Before we move on to food grade wood pellets, we need to understand what the wood pellet industry looks like. We also need to know how the pellets are made and how their quality is measured. Using wood pellets is nothing new, but using them for wood pellet BBQ’s and smokers is a newer trend. Wood pellets have been a source of clean, available and cheap energy for many years. Wood pellet stoves and furnaces have been heating homes in colder parts of North America for years. Some of the stoves are designed to burn corn as well which produces less BTU’s per ton and less heat.
In addition to recycled wood, wood pellets can also be sourced directly from whole trees that have been harvested, dehydrated or dried, then chipped and pressed through dies to produce the pellets. Pellets burn more efficiently than the raw wood. It is also easier to handle, and typically comes in 40 lb bags. Pellets can be made of any hardwood and softwood. The only real restriction is organic ash content. For some wood pellet background, I have chosen to talk about the grading and production of wood pellets along with my rant about food grade pellets.
Wood Pellet Fuel Industry Grades
The wood pellet fuel industry generally offers two grades of wood pellets. Not including biomass derived pellets, the wood pellet industry offers a premium and standard grade. Premium pellets hold the top spot being the highest standard of pellets as well as the most expensive. Typically these pellets are produced from the recycled sawdust from timber milling production. Premium wood pellets have a very low organic ash content, below 0.5%. Premium wood pellets can only contain certain materials. Usually containing hardwoods like maple and oak, the wood used in the pellets must not contain any bark. Using bark will increase the organic ash percentage of the pellets. Raising the ash content above the .5% mark exceeds the premium grade pellet threshold. Standard grade pellets are pellets with higher ash content, typically made from forestry waste. More bark, branches etc… Will still burn, but not as much heat and as clean as a premium pellet.
Measuring Wood Pellet Quality
Measuring the quality of a wood pellet is done by assessing the pellets moisture content and inorganic ash content. The pellets are also tested for it’s heat output or BTU rating. Good quality wood pellets have an inorganic ash content of less than %1. The higher the ash content, in some cases, the more impurities are found in the wood, bark, branches etc.. Also the type of wood being used can affect the ash content. As an example, maple hardwood has a higher ash content than oak wood. Oak has very little ash. A good wood pellet should have less than %8 moisture. Good or premium quality pellets can be around %5 moisture. The more moisture, the less heat. The more ash, the more maintenance your pellet BBQ or heating stove will require. The less ash and moisture, the more heat and higher BTU rating. The higher the BTU rating, the more efficient your BBQ or pellet stove will be. It’s really that simple, from the pellet side of things. While the above is possibly an over simplification of things, these at a high level are the facts. Wood pellets for heating purposes typically has the following metrics measured and published as it is important to the consumer who burns a lot of wood pellets. Again, I emphasis the fact that companies that manufacture wood pellets for heating and not BBQ and cooking purposes, measure and publish the metrics described below. They also in some cases publish the types of hardwood or softwood used, as well as where it’s sourced. They also will say whether the are whole tree’s or recycled wood.
These answers are quite telling. When you go out to buy your wood pellets, you want to be safe, use a good product and enjoy the quality of food you produce. Because you are spending $40 for a bag of pellets does not mean you are getting a better product or safer product than a well researched $8 bag of the same wood. I might get criticized for saying this, but the reality is that it’s true. If you want to save money and use wood heating pellets, call the plant where it is manufactured first. Ask the big questions, they don’t mind. Ask them all the questions above, you’d be surprised at the answers. I’ve told them I want to use their product in my smokers and BBQ’s. They would typically say that there is no reason you can’t. They sometimes throw in the caveat, “But I don’t know what kind of hardwood we use, could be maple or cherry”. Wow, how bad can that be. The worst I’ve ever heard is that a company blends and produces soft and hardwood pellet.
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