MILWAUKEE – Steve Schutz of New Berlin knows how frustrated people can get when their heating bills soar and they have only one choice of heating fuel, such as propane, which has tripled in price in recent weeks.
Schutz, owner of Sunnyslope Gardens Inc., lowered his heating bill between $2,000 and $3,000 a year by installing wood pellet stoves in his greenhouses and home 9 years ago.
Now the stoves are his primary heating source, supplemented by natural gas.
Every morning, Schutz checks his stoves and empties the ash pots. It takes him about an hour to make the rounds for six stoves before he leaves them unattended.
“There is a learning curve. You’re dealing with fire, so you have check things,” he said.
A lot of people appear to be lining up for that learning curve, especially in rural areas, where they’ve faced propane shortages as well as rising prices.
National trade groups say sales of pellets and pellet stoves are climbing this year, the result of a winter people are likely to remember for decades.
Dejno’s Inc., a pellet manufacturer in Kenosha, Wis., has seen its business heat up as more people turn to pellet stoves and dial back their propane use.
The Kenosha mill takes sawdust and shavings from companies in the home construction industry and presses those waste materials into pellets.
It keeps the waste out of landfills and is a renewable source of homegrown energy, said Larry Dejno, company vice president.
Wisconsin has a keen interest in wood pellets and pellet stoves, as about five mills in the state produce the fuel. The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison conducts research on pellet fuels, and pellet stove manufacturers have used Wisconsin labs to test their products.
Earth Sense Energy Systems, in the Outagamie County town of Dale Wis., claims to be the nation’s largest pellet stove dealership.
“Sales are much stronger than average now, driven by high propane costs more so than the cold,” said Chad Curtis, operations manager for the company, which has been in the pellet stove business for 22 years.
The stoves burn compacted pellets, usually made of wood, but some models can burn nutshells, corn kernels and small wood chips. They’re more convenient to operate than ordinary wood stoves or fireplaces, and some have much higher heating efficiencies, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
A stove rated at 60,000 Btu can heat a 2,000-square-foot home, while a stove rated at 42,000 Btu can heat a 1,300-square-foot space, the agency says.
What most homeowners want to know is how much money they could save from heating with a pellet stove compared with using propane, fuel oil or natural gas.
With propane priced at more than $4 a gallon, an equivalent amount of heat from wood pellets would be about five times cheaper, according to Mark Knaebe, forest products technologist with the USDA Forest Products Laboratory.
“It’s a no-brainer for propane and fuel oil users. You would want to switch over to a good wood system,” Knaebe said.
For someone heating with natural gas, the savings wouldn’t amount to much, Knaebe said. That could change, though, if natural gas prices were to increase considerably, as they have in the past.
When propane and fuel oil prices rise, so do pellet stove sales.
The best time to buy a stove and pellets is in the summer, when people have forgotten about heating costs and stove dealerships want to clear out inventory from the previous winter.
Stove prices vary widely, from about $1,200 to $4,000, plus installation and other costs that could include a higher home insurance premium for having a wood burner. The cost of pellets is about $4 per 40-pound bag, with many homeowners using a bag a day to heat their homes or supplement another source of heat.
Most of the stoves don’t need an expensive chimney. Free-standing units resemble a conventional wood stove and generally heat a single room well. But they won’t heat adjacent areas unless there’s a fan to move the warm air between rooms.
The stoves have a fuel hopper to store the pellets until they’re needed for burning. Most hoppers hold 35 to 130 pounds of fuel.
A feeder device, like a large screw, drops a few pellets at a time into a combustion chamber for burning. How quickly the pellets are fed into the burner determines the heat output.
The stoves have to be cleaned by the homeowner, including emptying a pot that holds the ashes. They also require electricity to run fans, controls and pellet feeders. Under normal usage, a stove would use about $9 worth of electricity a month, according to the Department of Energy.
“Unless the stove has a backup power supply, the loss of electric power results in no heat and possibly some smoke in the house,” the agency says.
Many people use a pellet stove to supplement or replace their main heating source until propane, natural gas or fuel oil prices go down. For comparison purposes, the Forest Products Laboratory has a fuel-cost calculator on its website, www.fpl.fs.fed.us.
The current propane crisis is a reminder that it’s smart to have two ways to heat your home, said John Crouch, spokesman for the Pellet Fuels Institute in Sacramento, Calif.
“It gives you some independence. When you have only one way to heat your home, you’re stuck with whatever that fuel price is,” he said.
Pellet stoves and wood burning stoves can vary widely in efficiency and operating costs. Outdoor wood “boilers” are inefficient and produce a lot of air pollution, Knaebe said.
“It’s almost worse than a campfire,” he said.
Starting in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to reduce pollution from new wood stoves, wood boilers, fireplaces and pellet stoves used for heating.
The proposed rules would not affect units already in place but would restrict sales of new products to those that emit about 80 percent less pollution than older models.
The changes shouldn’t affect pellet stoves because they emit less particulate matter, carbon monoxide and organic compounds than wood burners.
The stoves produce very little air pollution, according to the Department of Energy.
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PELLET-STOVES