Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the January
18, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Alternative Heating: Beyond the Fireplace
Who doesn’t love a fireplace? It speaks of comfort, family, and
romance. Even piles of chunky logs next to a front door are the
essence of the sense of home. We relax when we see them, the way we do
when we smell a pot roast or see balls of knitting yarn. The day is
over, the night is closing in, but inside it is cozy and safe.
This reverie, harmless enough in decades past, is falling to the hard
reality of rising energy prices and pollution levels. Fireplaces, it
turns out, may signal warmth to our psyches, but they scream "heat
drain!" to our furnaces. The U.S. Department of Energy has declared
that open fireplaces are "designed more for show" and "should not be
considered heating devices." On its website (www.eere.energy.gov), it
informs us that "traditional fireplaces draw in as much as 300 cubic
feet per minute of heated room air for combustion, then send it
straight up the chimney." Fireplaces also throw so many unwholesome
particles into the air that some municipalities restrict or ban
fireplace installation in new construction, and many more will not
allow their operation when air pollution levels are high.
Still, rising heating costs have homeowners casting around for
alternatives to gas, oil, and electricity, and cousins of the
fireplace can be the answer. Wood stoves, if fitted with catalytic
converters and operated at full throttle, can have efficiencies of 70
to 80 percent.
Pellet stoves, which burn rabbit-food sized wood rather than logs, are
even more efficient – up to 85 percent – are easier to install and
keep filled, and produce very little pollution. After listening to
news reports of out-of-control gas and oil prices, and researching all
of the options, many homeowners are trading their woodpiles for stocks
"There’s been a big surge in the demand for alternative fuel," says
Cos Cosentino, owner of Seasons Hearth and Patio
(www.seasonshearthandpatio.com) in Ivyland, Pennsylvania. After
selling all manner of heating stoves for some 40 years, Cosentino is
finding "significantly greater demand" for the pellet stoves that burn
wood, corn, and wheat pellets. He reports six to ten-week waits for
stoves and spot shortages of the pellets that fuel them.
He does have both in stock. "If you walk in today, you can get a
stove," he says. That’s if you are not too particular. But anyone
seeking a stove with all the bells and whistles will have to put in an
order. "The wait was as long as three months for some stoves," he
says, "but we’ve got it down to seven weeks now."
Shortages are not just affecting his business, which puts stoves in
homes all throughout central New Jersey, but are prevalent for dealers
around the country.
"I have a sub-head for your article," he says. "`Have you placed your
order yet?’" The stoves are made by small manufacturers, he explains.
They can’t just multiply production to meet demand, and demand, in his
estimation, is going to increase year over year. "Wait until the
Chinese start driving cars," he cautions, echoing many economists, who
also see an acceleration in demand for fossil fuels and a concommitant
rise in prices.
A committed friend of the earth, Cosentino talks about the toll that
fossil fuels are taking on the environment, and points out that pellet
stoves burn clean, creating very little smoke, and depleting no
natural resources. Wood pellets are made of compressed sawdust, often
the by-product of wood manufacturing processes such as furniture
making. Corn, unlike oil, is an easily renewable resource.
While environmental concerns undoubtedly push some homeowners to
switch to pellet stoves, the toll that generally gets their attention
is that hit to the wallet occasioned by helium-like rises in heating
Prices for pellets have gone up significantly this year, but are still
far lower in cost than traditional fuels. "There’s a price ladder,"
says Cosentino. "Right now it’s coal, pellets, corn, split wood,
natural gas, oil, propane, and electric. The rungs change a little
bit. Gas may go in front of oil, but coal is locked at the bottom and
electric at the top."
Pellets are often sold in 40-pound bags. The price for a bag ranges
between $4 and $7. Premium wood pellets produce less ash, which means
fewer stove clean-outs, and cost more than standard wood pellets.
Delivery, offered by many stove dealers, pushes the price toward the
high end. Buying in bulk, a ton at a time, reduces the price. The cost
of enough pellets to fuel a stove for a winter is about $645,
according to Melissa Brobst, who sells stoves for SOS Stove and
Fireplace Shop (www.sosstoves.com), a Port Murray-based dealer, which
services central New Jersey.
Brobst, too, reports that demand "is up tremendously" this year.
"People are looking for alternative heat sources," she says, "and
pellet stoves are by far the easiest." No splitting, stacking, or
hauling of wood is required. She finds that this is appealing to some
Installion also can be easier. Unlike wood stoves, which burn hot, and
therefore need to be installed several feet from a wall, pellet stoves
are "cool boxes" and need only an inch of wall clearance. They do not
need to go up through a roof, but rather can be vented through a wall,
much the way that clothes dryers are. There is no need to run a
chimney pipe up the outside of a house. They can also be placed into
an existing fireplace.
Stoves cost between $2,199 and $3,440, says Brobst. The pipe for
venting through a wall adds about $200, and the chimney liner needed
if the stove is to be installed in a fireplace costs about twice that
amount. Installation adds about $495 more. The stoves that Brobst
sells can heat up to 2,200 square-feet of space. Cosentino says pellet
stoves that heat even greater spaces, and do so by central heating in
much the way that gas and oil furnaces now do, will soon be available.
High-end pellet stoves come with thermostats, giving them another
advantage over wood stoves, whose heat is nearly impossible to
Negatives include the fact that pellet stoves include fans that
require electricity. So if the power is out during a blizzard, the
stove will not work. However, battery back-up packs are available.
They use just two or three amps, says Cosentino, and they keep the
stove going for six days. It is even possible to rig the batteries so
that they come on automatically in a power outage.
Hauling all of those pellets could become a nuisance, but delivery is
available, and a ton of pellets takes up relatively little room –
about half the space of a cord of wood. If the pellets are made of
corn, though, watch out, warns Cosentino, who says that rodents can be
drawn to the fuel as a food source. Shortages could also plague
homeowners who depend on the stoves. This winter a number of
dealerships have closed down pellet sales to all but their own
Cosentino envisions a day – not all that far away – when new
businesses will grow around pellet delivery. He sees the pellets being
fed pneumatically into in-home storage boxes. It’s a low-tech
business, but it may be a niche that will rival Internet start-ups in
appeal if fossil fuel costs continue to erode homeowners’ budgets in
much the way that mice can deplete unsecured stores of corn pellets.
– Kathleen McGinn Spring
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