This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 1/16/05,
Page D1, Business feature; Copyright 2005 by Beth David

The new alternative
Wood pellet stoves are gaining popularity with consumers

Standard-Times correspondence

If you're thinking about switching to a wood stove to cut heating costs, you may want to think again.

With a cord of wood costing $175 to $200, the old wood stove standby is quickly falling out of favor with cost-conscious consumers.

Instead, people are opting to buy pellet stoves, according to two local companies that sell both.

"Everyone's looking at pellet stoves," said Bob Cabral, owner of Ash Away Hearth & Chimney in Dartmouth. "It's recyclable energy. (The pellets) are sawdust from furniture stores and places like that. They take it and throw it in a press. They don't add anything to it."

Mr. Cabral said sales of pellet stove are up 50 percent this year, compared to an 8 percent increase for wood stoves.

"We're still selling wood stoves, but not as many," said Mr. Cabral. "You know why? Because the price of wood is so high."

And that's if you can find it.

Gil Borges of Sunflowers in Dartmouth already has run out of seasoned wood.

"The only wood I have now is green," said Mr. Borges. "I ran out of wood in October. But I'm only charging $175 a cord."

"Lots of time people buy wood from up north to process down here," said Mr. Borges. "But with the cost of fuel (for transportation), it's actually reversed itself."

At American Energy Savers on North Front Street in New Bedford, owner Rene Harbeck said pellet stoves are definitely more popular than wood, coal or gas this year.

"With a pellet stove, you can set the temperature you want to keep the room at," Mr. Harbeck said. "Furnace stoves can be hooked up to the hot air ducts you already have in your house."

Savings can be substantial.

In the summer, the cost of pellets can be as low as $3.19 for a 40-pound bag, according to both Mr. Cabral and Mr. Harbeck. Customers generally use one or two bags a day, depending on the size of their home. That translates to about two tons, or 100 bags for a little more than $300 per season.

Pellets look like rabbit food, said Mr. Cabral. They're all natural, which customers like, and easy to use. There's a "hopper," or a bin attached to the stove and people just feed the hopper. The stove is automatically turned on and off by a thermostat.

Pellet stoves also do not require a chimney or a large smoke stack. They are vented out the wall much like a clothes dryer.

"I love mine," said Pat Tracy of North Dartmouth. She and her husband Robert own a 52- by 30-foot raised ranch. They heat the downstairs with the pellet stove.

Ms. Tracy said that it costs her about $100 a month to heat the whole house, including the upstairs, which uses only conventional oil heat.

"We use a bag a day in colder weather," she said. "Only once in a while I do put the (oil) heat on. I put it on just so the pipes don't freeze. I really don't use heat at all (downstairs)."

She said they bought three pallets of pellet bags in the summer at $178 per pallet. Each pallet holds one ton, so they paid $3.56 per 40-pound bag.

Last year, the Tracys used two tons, but this year she wanted extra.

"Sometimes in April and May it's damp and we use it then, too," she said.

The pellets are easier to store and easier to use than wood. She has a scoop she uses to feed the hopper from a wicker basket she bought especially for the pellets.

"And you don't have to worry about bugs in the house," said Mr. Harbeck. "With pellets, it's nice and clean."

Mr. Harbeck said his customers average about 100 bags per season.

Ash Away's Mr. Cabral said a medium-sized stove will heat 2,000 square feet and a large stove will generate 68,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units).

And although the cost of the stove itself is higher than a wood stove, installation costs can be as low as $250 according to Ash Away. A pellet stove will cost anywhere from $1,200 to $2,800 at area stores. Wood stoves start at only $500, but the installation costs can be high depending on whether a chimney or pipe has to be installed.

"You can get different styles," said Mr. Cabral. "It's just like anything else in life. You get what you pay for."

A drawback is that the stove's automatic start requires electricity.

"But people are not doing this for emergencies," said Mr. Cabral. "They're doing it to beat the gas and oil prices."

And what about that wood-fire ambiance? "I love it," said Ms. Tracy. "It has a beautiful flame. We sit here in the living room. I just enjoy looking at it. When people come here they go right there."

"It's a real hot flame, so it's a beautiful fire that's in there," agreed Mr. Harbeck of American Energy Savers.

"You do see a fire," said Mr. Cabral. "They're pretty. Some look like the old cast iron wood stoves. It's a concentrated flame behind glass and you can watch the flame."

Mr. Cabral uses a pellet stove at his own home. "The reason I went to pellets is that it runs itself," he said.

And Ms. Tracy likes the clean burn.

"It's not that much work," she said. "I don't have to clean it as often as a wood stove. I clean it every three weeks."

She said she never liked the "burned" smell that wood stoves cause.

"There's no odor to this. All you get is this beautiful flame and heat. I swear by it," said Ms. Tracy.