March 18, 2010

The Knock on Wood

By TUX TURKEL and TOM BELL, Staff Writers

Summer has barely begun, but Maine residents looking to install wood heating systems this winter may already have waited too long, stove dealers and firewood suppliers say.


Stoves that burn firewood are available, but finding the logs will be difficult. Wood pellets are in good supply – for now. But the special stoves that burn them are largely sold out.


With home heating oil averaging well above $4 a gallon, many Mainers are desperate to find a more affordable way to stay warm this winter. For households that have done nothing so far, however, lining up a stove and fuel supply will be a challenge.


Many firewood dealers have stopped taking new customers or have long waiting lists. Several firewood dealers contacted by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram said they won’t be able to deliver green wood until this fall – too late for the wood to dry for use this winter.


Demand is up fourfold from a year ago, said Jake Dyer, owner of Southern Maine Firewood in Gorham. He said he turned away 150 customers in just two days last week.


“The amount of calls we are getting is just unbelievable,” he said. “In a nutshell, there are a lot of people who are not going to get wood this year.”


Usually this time of year, Maine Custom Firewood in Pownal gets four to five calls a day. The company is now getting 30 to 40 calls daily, said co-owner Tom Cushman, a professional logger.


The company last week stopped answering the telephone. Callers now get an answering machine message saying it has suspended taking orders.


Those able to find firewood are going to pay more for it. A cord of green wood is selling for $220 to $260. Last year, a cord sold for $180 to $190.


Barbara Price of Scarborough thought she was all set for winter when she recently installed a new wood stove.
She called a firewood dealer in early June and left a message ordering two cords of wood. She called back the company last week and found that the company never got the message and that there was no wood available. She’s now on a waiting list.


She’s also been looking for firewood on Craigslist, but hasn’t been able to find anybody selling it.


“It’s very scary,” she said. “We are really counting on the wood. We don’t know what we are going to do. We can’t afford to pay for oil all winter.”


DEMAND EXCEEDS SUPPLY


There are several factors contributing to the firewood shortage, said Eric Kingsley, a forest resources consultant.


First, there are a lot of people who own wood stoves but have used them only sporadically over the past several years. With oil prices now at record levels, many are planning to use them as much as possible this winter, he said.


At the same time, the region’s coated-paper mills are operating at full capacity, increasing demand for pulpwood. He said the same tree species are used for both hardwood pulp and firewood.


Essentially, paper companies and firewood dealers are competing for the same trees, but the paper companies are able to pay more, he said.


Yet despite the increased demand, logging activity is down, he said.


With the construction industry in a slump, fewer people are cutting trees for lumber, which fetches a premium price. Also, there are fewer lots being cleared for development.


Finally, last winter was a difficult one for loggers. A huge amount of snow fell before the ground got a chance to freeze. That put a lot of areas off-limits to logging because regulations prohibit loggers from working when conditions are muddy.


The issues with pellet stoves and wood pellets are altogether different. While area retailers have a healthy inventory of standard wood-burning stoves and coal stoves, pellet stoves are in short supply.


Pellet stoves, which offer the convenience of long burn times and automatic controls, are this year’s hot item. Dealers have been overwhelmed. Many models are back-ordered and some dealers are taking orders for next year.


“There’s a mad rush on this product,” said Bill Robinson, owner of Frost & Flame in North Windham. “Ninety-five percent of people walking through the door are asking for a pellet stove.”

 

The demand for pellet stoves has caught retailers and manufacturers off guard.Three years ago, when oil and gas prices rose, consumers began buying pellet stoves in record numbers. The industry geared up to meet demand. Then oil and gas prices stabilized, and many stoves were left sitting in warehouses.


As a result, many retailers say they won’t have any pellet stoves available until the fall or perhaps the end of year.


PLENTY OF PELLETS NOW


There is good news, though, for people who have yet to buy fuel for their pellet stoves.


Retailers say supply is adequate now, although they worry about this winter.


The Paris Farmers Union farm and building supplies store in Portland received 22 tons of Canadian-made pellets last week. The store went through 100 tons during all of last season, but has already sold roughly 300 tons this year. Prices range from $269 a ton for Maine-made pellets, picked up at the store, to $309 delivered, for Canadian fuel.


Bill Bonnvie, a store employee, has advice for pellet stove owners: “If people think they can heat their house with three tons, buy four,” he said. “That way, you’re not scrambling in February and have to buy oil at $5 a gallon, or whatever, to get you through the winter.”


Maine has three pellet factories, in Ashland, Athens and Corinth. Producers are preparing to meet the demand, according to George Soffron, general manager at Corinth Wood Pellets LLC.


His plant has 28 employees, but will grow to 50 later this year and run at full throttle.


“We’ll be 24/7 by September,” he said.


Soffron wouldn’t disclose the plant’s exact output, but said it will be in the range of 100,000 to 150,000 tons a year. Waste wood supply is adequate now, he said, although dealers are calling him with a sense of urgency. He calls it, “an almost-panic-buy situation.”


John Tanguay of Westbrook said worries about a possible pellet shortage persuaded him to buy his winter’s supply of pellets.


He said he bought a pellet stove in May because his house burns more than 1,000 gallons of oil during the heating season. The pellet stove will lower his fuel costs enough to pay for itself in one year, he predicted.
“At the end of the season, we will have something left over: a stove that retails for $3,100, rather than receipts from the oil company.”



Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:
tbell@pressherald.com



Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:
tturkel@pressherald.com

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