Sales of stoves fueled by wood, wood pellets and feed corn are soaring across Maryland as families try to control one aspect of a failing economy within reach: the cost of heating their homes.
"People walk to the thermostat because they're cold, and they're so worried about what it's going to cost they don't set it where they want," said Mike Tyson, owner of Poor Boy's Garden & Hearth in Dundalk, which sells wood-pellet stoves. "We're the alternative to BGE and oil."
Interest in stoves, hearths and fireplace inserts - driven by variables such as the severity of winter, natural disasters and the whims of OPEC - began spiking in May, typically a month for cleaning and maintenance of heating sources, not sales.
In late spring, as the cost of home heating oil began moving toward a record $4.70 a gallon, pellet stoves began sailing out of Mark Mastrapolito's Masters Pellet Stoves store in Bowie.
"Normally, I don't even get a phone call in May," said Mastrapolito. "This year I think I sold five and five again in June."
Just before Thanksgiving, Monica Wong, a Montgomery County accountant living in Ashton, replaced her gas-fueled "fake logs" with a pellet-burning fireplace insert to heat her family's 5,000-square-foot home.
"Propane costs us about $2,000 a year for heat," said Wong, whose Enviro pellet insert cost approximately $4,100, including installation. "We've been thinking about this for a couple of years. If it's efficient, we might get a bigger one for the basement next year."
All Harold Cadle Jr. has to do to keep his Trappe Road home in Dundalk warm is load feed corn into a St. Croix Pellet & Corn Stove. "It's always well above 70 degrees - 75 and 76 sometimes - and I use ceiling fans and a pedestal fan in the hallway to move the heat around," said Cadle.
He gets the corn for free from a friend who owns a farm in Baltimore County. What doesn't fit in the silos helps to heat Cadle's 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom home.
"Corn burns longer than pellets, and I only get half a cup of ashes from 90 pounds of corn," said Cadle, a crane operator. He bought his stove at Poor Boy's, which is not far from his house, and says that it is a beautiful piece of burnished metal, perfectly complementing his home.
When he does have to look beyond his friend's farm for fuel, he can get 90 pounds of corn for about $11 - enough to heat his house for five to six days.
Most pellet and corn stoves rely on electricity for ignition and thermostat control - using about the same amount of energy as a couple of light bulbs, store owners said.
The cost of leading stove brands ranges from about $3,500 to more than $5,000, including installation.
Traditionally, when the leaves have fallen and north winds cut deep as Christmas and New Year's approach, folks yearn for a roaring fire as an aesthetic comfort. But this year, said Jim Muzyka, manager of Courtland Hearth & Barbecue in White Marsh: "It's not about pretty."
It's about that scary little box on the wall - the thermostat - to which no one wants to be hostage. And who besides the most stubbornly frugal enjoys walking around the house in a heavy sweater?
Muzyka said Courtland, which also has stores in Fallston and Bel Air - is installing four to six stoves a week. His company recently added an extra employee to handle the increased business.
Mastrapolito - a former caterer and restaurant manager - found his way into the pellet-stove business after chasing down ways to lower his own utility bills.
"For years, I never had a gas bill over $150, so I never thought about it," he said. "When it went to $250 and then $350 and kept going up, I had to do something."
This year, he sees many others coming to the same conclusion. "A year ago, a lot of business was high-end customers who wanted something beautiful," he said. "Now, I'm dealing with people who want to save money."
Because of increased demand, the cost of wood pellets - made from sawdust and other wood scraps - is on the rise, according to Tyson, who said a ton went for $209 in April and now fluctuates between $259 and $299.
It takes about 2 tons of pellets to warm an average-sized home throughout a typical winter.
"I've got 18 stoves on the [sales] board right now and people coming down from New Jersey to buy pellets," said Tyson. "People with pellet stoves need to know they can't wait until it gets cold to buy pellets." Prices rise along with demand.
The last time the sales of stoves jumped dramatically, Tyson said, was after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Then, disruptions in domestic oil refining pushed the price of heating fuel.
As for corn, Muzyka called it a "storage challenge. You have to remember that corn is food ... it attracts critters and bugs. Pellets don't."
Thus, responds Cadle, the beauty of a 35-gallon stainless-steel trash can with a snug lid.
Rafael Alvarez is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun.
Although crude oil prices have fallen in recent months, a gallon of home heating oil ($3.30) is still about a dollar higher than it was a year ago, and sales of stoves continue to be brisk. Formulas for calculating cost comparisons among various sources of home heat factor many variables and are highly subjective. The following Web sites offer guides to calculating the cost of heating your home.