Consistency is Priority No. 1
In the three brief years that our Maine Pellet Fuels Association has been in existence, I have been working with Maine’s legislators to promote support for our industry. One issue that always comes to the forefront is the lack of consistent pellet quality.
My job is to keep Maine from being the first state to regulate pellet fuels. I am best able to do so by understanding where legislators are coming from when they introduce bills with titles such as an Act to Standardize the Labeling of Wood Pellet Fuel or an Act to Regulate the Advertising of Wood Pellets.
In these and similar incidents, legislators are acting based on a complaint from a constituent (Maine’s many legislative districts are sparsely populated and a single complaint can trigger the filing of a bill). In every instance, the legislator involved is not really familiar with the Pellet Fuels Institute standards.
Most important, in every instance, the real issue is that different brands of pellets burn differently.
Maine has four pellet manufacturers, plus there are plants nearby in Canada and New Hampshire. Many, many different brands of pellets are offered for sale at big box stores and other retail outlets, some from as far away as British Columbia, Canada. Some consumers are well aware that these pellets will vary greatly in color, length, burning characteristics, amount of ash generated and other characteristics, and will still all meet the PFI “premium” designation with which most of the bags are labeled.
Maine is by far the most oil-dependent state in the country when it comes to home heating. Almost 80 percent of Maine homes are heated with oil, and these folks think that pellets should, like oil, be pretty much the same from one company to another. When this turns out to not be the case, some consumers in their first winter of pellet heat think that they are getting ripped off when one brand in their particular stove is less satisfactory than another. Hence the phone calls to legislators demanding standardization.
To date, legislators have been willing to give our new industry the benefit of the doubt, and have gone back to disgruntled constituents with explanations about the new PFI standards and the need to give things time to work. This tolerance may not last forever. While most consumers will find a brand that performs well in their pellet stove (boiler system pellet heating is not at issue here) and realize that the more expensive brands may burn a little better, with less ash and slag, some will find fault with the voluntary nature of the PFI labeling and demand greater assurances. At the same time, as the number of consumers increase, many of them are purchasing inferior stoves so the number of unjustified complaints based on faulty storage or other factors unrelated to pellet manufacturing will also increase.
A basic mission of trade associations—and I have managed a number of them—is to interpret an industry to legislators, the media and the general public. We will do well to explain that wood pellets are not a bulk commodity but like fine wines, or at least good ales, each brand has its own characteristics. We will also need to provide consumers with more meaningful information on the pellet bag than the little numbers below the PFI label.
Author: Bill Bell
Maine Pellet Fuels Association