March 16, 2010

Firewood heat has its hazards



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A hydraulic ram splits logs Wednesday July 23, 2008, at Reed's Firewood in Durham, Maine. The family-run firewood business is struggling to keep up with demand as homeowners look to firewood to bring down their heating oil bills this winter. (AP Photo/Joel Page)


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The Washington Post

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Blethen Maine News Service

FARMINGDALE — With heating oil prices hovering at $4.40 per gallon, Gov. John Baldacci is encouraging Mainers to use wood for heat this winter rather than oil.

''Wood is a resource this state is rich in,'' Baldacci said Thursday at A.W. Allen Firewood, a Farmingdale firewood dealer. ''This is a Maine solution, using Maine resources, which will benefit Maine people.''

The governor filmed a public service announcement at A.W. Allen urging consumers to be safety-conscious when burning wood to heat their homes, and to refrain from using creosote-treated wood such as railroad ties and telephone poles, which release noxious chemicals as they burn.

State officials also warned Mainers to make sure they get what they pay for when buying wood. Consumers need to be wary of price gougers and of being shorted the amount of wood they pay for, said Carl Blanche, a consumer protection inspector for the Maine Department of Agriculture.

''I have been getting complaints from people saying they have been shorted by dealers,'' Blanche said. ''They bought a cord wood only to realize they were given much less.''

Blanche recommends that consumers ask firewood dealers for a delivery ticket stating the amount of firewood purchased and the price, along with the name and address of the party who sold it.

After purchasing a cord, consumers also should check how much wood is in the cord.

''Stack it, measure it,'' Blanche said. ''You may be surprised. And in this day and age, people simply cannot afford to pay for firewood twice.''

Last October, A.W. Allen Firewood owner Andy Allen told the Kennebec Journal that prices for a cord of wood -- which ranged from $200 to $250 at his business -- would have to increase.

''Running our operation now costs an additional $240 a week,'' he said at the time.

Ten months later, much has changed -- and not much of it for the better.

''The price of wood is still high,'' Allen said. ''Mills still have a high demand for pulp. We're competing for the same wood, really.''

The cost to run his business has also increased, because the fuel it takes to cut and transport wood is higher than it was this time last year.

Last fall, a cord of wood in central Maine cost from $180 to $250. This fall, people will have to reach deeper into their pockets, Allen said.

''For a cord of seasoned wood, you're looking at $300, and $325 for a cord of kiln-dried,'' he said.

''Green wood's going up, too,'' said Mike Allen, Andy Allen's brother and business helper. ''It'll be about $250 to $260 for a cord.''

Customers have been vocal about the higher heating costs they expect this winter, Mike Allen said.

''People have told me they're scared, even though they have purchased their wood,'' he said. ''People are getting nervous and scared.''

Across the state, the cost of seasoned firewood has jumped roughly 50 percent from a year ago, but it remains a relative bargain compared with heating oil, which is nearly $2 per gallon more than last year.

That's why customers are doubling their usual orders, and some firewood dealers are turning away business.

''We've really never seen anything like this before,'' said Lloyd Irland, who teaches forestry economics at Yale University and runs a consulting business in Maine.

Although most heating oil customers aren't dropping the fuel altogether, they hope to uses less by upgrading furnaces, turning down thermostats, insulating their homes and turning to alternative fuels, including firewood.

Firewood remains a deal for those who don't mind the hassle of lugging it around and periodically feeding their wood stoves or fireplaces.

On average, a cord of firewood has the same heating potential as 155 gallons of heating oil, said Peter Lammert of the Maine Forest Service. Thus a cord of seasoned firewood costing $300 is a bargain compared with 155 gallons of heating oil costing $685.10, based on the current statewide average of $4.42 per gallon.

It's a stark contrast to the mid-1990s, when heating oil sold for around 79 or 80 cents a gallon and a cord of seasoned firewood was about $125. About 75 percent of Maine homes heat with oil.

The rush to buy firewood is also having an impact on heating oil dealers.

Last year, heating oil consumption fell 13 percent nationwide, in part because of homeowners' fuel efficiency efforts, said John Huber, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance. Huber expects consumption to drop again this winter, but not by as much.

For David Rooker of South Portland, he just feels lucky he was able to get the two cords of wood piled in his driveway.

''With the price of heating oil, we'll have fires every night,'' said Rooker, who estimates he saved $1,000 on oil the first year he installed a wood stove.

And with oil prices higher now, those savings will keep growing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.''Wood is a resource this state is rich in. This is a Maine solution, using Maine resources, which will benefit Maine people.''

Gov. John Baldacci

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