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Keep the home fires burning

| Friday, Sept. 16, 2005

It's unusually hot in Western Pennsylvania this week, but predictions of staggeringly high home heating costs this winter have sent many people shopping for wood-burning and pellet-fueled stoves to keep gas and oil bills down in the coming months.

According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association based in Arlington, Va., national pellet stove sales during the first half of 2005 exceeded their sales during the first half of 2004 by 59 percent.

That trend has held true locally.

Shoppers are responding to news that energy officials expect it will cost 30 percent to 50 percent more to heat their homes this winter with natural gas or home heating oil, retailers report.

"It started in August. We got busy. We've been moving out stoves and getting deliveries every week now," said Barb Metal, owner of The Ultimate Stove Shoppe on Route 8 in Hampton. "The big seller this year is pellet stoves."

These stoves burn pellets made of sawdust and crushed wood chips as opposed to logs of wood.

While both pellet and wood-burning stoves can heat an entire home, even large two-story houses, consumers often inquire about them to supplement their current heating methods by heating one or two rooms, Metal said.

The stoves' costs can range between $2,000 and $3,500 installed, depending on size and unit. Hall tells shoppers the stove should pay for itself in savings within a year or two. The sales pitch is working.

"We can't keep them on the floor," he said.

Dave Burke beat this year's rush. He installed a wood-burning fireplace insert at his three-bedroom ranch home in Apollo last winter and saved on home heating costs, even with the new expense of buying firewood.

"I was able to maintain temperatures in the house without running the furnace (until it reached) about 25 degrees," Burke said. "I just had to get used to leaving doors open to circulate the air."

Walt Sedlock, owner of House to Home Fireplace Shoppe stores in Monroeville and Jeannette, said business hasn't been this good since 1999 when homeowners were afraid a Y2K computer glitch would leave them without gas or electric service.

Though electric space heaters, solar panels and other gadgets also can supplement a traditional furnace, retailers say most shoppers are looking for pellet stoves, wood-burning stoves or fireplace inserts.

"Fuel oil has set that off a bit," said Mike Buckiso, vice president of The Fireplace and Patioplace, which has stores in Mt. Lebanon, Murrysville, Ross and Cranberry. "People are going back to burning wood as a source for heat, whether or not it's their main source of heat."

Homeowners are bracing for record high heating bills this year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which disabled oil refineries along the Gulf Coast and sent gasoline prices above $3 per gallon.

According to the Energy Information Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy, retail heating oil is expected to cost 52 percent more by the end of the year than a year ago, while natural gas is expected to run 36 percent more than it did at the beginning of 2004.

Stove heating costs

Pellet-burning stoves

Pellets are sold in 40-pound bags for about $4. For occasional burning, it is not uncommon to use 40 to 80 pounds of pellets per week. Everyday burning could increase that to a bag a day or more.

Wood-burning stoves

Wood is sold by the cord, a stack 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long that can cost between $100 and $150. For occasional burning, one cord of wood could last through the winter. For regular burning and whole-house heating, industry experts said that two or three cords should suffice.

Source:The Fireplace and Patioplace

Safe wood-burning practices

  • Start fires only with clean newspaper and dry kindling. Never start a fire with gasoline, kerosene, charcoal starter, or a propane torch.

  • Do not use logs made from wax and sawdust in your wood stove or fireplace insert -- they are made for open hearth fireplaces. If you use manufactured logs, choose those made from 100 percent compressed sawdust.

  • Build small, hot fires. A smoldering fire is not a safe or efficient fire.

  • Keep the doors of your wood stove closed unless loading or stoking the live fire.

  • Regularly remove ashes from your wood stove into a metal container with a cover.

  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy.

    Source: www.epa.gov

    Additional Information:

    On the Web

    For more information on wood-burning stoves, check out the U.S. Department of Energy's fact sheet at www.eere.energy.gov/consumerinfo/factsheets/nb4.html and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at www.epa.gov/woodstoves/index.html

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