High Heating Bills Lead to Other Alternatives

No way was Ginger Rice going to put up with another year of $300-a-month heating bills. So when she heard natural gas prices would climb even higher this season, Rice did the only thing she thought would spare her bank account: She bought a wood-pellet stove.

In doing so, the Albuquerque, N.M., resident joined a growing number of people turning to firewood and wood pellets for heat for the first time this year. Scared of what their fuel bills might be, customers are flocking to stove dealers while manufacturers struggle just to keep up with demand.

"It's just insane," said Lori Pitman, spokeswoman for Country Stoves of Auburn, Wash. "We weren't prepared for it, frankly. I don't think anyone was in the industry."

The Energy Department predicts winter heating bills will be a third to a half higher this winter than last for most families across the country -- an average of $350 more for natural gas users and $378 more for fuel oil users.

The rising prices are blamed largely on hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which damaged oil and natural gas installations and disrupted production.

And that prospect is sending people out in droves for wood stoves and, especially, wood pellet stoves.

Pellet stoves, which run between $1,800 to $3,000, use small wood pellets sold in 40-pound bags for a few dollars each. On average, a home uses one bag a day. While the initial cost of buying the stove and pellets won't save money, the savings come in the long run, said Leslie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.

"Nobody could have foreseen the price of oil, then add a couple hurricanes on top of that," said Don Kaiser, executive director of the Pellet Fuels Institute, a trade group that represents manufacturers. "You can understand why demand is so high. People are buying early."

But good luck trying to get one anytime soon: Manufacturers are already weeks, even months behind in orders.

"I think people are just panicking and the manufacturers all across the country have depleted their inventories," said Cyd Ault, co-owner of Heatsource Stoves and Grills LLC in Albuquerque, N.M. "They're now having to produce stoves as fast as they can."

Wood stoves aren't as popular, but still are being sold at a steady pace. Firewood sales are experiencing a "phenomenal increase," according to Stan Dykstra, owner of S&D Firewood in Belgrade, Mont. And national forests are seeing a jump in the number of permits issued to individuals to cut their own firewood.

"Oh my goodness, yes," said Jim Maxwell, spokesman for the Forest Service's regional office in Denver. "It's gone through the ceiling this year because of those rising costs. It's definitely impacting the behavior of folks and how they're heating."

Environmental groups caution homeowners to use their heat source efficiently. Brendan Bell, Sierra Club energy analyst, said people need to make sure wood stoves don't leak and that they aren't using moldy wood.

"The money you invest in a new wood stove would probably be better spent in buying a new gas furnace that is more efficient," Bell said. "That's what's best for the environment and your pocketbook."

In Alaska, one official voices a different concern: Ernie Misewicz, Fairbanks deputy fire marshal, predicts all the new wood stoves will lead to more fires, as they did in the late 1970s when the price of fuel skyrocketed.

"There was an abundance of wood out there. In a year or so, we started seeking a spike in the number of fires related to wood stoves," he said.

Environmental and fire warnings aside, the quest for alternative heat and that all important price break continues across the country.

Rice was among the fortunate ones who hit the stores early this year, so she already is basking in the heat from her cozy stove.

"Love it," she said.