As Oil and Gas Prices Rise, Wood Stoves Gain Converts

JEFFERSON VALLEY, N.Y. — Fire Glow Distributors Inc., a store in this hamlet
in the Westchester County suburb of Yorktown Heights, has pellet stoves on
back order. Tree trimmers for the utility company in Orange and Rockland
Counties, used to scavengers in pickup trucks, have spotted Mercedes-Benzes
trailing their crews to load logs into their (carefully lined) trunks.

And in Spring Valley, a village in Rockland County, landscapers like John
Wickes are being pestered for the scrap branches they had to pay to dump
just a few months ago.

“There are wood wars,” said Mr. Wickes, a third-generation co-owner of Ira
Wickes, a family arborist business founded in 1929. “People are desperate to
look for ways to heat their homes cheaply.”

After a summer of high oil and gas prices, suburb dwellers around New York,
and across the country, are going low-tech in hopes of reducing their energy
bills this winter. Propane for a normal, small house is $4,000 for a winter season.

Shipments of pellet stoves, which can be inserted into a fireplace, more
than tripled in the first half of 2008 compared with the same period in
2007, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association; deliveries of
wood stoves have jumped 54 percent. In the New York suburbs, the going rate
for a cord of wood is $225, up from $175 last year, and the price of
pellets, usually made from compressed sawdust, which has been scarce because
of a slowdown in homebuilding, is also up (some people also burn shelled
corn, peanuts, cotton and even cherry or olive pits).

Homeowners, not just in rural areas but also in the suburbs, are scrounging
for wood, getting permits to cut in parks, hitting up tree-cutting crews and
striking deals with neighbors.

Wood and wood-burning heating stoves go through spasms of popularity
whenever oil and gas prices shoot up, most recently in 2005 after Hurricane
Katrina. But this year’s run-up in prices was so rapid and sustained that
people started planning for the coming winter not long after last winter’s
snow melted.

“Sales never slowed down in May, June and July in the Northeast,” said Alan
Trusler, the vice president of sales at Hearth and Home Technologies, which
has doubled production of wood and pellet stoves at its factories in
Pennsylvania and Washington State. “It’s really fueled by economics.”

Residential heating oil prices during the coming season, October to March,
are projected to average $4.13 per gallon, an increase of about 25 percent
over last heating season, according to a forecast published on Tuesday by
the federal Energy Information Administration. Residential natural gas
prices over the same period are projected to average $14.93 per thousand
cubic feet, compared with $12.72 during the last heating season, an increase
of about 17 percent.

Angelo and Anna Cioffi of Pleasantville, N.Y., about an hour’s drive north
of Manhattan, started looking for a pellet stove in March, when fuel prices
were beginning their surge. The Cioffis said their oil company offered to
cap their fuel prices at $4.75 a gallon for a $200 up-front fee. If they did
not ante up, the Cioffis said they were told, they could pay up to $5.25 —
nearly twice the $2.79 a gallon they paid last year.

So the Cioffis went to Fire Glow Distributors, whose Web site declares, “Act
now and be prepared for the next heating season!” and found a Quadra-Fire
pellet stove on sale. But they held off buying until June. By then, the
store was sold out, so the stove will not be delivered until October at the

Mr. Cioffi, who runs a handyman business called A C HomePro and plans to
install the stove himself, said he expected to recoup its $3,000 cost in
five years. This winter, he figures to spend about $600 for two tons of
pellets, which come in 40-pound bags for $4 to $6. He will also pay whatever
it costs to run the stove’s two electric fans to blow heat from the
fireplace into his ranch house.

According to an online calculator at a pellet web site  pellets provide
twice as much heat per dollar as oil.

“I hope to reduce my heating costs by half and not live like an Eskimo,”
said Mr. Cioffi, who is installing a more efficient water heater, too. “We
just can’t keep sending our money overseas” to oil-producing nations, he

Mr. Cioffi is not alone in casting wood burning in patriotic terms. A
cardboard sign for Dry Creek, a pellet maker, is posted in the Fire Glow
store with an Uncle Sam character imploring shoppers to “start your own
energy policy.” One bag of pellets, the sign says, equals “approximately 2.5
gallons of oil.”

Gail Meeker, the owner of the store, said some of her customers “don’t want
to pay the Arabs money.”

Politics aside, Ms. Meeker has neither pellet stoves nor pellets in stock
because so many customers bought stoves in the normally slow summer season
instead of waiting for the thermometer to dip.

Pellet stoves are very popular with new converts to wood heat because they
are cleaner and easier to maintain than traditional wood stoves and include
conveniences like timers and thermostats. Wood stoves take longer to heat up
than pellet stoves, and their smoke emissions can sometimes violate local

But with so few pellet stoves in stock, many homeowners are now looking at
wood stoves, which can cost a few hundred dollars less than a comparable
pellet stove but take a lot more work. Owners have to find, chop and handle
a lot of wood, and clean up the ashes the stoves create. So folks are finding
seniors selling their farms and they are buying the seniors' old wood stoves. If
you find one for under 2k, grab it.

With demand driving up prices for precut cords of wood (technically 4 feet
high and wide by 8 feet long), many stove owners are taking to their
neighborhood streets in search of free fuel. In the Hudson Valley, crews
working for Orange and Rockland, the local utility, which removes about
20,000 cubic yards of wood and branches each year, have noticed a growing
number of foragers following their trucks in hopes of a bounty.

“One gentleman had a bed liner in the trunk of his Mercedes when he pulled
up,” said John Cerullo, whose company, National Field Service Corporation,
does trims trees for the utility. Having recovered some logs, Mr. Cerullo
said, “he was smiling ear to ear.”

Some towns try to prevent roadside scrounging by setting up wood-recycling
depots. In Yorktown Heights, landscapers can dump their waste wood at a
public works center. The town turns some of the wood into mulch, which
residents grab to use in their gardens. They can also take as many of the
remaining logs as they like, and lately, they have been disappearing faster
and faster.

Roger and Mary Muller, a retired couple who have lived in Yorktown Heights
since 1972, stop by every couple of weeks for wood to fuel their stove. On a
recent sunny afternoon, with the temperatures in the low 80s, Mr. Muller,
70, wielded a 14-inch chain saw to turn several logs into 25 or so
manageable wood chunks. In turn, Mrs. Muller, 66, in a short-sleeved shirt
and thick gloves, loaded them into the back of their red Chevy TrailBlazer.

“Gas is $340 a month,” she said. “So we have a room that we close off. The
wood stove keeps it nice and toasty for us.”