September 2, 2008

The Cold, Hard Truth About Heating Oil

By Jobetta Hedelman

Like several fashion trends of the 1970s, the wood stove is in vogue again after decades of being passed over for more convenient heating methods.

Stores in Yakima and throughout the nation have seen a spike in wood stove sales. Nationwide, sales were up 58 percent in the first quarter of 2008 compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Hearth Patio & Barbecue Association. That increase will likely widen in the second quarter as many have already started their quest to find the best -- and most inexpensive way -- to heat their home.

At Inland Awning Fireplace & Patio, owner Dave Hall has sold 40 to 50 stoves so far this year, and he predicts that number will jump to 300 by January.

At this point last year, he wasn't even in double digits.

"We haven't seen this kind of interest in wood stoves this early since the 1970s," Hall said.

When consumers perceive that natural gas and oil prices are too expensive, sales tend to increase, said Don Johnson, director of market research for the association in Arlington, Va.

"In this marketplace right now, consumers are looking for ways to heat their home less expensively," he said.

A sister product, the pellet stove, has also been popular. Sales during the first quarter of this year increased 48 percent from the same period a year ago, according to the Hearth Patio & Barbecue Association. Pellet stoves use pellets made of sawdust.

Manufacturers can't produce wood or pellet stoves fast enough, forcing consumers to shop early to secure one for the winter, said Scott Nedry, co-owner of Fosseen's Home & Hearth in Yakima.

"We've seen a trend -- people preparing for winter (now), not waiting until the last minute," he said.

Hall has already heard from one manufacturer that they're out of wood stoves until the end of October, thanks to the surging demand.

High oil prices hit home

About half the converts to wood stoves have been residents who used heating oil, Hall said.

Crude oil prices have continued to decline, but consumers still face heating oil prices in the $3 to $4 a gallon range.

Heating oil is not common here -- out of 90,000 homes with oil heat furnaces statewide, only 20 percent of them are located east of the Cascades. But many residents still have heating furnaces that run well after 30, 40, even 60 years.

Those sticking to oil have restrained from filling up their tanks in hopes that prices will fall to reasonable levels.

"Typically July and August were the best months to fill up," said Galen Roberts, president of Apple Valley Fuel Co. in Yakima. "But for the last three or four years, that has not been the case."

Others, like Moxee resident Jim Breedlove, didn't even bother.

He has used oil heat since moving to his nearly century-old Moxee home more than three decades ago. But after several years of heating oil bills in the $1,000-plus range -- and projections of shelling out up to $2,000 this winter -- he installed a heating pump with a backup electric furnace this summer.

The new system will cost just $800 a year and will also provide central air conditioning.

"We've been thinking about (converting) for several years," he said. "When the price of oil went over $4 a gallon, that was the deciding factor."

The new system was not cheap -- Breedlove spent about $14,000 for it. But he's betting that the oil prices will remain high and the system will pay for itself in a few years.

A look at other resources

Compared with heating oil, other utilities have remained within reach for many consumers.

Cascade Natural Gas users in Washington state are expected to spend an average of $661 for the entire winter, which includes a possible 30 percent rate hike.

For the same time period, the average cost of heating a home with electric sources would be $542, if the state Utilities and Transportation Commission approves a proposed 9 percent rate increase for Portland-based Pacific Power.

Wood stoves provide a competitively priced source of heat as well. Prices range from $150 to $200 per cord, or 128 cubic feet. That equals a total cost range of $450 to $800, depending on the amount of wood used.

"In the long run, it's probably cheaper than oil, gas and all that stuff," said Dick Morton, owner of Morton & Sons Bark Livestock Bedding & Wood Sales.

The purchase of the stove itself can cost up to $4,000. A hearth pad, venting and installation can add a couple hundred dollars to front-end costs, Hall said.

But there's another cost -- extra labor. It requires picking up the wood -- either from a place like Morton's or a drive to the forest. In the winter, it requires getting up and carrying the wood and preparing it for the stove.

"(There are) a lot of people who would rather reach for the thermostat than stack wood," Morton said.

In addition, even a certified wood stove is restricted under Yakima County Stage 2 burn bans, which occur most in cold weather. (Use of wood stoves is still allowed when a certified wood stove is the only source of heat.)

Conversion not a light decision

But don't go out and get a new system just yet, especially if your equipment is still in working condition, said Chuck Murray, senior energy policy specialist for the Energy Policy Division of the state Community, Trade and Economic Development department.

He recommends focusing on making changes around the house, such as adding insulation and weatherization or adjusting personal energy use before buying a new system.

When equipment stops working, that is the time to consider changing heating sources, he says. And when it's time to buy equipment, it's wise to buy the equipment that is the most energy- efficient.

"(Conversion) is a 15- to 20-year decision, not something you do to chase fuel prices," Murray said. "Equipment is expensive. You rarely get your money back making switches when you have good operating equipment."

Mai Hoang can be reached at 577-7685 or [email protected]

Need help?

If your income is low and you expect to have trouble paying your heating bills this winter, you may qualify for a Low Income Home Energy Assistance grant, a program of the state Community Trade and Economic Development department. The state agency is expected to distribute about $1.6 million in grants in Yakima County through local community organizations. For more details on applications and deadlines, call OIC at 509-452-7145 or 509-248-6751, or the Northwest Community Action Center at 509-865-7630.

Heating oil prices over the years

Based on the use of 500-1,000 gallons of oil at historic and projected prices for the month of December (not including taxes).

2003 --$720-$1,410 (at $1.41/per gallon)

2004 -- $985-$1,970 (at $1.97/ per gallon)

2005 -- $1,205-$2,410 (at $2.41/per gallon)

2006 -- $1,220-$2,440 (at $2.44/per gallon)

2007 -- $1,635-$3,270 (at $3.27 per gallon)

2008 --$2,080-$4,160 (at projected price of $4.16/per gallon)

-- Source: Energy Information Administration

As winter looms, heating oil costs are soaring and wood stove sales are skyrocketing

Mai Hoang

Yakima Herald-Republic

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