October 18, 2005

Wood stoves back in vogue ahead of costly winter

By Ben Berkowitz

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The traditional wood-burning stove,
which had been relegated to the corners of antique shops and
rustic cabins, has suddenly become a hot item as oil and
natural gas get more and more expensive.

Some consumers who do not relish the prospect of spending
$1,500 or more on fuel to heat their homes this winter are
turning back to the old standby pot-bellied stove -- or its
more modern equivalent, the wood pellet stove -- as a way to
stay warm for as little as a tenth the price.

Factories are scrambling to meet the unexpected spike in
demand after energy prices started rising in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina, according to Leslie Wheeler, spokeswoman for
the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.

"Everyone is seeing a tremendous increase in wood stove
purchases and in pellet stoves," said Wheeler, whose
organization represents both dealers and manufacturers.

In contrast to gas or oil, a cord of firewood that lasts
for six months might sell for something like $120. A
free-standing, wood-burning stove capable of heating a 2,000
square-foot home sells in the neighborhood of $2,000 on Web
sites like StovesDepot (http://www.stovesdepot.com) or
StovesDirect.com (http://www.stovesdirect.com).

Pellet stoves, which use electricity to steadily burn
pellets made of compressed sawdust, are also drawing attention
for their relative ease of use and long burning times -- more
than two days without a refill, in some cases.

"They're normally kind of an in-stock item, but we're
having a hard time keeping them in stock," said Jen King, a
spokeswoman for the Home Depot chain. Particularly in the
Northeast region, she said, units are selling virtually as soon
as they arrive.

Lowe's Cos. Inc. said it was also seeing a clear demand for
alternative heating methods.


For years, wood stoves were more of a symbol of home and
hearth than a practical heating solution, thanks to cheap oil
and easy-to-operate furnaces that burn it. The last time
consumers turned to wood was the 1970s, when an oil supply
crisis drove up energy costs.

Sound familiar? The recent rise in demand for wood stoves
also has its roots in oil and gas prices, which have hit new
records. The government has forecast that in some places,
residential heating bills will rise more than 60 percent this

That would be on top of big last year's big increases,
which new stove owners remember well.

Betty Liu, who lives about 25 miles northeast of New York
City in Greenburgh, New York, said she spent almost $500 a
month on gas and electricity even though she tries to keep
those bills to a minimum.

Liu recently installed a stove in her rural home because
she prefers the kind of heat that a burning log generates, but
she is also looking forward to the unintended benefit of lower
fuel costs.

"I'm sure whatever it is, it's going to be cheaper than
whatever I'd pay for gas," she said. "It does a lot more
efficient job."

A wood stove does have its drawbacks, though. Clean-up can
be a chore, people say, since the chimney has to be kept
immaculate to avoid fire from residue buildup. And of course,
there's the physical exertion for those who chop their own wood
rather than buy it somewhere.

Nor are wood stoves for every living area. They require
plenty of open space and ventilation, ruling them out for
apartments and other small rooms. They can also get extremely
hot -- uncomfortably so in some cases, so that owners must
actually open a window to even out the room.

But as the weather turns chilly and people get ready to
turn up the heat for the first time, stove owners say they are
looking past the details and anticipating the crackle of a warm
fire -- and having a conversation piece for the living room.

"It'll be wonderful," Liu said, "and it'll look good and
it'll feel good."