamson hasn’t worked on. Over the past 13-plus years, he built his company, Pellet Stove Service, from the ground up, and has made tens of thousands of service calls—reaching 25,000 back in 2013. Self-taught, he’s one of New England’s go-to guys when it comes to stove installation, troubleshooting and repair.

Williamson’s pellet stove sector debut began in 2005, when his mother-in-law was struggling to find a technician to fix her stove. “That’s where I came in—I thought I would give it a try,” he says. After that success, via word-of-mouth at his mother-in-law’s breakfast diner, Williamson began to get calls from others wanting their stoves worked on, too. “Then I moved to Craigslist ads,” he says. “And if I couldn’t fix it, I didn’t charge them. I looked at it as going to school, and really started to learn how to work on them.”

At the same time, Williamson owned a painting business that was slow in the winter—allowing for frequent stove service calls—and it didn’t fare well when the economy crashed a few years later. “That [painting business] fell apart,” he says. “But I couldn’t have planned it any better, I guess.”

The pellet stove servicing business grew quickly, at one point covering six New England states. But despite the success, Williamson decided to go back to a one-man show. “I gave that up,” he says. You can chase things forever, before you figure out that maybe you’re just happier not chasing things. But I created such a client base that when I went back to being smaller, I could really pick and choose where and who I wanted to work with, and what I wanted to charge.”

The middleman guy between appliance and pellet fuel manufacturers, over the past decade and a half, Williamson has witnessed the evolution of the domestic wood pellet sector, on both sides of the equation.

Looking Back
“I remember when the only way you could get a stove was through ads—there wasn’t a showroom to go see them,” Wiliamson says. “You got what you got for a stove, as well as fuel. There weren’t any choices. But then, people forged ahead, and the industry grew.”

Perhaps a little too quickly at one point, he adds. “In 2008, everyone was selling pellet stoves, and the industry grew something like 1,500 percent—some companies were even selling stoves that had been sitting in warehouses since 2001. Suddenly, there was such a demand, that all of these older stoves and technologies—that weren’t supported with parts—came out of the dusty lockers, and got sold to people.”

At the same time, there was a shortage of fuel, he says. “Anyone with a pellet mill was making them quickly, trying to keep up. And in certain cases, anything went into them—trash, moisture. Everyone wanted pellets, and nobody seemed to care what they got, or how they got it. All of this put a bad taste in some consumers’ mouths about what was good, and there was a lot of misinformation.”
With so much growth all at once, even some selling fuel didn’t know how to determine its quality, according to Williamson. “If there were problems, they figured it could be the stove—nobody really knew how it was related to the pellets. Whoever wasn’t in the room, that’s who was to blame.”

While Williamson’s business was thriving, the concept for an industrywide wood pellet standard began gaining traction, he recalls. “I can remember attending some trade shows—they were still trying to write the drafts about what a standard would look like.”

Much more often than not, Williamson says, it was the wrong fuel, or consumers’ actions—or lack thereof—and not the stove. “The stove was usually doing what it was supposed to, shutting down when it was neglected, or not burning properly. Aside from a few who have gone out of business, the manufacturers were doing the right thing. Consumers didn’t know what to expect, and could only buy the fuel that was available, but some of it wasn’t being made in the way that it should be.”

Nowadays, that’s not a common problem, especially with completion and roll-out of the Pellet Fuel Institute’s quality standards. But, there is one issue that Williamson says hasn’t been fixed—the service side of the equation. “In the radius where I live, people are covered,” he says. “But for example, people in New Hampshire, there are only a few guys out there.”

What it boils down to, Williamson says, is a lack of qualified professionals.

Service and Sales
“When somebody buys an appliance, there isn’t a guarantee that there are people nearby who know what they’re talking about,” he says. “They might not have anything other than what the manufacturer gives them in bullet points—they don’t know what applies in practice in theory, and that kind of education is really lost because of the seasonal nature of the business, and the volatile nature of the industry itself, but it's much more stable than it used to be.”

The cycle of people coming into the industry, making money and failing to diversify offerings or doing service real well, negatively affects consumers who purchase stoves from them, once they go out of business. “So then, they’re out of the service loop. Or people they call don’t want to work on their stove because they didn’t sell it to them, and then the cycle repeats itself. It’s the same thing everywhere—in Minnesota, in Massachusetts, and Vermont.”

