Wood stoves popular as heating costs rise

Alternatives sought as temperatures start to fall


Predictions about record-breaking heating costs this winter have sent customers running to retail stores with requests for wood stoves and inserts.

"It's almost like panic mode," said Rona Kelley, co-owner of Tri-County Hearth and Patio Center in Waldorf.

Some customers at Kelley's store have insisted on buying wood stoves despite her advice that the size of their fireplaces made them ill-equipped to handle the additions. She suggested gas logs, but the customers said no, they wanted wood.

This latest trend reverses that of recent years, when customers sought gas heat for its ease and efficiency. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, last year 498,124 fireplaces, wood stoves, and inserts were sold, a 1 percent drop from the previous year. In contrast, 2,094,341 gas appliances were sold last year, a 16 percent increase from 2003.

At Acme Stove Co. in Rockville, business "is hopping," said co-owner Mike Taylor, "or should I say hot?"

Wood stove prices at Acme range from $700 to $8,000 for a German-made stove, oven and storage model. The average customer spends about $4,500 on a stove, including installation, Taylor said.

The re-emergence of wood burning is not just about staying warm, Taylor said.

"I think it's a matter of security," Taylor said, pointing to the frequency of power outages in the area and increased fuel prices.

In its most recent winter outlook, the Energy Information Administration said on average, households that use natural gas could face a 41 percent spike in winter heating bills. Those using heating oil and propane likely would see their bills increase by 27 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Weather will play a significant role in whether those numbers are higher or lower.

Manufacturers are having difficulty meeting demand. On average, there is a six- to eight-week wait for last month's orders to be filled, Taylor said.

In Waldorf, Kelley's sold appliances are tagged in her warehouse. She said the staff double checks what is unmarked before telling customers which products are available.

Kelley is frustrated and so are customers.

"We're sold out. I have so few products left to sell, and I have no product coming until December," she said. The installation crew is also booked for four weeks in advance.

Usually November and December are Kelley's busiest months, but this winter, she said, she began seeing customers Labor Day weekend. She said sales in September and last month exceeded previous years' sales.

The same is true at Acme. Although Taylor wouldn't compare his profits with previous years, he said, "I expect it to get a lot busier before it slows down."

Customers planning to change heating appliances or methods should consider their home's square footage, which areas need to be heated and what their expectations are, Taylor said.

On average, smaller stoves heat up to 1,200 square feet, medium-size stoves heat up to 1,800 and larger stoves 2,500, he said. Larger stoves use more wood, although the number of cords a household consumes depends largely on how often they use the stove. A cord of wood costs, on average, $150.

Most customers shopping for stoves at her Waldorf shop previously considered buying them, Kelley said, but they didn't until potentially high fuel bills "pushed them over."

The Fireplace Shop in Gaithersburg specializes primarily in glass doors, fireplace accessories and mantles but wood stoves have become popular as well.

Some of the shop's customers are using gas and wood to heat their homes to reduce high fuel costs, said Dan Cavanaugh, store co-owner.

Wood is attractive because it is reliable and renewable, he said.

"Wood will always be king, no matter what you do."

Dorcas Taylor writes for the Capital News Service.

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