Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Local homeowners are discovering this winter’s hottest commodity: the wood stove. In fact, there just aren’t enough of them to go around. At a retailer in Springfield, the backlog is three to six months. A store in Falls Church warns of a wait of at least two months. A wood-pellet supplier in West Virginia has put its customers on rations.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Tony White, manager of Acme Stove in Springfield. The store, which usually sells about two truckloads of stoves per winter, is already on its fifth truckload. “This is the first time in this industry that this has ever happened.”

Shipments of wood-pellet stoves have increased by 59 percent this year, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade association of wood stove manufacturers and retailers.

The industry credits the surge in business to soaring energy prices. American households will spend an average of 48 percent, or $350, more on fuel this winter, the Energy Information Administration predicted in an Oct. 12 report. In the Washington area, natural gas prices are expected to rise as much as 51 percent.

“People are really looking at these appliances for secondary sources of heat,” association spokeswoman Leslie Wheeler said. “So maybe you knock your furnace back to 68 degrees and put your wood stove on to keep you warm and toasty and you save some money.”

In addition to traditional, free-standing wood stoves, manufacturers are selling wood-pellet stoves, which burn small clumps of compressed sawdust and do not require users to feed or stoke the fire. Also popular are fireplace inserts, designed to eliminate the inefficiency of fireplaces, which can draw much of the heat up the chimney.

At Woodburners Two, a Falls Church retailer of stoves and fireplaces, co-owner Margaret Laurenson said wood stove sales have increased by at least 50 percent this season.

“This time last year, every other word out of everyone’s mouth was gas, gas, gas,” Ms. Laurenson said. “After Katrina, everybody got word that gas prices were going up. We had an immediate jump in wood stoves and inserts.”

Free-standing wood stoves, which require a special chimney, run from about $700 to $2,600, with labor and installation costs of up to $2,000, said Ms. Laurenson, who described the purchase as a long-term investment. Wood stove inserts that use an existing chimney but require the installation of a steel liner sell for $3,500 to $4,000, including labor. The prices for a pellet stove and installation range from $3,800 to $4,700.

Most households with a wood-burning stove consume one or two cords of wood in a season, Mr. White said. Prices vary, but locally a cord of seasoned firewood costs from $200 to $250. A 40-pound bag of wood pellets can cost about $5 and lasts up to 24 hours.

“When you get all the paraphernalia you need for wood, it’s not going to save that much,” said Ms. Laurenson, who added that she isn’t sure whether all purchasers of wood stoves know what they are getting into. “You’re not going to recoup your losses in a year.”

Mr. White said consumers who buy wood-based appliances will save in the long run.

“It will take about two or three years to get your money’s worth,” he said, adding that it took five or seven years to break even at last winter’s energy prices. “We had one customer tell us that they were paying $1,300 to fill up their oil tank two or three times a winter. That’s $3,900 to heat their home — that’s what the wood stove costs.”

Although most wood stove are used as secondary sources of heat, they are capable of heating an entire home, Mr. White said. The smallest wood stove can heat an area from 600 to 1,200 square feet, he estimated.

“It’s a 25- to 30-year investment,” added Mr. White, who warned that the increase in demand will soon cause the prices of stoves to rise. “Prices are going to go up — wood stoves and pellet stoves will be more expensive. I just don’t know when.”

Like retailers, pellet manufacturers have been feeling the pinch. In addition to producing the pellets, shipping has become a problem as freight trucks continue to be used for hurricane relief efforts on the Gulf Coast.

“We have had to put our regular customers on allocation because of the strong demand,” said Lorie Hamer, president of Hamer Pellet Fuel Co., located in Kenova, W.Va. “[Pellet fuel] was the best-kept secret, and we’re so glad it’s not a secret anymore.”

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