By Linwood Outlaw III -- firstname.lastname@example.org
High gas bills were taking a toll on Elizabeth Charrier's finances.
Last year, Charrier and her husband, Bill, decided to buy a wood stove to heat their entire 3,000-square-foot, colonial home in Winchester -- a decision she says has paid off in huge dividends.
"We're basically heating our house right now for free," Mrs. Charrier said. "The wood stove itself was not cheap, but it'll definitely pay for itself. The gas bills [by comparison] are much more expensive."
Barbara Kousens says her heating expenses also have dropped significantly in the five years she has used a wood stove to warm up her ranch-style home near the mountains in Warren County. Maintaining a wood stove, Kousens says, can be "a little labor intensive."
"You have to either find wood or go and purchase wood," she said. "I've been fortunate that I've had some trees in my yard [to get wood from]. ... Maintaining [the stove] is just [a matter of] keeping it clean."
Prior to the 20th century, virtually all Americans burned wood in order to heat their homes. An energy crisis in the 1970s also sparked widespread interest in wood heat as a renewable energy alternative. These days, with the country recovering from a recession and home heating costs soaring, it appears more people are using wood or pellet stoves as secondary heating sources.
Half -- or 55 million -- of all households in the United States have at least one fireplace or freestanding stove, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an international trade group.
Energy Information Administration officials are projecting that household bills for space-heating fuels from October through March 2010 will be 8 percent lower than last year, with the average household expected to spend about $960 this heating season. However, fuel expenditures for individual households depend largely on local weather conditions, thermostat settings and the size and efficiency of the home.
Some experts say wood and pellet stoves are environmentally sound and can help homeowners cut down on their energy costs. Traditional potbellied wood stoves are a thing of the past. Many of today's state-of-the-art models, which are made from steel, soapstone or cast iron, blend in with home interior designs and produce little smoke.
"You can buy wood or get wood a lot cheaper than you could fuel or gas," said Mark Carroll, owner of Fort Valley Stoves LLC in Fort Valley.
Unlike wood stoves, which rely on logs, pellet stoves burn renewable fuel made of dried wood and other biomass wastes compressed into pellets, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pellet stoves also need electricity to operate.
Neither stove is cheap, with some units costing more than $3,000. But many consumers are looking to take advantage of a federal tax credit of up to $1,500 for purchases of wood or pellet stoves that meet a 75 percent efficiency rating.
"It's a big expense up front. But after that expense, it's payback," Carroll said. "Because, if [some wood stoves are] put in to where you can heat your domestic hot water all summer long, that's $50 a month, roughly, you're going to save on heating your hot water. You would get that back year-round. So, of course, that's going to help pay for the stove."
When installed properly, wood stoves and fireplaces can burn wood efficiently and can heat homes without a lot of smoke. A poorly installed unit, however, could lead to higher maintenance costs and environmental pollution.
All wood stoves and fireplace inserts should be EPA certified and professionally installed by a technician, experts say. New EPA-certified stoves generally produce between 2 and 5 grams of smoke per hour, compared with 40 to 60 grams of smoke released by older, uncertified stoves.
Additionally, stoves need to be installed a safe distance from combustible materials like drapes and doors. Wood stoves can be vented either through the wall to the outside of the house, the ceiling with high-tech piping or an existing chimney, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association's Web site. It is also recommended that stoves and chimneys are inspected on at least an annual basis.
Smoke that escapes from wood stoves could create a buildup of creosote -- a combustible residue derived from wood gases that are not completely burned -- in chimneys and lead to air pollution and fires, according to EPA officials. Certified wood stoves burn more efficiently than older models and are less likely to create creosote hazards. Because pellet stoves cause minimal pollution, they are exempt from EPA certification.
Kousens advice for wood stove owners is simple: "Make sure you have enough wood."