To save money this winter, some switch to firewood

TENNESSEE - Mark England decided last year to switch solely to firewood instead of using propane gas to heat his Claiborne County home. He apparently was part of a trend.

It cost about $350 for the wood England used to warm his three-bedroom, two-bath house in Tazewell. And with energy prices even higher this year, it is something he certainly will continue. Others are looking into the old-world energy source as well.

"We had a gas fireplace, but when prices started to skyrocket - I wouldn't say we were forced to - but with the economy at the time, firewood was more reasonable," England said. "I would say it saved me $600. And with gas prices skyrocketing now, I'll be saving quite a bit more."

England was certainly ahead of the game. Soaring energy costs and threatened scarcity of some fuels like home heating oil this year have led more homeowners to seek alternative sources for heat, and as a result, both seasoned firewood and some supplies of wood-burning stoves are expected to be in short supply.

The demand for wood-and-pellet burning stoves has caused local sales to increase this year, and already firewood sales have taken off about a month early.

"We usually start our winter season around October, and this year it's already started," said Ben Hatcher, owner of Ben's Firewood in Knoxville. "People are so worried that things are going to get worse, so they're lining up before it gets too bad."

The push for alternative home heat has largely been driven by the Northeast, where the price of heating oil, still the primary method for home heating, has soared. The average household is projected to spend more than $2,500 this winter, according to the Energy Information Administration, a 30 percent increase from last year. And even with crude oil prices - which factor largely into the price of heating oil - falling to a six-month low recently, the price of heating oil was still just under $3 a gallon, its lowest price since early March. Prices once were projected to hit as high as $4 a gallon.

The oil market still is volatile. The price for a barrel of oil spiked $6 recently, which will push sales of wood-burning stoves and other types of heating sources locally, according to Knox Stove Works President Joe Anderson.

The Knoxville wood- and coal-burning cook stove company already is backlogged on its most popular item, the Torridaire coal heater, a stove that requires no electricity. Stove sales are typically higher after natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, and when economic times are a little rough.

"Our sales to the Northeast this year are as high as they've ever been," Anderson said. "Sales in our typically strong areas, the Mid-Atlantic states and the Appalachian area, are down due to the economy. When the economy is doing well, people tend not to buy wood stoves out of need, but when gas prices go up and where there's a recession, then people start to revisit areas where they can save money."

Sales also are up for many firewood dealers - business is up 40 percent at Bemis Firewood, the New Tazewell company that sells and delivers firewood in a nine-county area in East Tennessee - and the true firewood season hasn't even begun.

"Last year, I think was the beginning," said owner Nathan Bemis. "The people that first jumped on the bandwagon said, 'Hey, prices are getting high; I think it's time to buy firewood.' This year, you're seeing people that were a little more reluctant to go back to it or who had never done it before," he said.

While most new customers are purchasing firewood as a supplemental way to heat their homes, Bemis said the cost to heat an average home throughout the winter using solely firewood - like England, one of his 1,500 customers - would range from $350 and $450. He has been using wood heat for about eight years, and said the savings for his family have been tremendous.

"Before, we were spending $300 a month on electricity. And that's before the fuel prices went up," he said. "Now we're spending like $30."

Bemis buys tree-length timber from loggers, sawmills and other suppliers like tree-trimming companies and then processes it into either kiln wood, seasoned wood or green wood.

But the seasoned wood, or wood that has been dried naturally for about eight or nine months, is quickly becoming in short supply, since it has to be cut around March in order to be ready for winter months.

Kiln wood, or wood that is accelerated through the drying process by sitting four or five days in a 190-degree oven, also is limited based on how much that kiln can produce.

But wood always will be available, Bemis said, even if it's green wood that has been cut more recently.

"A full cord of seasoned wood will replace about 300 gallons of diesel fuel for heating a home," Bemis said. "Green wood would only replace about 225 gallons. The difference is water content - the more water that's in the wood, the more water you have to burn off before you get any heat. But even burning green wood is still cheaper than any other energy source."

Hatcher said he doesn't doubt that some wood shortages will occur. The increase in demand and the fact that fuel costs have spiked this year will likely force Ben's Firewood to charge about $20 more per cord, which is the official measurement for the most popular quantity of firewood, costs that Bemis is trying hard to absorb. The cost of wood did increase there last year.

"With the way the economy is, the way our books are and the way our profits have dropped, we could justify going up. But this is a fuel source that people are going to rely on. Quite frankly, they can't afford it," Bemis said.

There certainly is a lot to consider when deciding to switch to alternative heating, such as buying a wood- or coal-burning stove, but many of them do burn more efficiently and cleanly than they did in the 1980s. While there will be more cost up front for a stove, Anderson said most mid- to lower-level priced stoves should pay for themselves in about two or two and a half years.

As for firewood, Bemis recommended buyers check references of dealers and be sure to have their chimneys swept at least once a year.

"If you've got any amount of land or access to land, and a chain saw, you have basically an inexpensive fuel. A lot less expensive than fuel or gas or electricity," Anderson said.

"We're very fortunate here to live in the South, because in my dealings and travels to the Northeast, it's just a much more terrified area as far as people's attitudes toward the winter. Many people do not know how they're going to pay for all the fuel they're going to use."


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