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

of pellets.

"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

costs.

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

older customers.

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

modulate.

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

customers.

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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