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Home Heat: a Rush for Alternatives
Higher Energy Prices Spark Frenzy for Wood, Pellet Stoves; Hot Models in Tight Supply
By Gwendolyn Bounds
Instead of spending these summer days sunning by the pool, some homeowners are jostling with heat-seeking crowds of a different sort -- at the local fireplace dealer.
With record-high winter fuel costs on the horizon, a midsummer panic to find alternative heat sources is sparking unusual early demand for an old warmth standby: the wood-burning stove. Brisk early sales in cold weather states of these units, as well as other hearth appliances that burn sawdust pellets, corn, and even cherry and olive pits, has caught manufacturers and dealers by surprise after two years of tepid sales. And with fall still six weeks away, many are reporting backlogs of models that in some cases won't arrive until next year.
At Home & Hearth in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., sales are up 250% so far this year, and owner John Enea says if the trend persists, September's customers may be out in the cold until January waiting for deliveries. Similarly, unprecedented spring and summer sales of appliances at the Fireside Stove Shop in Auburn, Maine, depleted much of the company's early inventory. And during the last week of July, manufacturer HearthStone Quality Home Heating Products Inc. sold more units than in any week in 2007. "We keep thinking we will catch up but each week is a crescendo from the week before," says President Dave Kuhfahl.
Among the hardest-to-find items: pellet appliances, which run partly off electricity and use sawdust capsules resembling rabbit food as the main fuel. Touted as particularly clean-burning and easy-to-use -- pour pellets in the hopper and push a button to ignite -- pellet equipment saw national sales that were up 54% in just the first quarter of the year, according to the Hearth Patio & Barbecue Association. At Home Depot Inc. alone, season-to-date sales of pellet fuel have surged to 18,000 tons versus just 300 last year. (The average national price is currently $250 per ton; it takes about three tons annually to heat a house primarily through pellets.) And while the giant retailer still has inventory of these stoves, it says supplies are "tight."