Consumers who run into that problem might get discouraged from using pellet stoves, Williamson believes. “It adds to the shedding of the industry, when things go in the other direction—it’s good one year, but then it’s an expense after it. They get unqualified people working on it, they think something’s wrong with it, or they buy the wrong fuel.”

But in his experience, Williamson says, the most common call he goes on isn’t to repair a malfunctioning stove or fuel quality—rather, it is simply that it needs to be cleaned, and the consumer isn’t educated on how to properly do it. “Once it’s cleaned, it will run perfect,” he says. “Stoves now are made so much better than some from the 1990s and early 2000s that just weren’t meant to be serviced. That was a huge roadblock for people who spent money on them—even people who knew about them would have trouble.  Eighty percent or better of the calls I go on, is just cleaning, adjusting or educating the end user, and then everything works just fine. I’ll talk to people about things they could do to make their experience better.”

Circling back to pellet quality and the impact on a stove, Williamson reiterates that, the vast majority of the time, pellet quality isn’t the cause of issues. However, it can be in certain situations, such as when fiber is drawn from recycling operations. “One manufacturer no longer in business had a recycling company, and ground up pallets, furniture and construction debris, and made pellets out of it,” he says. “The potassium, chlorine, sodium—types of salts that exist in that wood fiber—it causes the ash to fuse together. It lowers the temperature down to about 800 degrees, and you end up with these lava rocks that obstruct airflow in the burn pot, slowing down the rate of combustion. It becomes a really lousy experience, and you have to clean it out every two hours sometimes.”

If a consumer has another 200 bags of that to go through, that’s a bad situation, he adds. “Anyone selling that type of product for use in a residential machine is doing a real disservice to the industry,” he says. “But when there’s a shortage, that kind of stuff pops up out of the woodwork, and it might be the only pellet available.”

And some stoves, he adds, can burn nearly anything, and aren’t affected. “This is where Harmon comes in as a big name in pellet stoves,” he says. “The way Harmon created his stoves—horizontally, and fuel comes up from underneath the combustion area—when that kind of thing starts to happen in the stove, the new pellets push it out of the way. That is an absolutely brilliant way to solve that problem; it’s almost like a burn pot that cleans itself, and it’s really the only one that does that.”

As far as the life span of a typical pellet stove goes, Williamson says most are replaced between 12 and 15 years, but that doesn’t mean the stoves couldn’t be in use longer. “It’s usually not the stove’s fault—rather, it’s a combination of things, such as selling the house, or upgrading. Very rarely do I find a stove that is so worn out, it needs to be replaced. Maybe two or three in a year, but that’s nothing when compared to how many I see during that time. But, I have seen some stoves that are three years old and have died, and it’s like, ‘How on earth did you do that?’ And it’s likely because they just ran it without cleaning it once, and everything got bent and warped in there. A pellet stove has a lot of things that can be replaced, but things integral to the stove, like the refractory back in the body of the stove, you can’t replace that—the whole thing is done.”

Explaining the Industry
Until pellet stoves are more mainstream, Williamson says he isn’t sure if the service side of the equation can be fixed—the typical chicken-and-egg scenario. “And there is a lot of competition—it used to be that people with oil would go for pellet stoves because oil was expensive, but now it’s cheaper. Propane and electric are still very expensive, but when all of those entry points are gone, it’s going to be up to the pellet industry to find new ones.  When people decide to buy a pellet stove, it’s usually a cost-cutting measure. When the stoves themselves are put in, they are put in as a hedge against something else. When those go away, then what’s going to be the trigger to want to put a pellet stove in, when there are other economical choices? Pellet boilers are a little different, but you need to get to an economy of scale to make those work.”

Another issue, according to Williamson, is that some appliance manufacturers are reluctant to share information with independent service technicians like himself. “I learned it on my own, but if the way people can access this stuff isn’t changed, I’m not sure how it can get better,” he says. “There are many more of them in the market than pellet stoves, but you can buy a Lennox furnace from a myriad of different people and get 15 to 20 technicians to come out and work on it, and on the weekends. It’s just crazy, because there are all kinds of qualified people out there, who, given the opportunity, might be able to spur some sales.”

Author: Anna Simet
Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine