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News // Oil and gas worldwide

Wood Wars

15 September 2008 , 13:12Jo Amey1622
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.

“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.”

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 earliest.

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 the Web site for the Pellet Fuels Institute, 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.

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.”

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

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