Fri, Feb

Wood Making Comeback as Heating Fuel

With home heating bills expected to skyrocket this winter, many consumers are warming up to the idea of using alternate fuels, such as firewood, to help heat their homes.

PEORIA, Ill. — With home heating bills expected to skyrocket this winter, many consumers are warming up to the idea of using alternate fuels, such as firewood, to help heat their homes.

"The demand is very high for wood stoves; the retailers are so busy there is a back order to get them installed," said Leslie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. In fact, said the HPBA, about 31 percent of stove owners view their stove as a major source of heat while 56 percent consider it a secondary source.

The Energy Department predicts winter heating bills will rise by 50 to 70 percent this winter over last for families across the country -- an average of $350 more for natural gas users and $378 more for fuel oil users.

As a result, sales of wood, corn, wood pellet stoves and fireplace inserts are booming, with many central Illinois stove shops experiencing 30 to 40 percent increases in sales of the units this year. "It's taking off like crazy," said Tracy Sutherland, owner of Hearth & Patio in Peoria. "We've been so busy; the phone rings constantly."

By far the most popular are corn stoves, which burn corn kernels instead of wood, Sutherland said. "We got 20 in and they sold right away. They're easy to use, clean burning and they help out our local farmers." There's a back order of a few months for the corn stoves, she said. Wood pellet stoves, which use small wood pellets sold in 40-pound bags for a few dollars each, and traditional wood stoves also are selling at a steady pace, Sutherland said.

At both The Stove Shop in Pekin and Country Hearth & Home in Peoria, sales of the units have increased 30 to 40 percent this year.

"There's been a large run on the product throughout the industry; a lot of people can't keep the product in stock," said Duke Horton, owner of Country Hearth & Home.

Stove prices range from about $1,000 to several thousand dollars, depending on size and model. While the initial cost of the stove is high, the savings come in the long run, said Wheeler of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.

Dan Goble, 53, of Dunlap has been burning wood to help heat his home for more than a decade. Goble used to sell firewood as a hobby since 1978, at one time selling up to 150 loads a year. Though he is no longer in that business, he still uses wood to supplement LP gas to heat his 2,600-square-foot Dunlap home.

He says he saves about $1,000 a year on his home heating bills by using a wood burning fireplace insert, which is a wood stove that slips into the opening of a traditional fireplace.

"It's a pretty good savings," Goble said. "There's nothing like wood heat." Some consumers are so worried about rising heating bills they're investing more than $4,000 in stainless steel outdoor wood-burning furnaces that can heat a whole house and only need to be stocked twice a day, said Brian Bauernfeind, owner of The Stove Shop in Pekin, which has sold out of the units this year earlier than normal.

"That's the most glaring thing that sticks out for our business as to the energy crisis," Bauernfeind said. "It's a sizeable investment, and it's an indication of how people are changing their habits. It's the No. 1 indication that things are different this year." Wood sales surge Those who sell firewood in the area say they've either run out or are close to running out of seasoned wood.

City Coal & Asphalt Inc. in Pekin, also owned by Bauernfeind, has seen its supply of seasoned firewood depleted this year. What's left is firewood that only has been seasoned a couple of months, he said. It usually sellswood that has been seasoned for at least nine months or longer.

The wood is OK to burn in the wood stove, but it could be difficult to burn in a fireplace, he added. "We're telling them that this isn't the kind of wood we normally have, but they're still buying it," he said, adding some consumers are buying the wood now and storing it to use next year, when it's seasoned longer.

This year, City Coal started with a smaller quantity of seasoned wood because it didn't get as much wood from suppliers, Bauernfeind said. "Normally we sell 1,000 face cords a year. This year we'll sell close to that, but we would've sold a lot more if we had more," he said. "But we will end up selling everything we have." Firewood rates vary from retailer to retailer. City Coal charges just under 4 cents a pound for firewood, or $57 for a face cord, which is about 1,500 pounds.

Some consumers are still heating their homes with coal, although the number of residential coal users dwindle yearly, Bauernfeind said. City Coal has only a handful of coal customers left, with the average customer being elderly and having relied on coal for heating for much of their lives, he said.

"That's they way they were raised and how the family heated the family farm," Bauernfeind said.

Another alternative is geothermal heat. Natural energy found underground is used to heat a water solution that runs through underground pipes. That solution is then carried to a geothermal unit, which basically converts it to warm air.

Ron Hinrichsen, a salesman at Hinrichsen Heating & Air Conditioning, said he's seen an increase in interest in geothermal systems. The business has sold between 125 and 150 units this year, more than last year.

Although installing a geothermal unit costs about twice as much as a regular system, Hinrichsen said it cuts electric bills by 60 percent or more. "If everybody had one of these things today, there would be no energy shortage today," he said.

As more consumers jump on the wood-burning bandwagon, some environmental activists are concerned about the overall impact wood burning has on the environment in terms of resources and pollution.

"We understand the peoples' concerns for lowering heating costs, and we hope their sources for wood are sustainable and conscientious," said Joyce Blumenshine, a member of the Heart of Illinois Sierra Club. "We also challenge the public if they are using wood, are they using it in the most efficient manner possible."

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends consumers use an EPA-certified wood stove and to replace older models, as EPA-certified stoves are about 70 percent cleaner on average in terms of producing pollution. Most wood stoves made in the United States after 1992 are certified, the EPA said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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