Wood’s use for home heating dates back farther than perhaps any other fuel on the market, and its popularity isn’t about to flicker out.
As winter approaches, several local firewood dealers report that demand for their product is steady or growing this year compared to what they’ve seen in the past.
“Right now, I’m 250 cords ahead in my orders over the previous year,” said Jerry Sterly of Petoskey, whose processing and sales of firewood create a full-time work schedule for him.
Some believe wood’s apparent popularity increase for home heating is a consumer response to higher prices for other fuels in recent years.
“It’s an economical form of heating,” said John Ledig, store manager at The Home Depot in Petoskey.
A calculator tool provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration allows one to estimate home heating costs using one fuel compared to another. Based on typical recent prices for the fuels and common efficiency levels for the devices that burn them, the cost to produce 1 million British thermal units of heat with wood is less than half the expense one would incur using other common fuels such as propane or oil.
At The Home Depot, Ledig noted that sales of wood and wood pellet stoves are stronger this year than last. Although The Home Depot continues to sell some gas fireplace inserts, Ledig said they’re not as popular as a few years ago.
Sterly — who has dealt in firewood for 30 years, and has typically sold 1,200 to 1,500 cords annually in recent years — also has heard indications of people switching to this heating fuel from others.
“There’s been quite a few people lately who have bought wood boilers and turned their propane off,” he said.
This is the second year in which Kim Sheppard of Harbor Springs has sold firewood, which he obtains from loggers. At the end of the last home heating season, he had several dozen face cords of wood remaining on hand. But this fall, the 70 cords of wood he had on hand were spoken for less than two weeks after he began advertising it.
“It’s been going surprisingly well for me,” he said. “I figured it would take years to build enough clientele to do well.”
Sheppard noted that his recent customers have sought wood to fuel a variety of devices, from stoves to fireplaces to outdoor boilers.
Charlevoix Ace Hardware is another local store stocking wood-fired heating devices. Hardware owner Mark Greyerbiehl said sales of these products have continued to grow, with wood’s relatively low cost as a heating fuel likely contributing to the trend. But federal income-tax incentives for some such purchases — aimed at promoting energy efficiency — are no longer as generous as in the recent past, and Greyerbiehl believes this may be reining in the growth somewhat.
At Emmet Brick and Block in Harbor Springs, which carries a variety of wood- and gas-fired fireplaces and stoves, owner Gary Lewinski hasn’t noticed any recent year-to-year spikes in demand for wood heating equipment. But he noted that demand for stoves and fireplaces in general has remained stronger than for some other building-related product lines through the tight economy of the past few years.
“We live in Northern Michigan,” he said. “Wood is available. The price of wood per cord hasn’t changed much through the past 20 years.”
Northern Michigan isn’t the only area where wood’s popularity for home heating has been on the rise. In a recent article in Biomass Power and Thermal magazine, the nonprofit Alliance for Green Heat cited U.S. Census data indicating that the number of households heating with wood grew 34 percent nationally between 2000 and 2010, faster than any other heating fuel. In two states, Michigan and Connecticut, the number of households using wood as a primary heat source more than doubled during the 10-year period. The Alliance for Green Heat noted that the growing use of wood and wood pellets for home heating is driven by factors such as rising oil prices, the economic downturn and the movement to use renewable energy.
Wood-fired heating can present air-quality concerns in some situations, prompting environmental regulators to offer guidelines for responsible wood burning (see factbox).
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality notes that homeowners using fireplaces and woodstoves need to understand that healthy indoor and outdoor air quality requires good wood burning habits. The agency offers the following guidelines for responsible burning, which are aimed at minimizing health problems and keeping the environment clean:
Know when to burn
1. Monitor all fires; never leave a fire unattended.
2. Upgrade an older woodstove to one with a catalytic combustor that burns off excess pollutants.
3. Be courteous when visitors come to your home. Wood smoke can cause problems for people with developing or sensitive lungs (i.e. children, the elderly) and people with lung disease.
Know what to burn
1. Split large pieces of wood into smaller pieces and make sure it has been seasoned (allowed to dry for a year). Burning fresh cut logs makes smoky fires.
2. When buying wood from a dealer, do not assume it has been seasoned.
3. Small hot fires are more efficient and less wasteful than large fires.
4. Never burn chemically treated wood or non-wood materials.
5. Manufactured firelogs provide a nice ambience, have the least impact to air quality, and are a good choice for homeowners who use a fireplace infrequently.
Know How to Burn
1. Proper combustion is key. Make sure your wood fire is not starved; if excess smoke is coming from the chimney or stack, the fire isn’t getting enough air.
2. Visually check your chimney or stack 10 to 15 minutes after you light a fire to ensure it is not emitting excess amounts of smoke.
3. Homeowners should have woodstoves and fireplaces serviced and cleaned yearly to ensure they are working properly.