Skyrocketing prices for home heating have prompted many Crawford County residents to make the switch to warming their homes with wood pellet stoves over the past several years. But recently the uncertainty of the economy and fears that heating costs will climb even higher have put a crimp in the local supply of both pellet stoves and the pellets that fuel them.
“It’s as though no sooner do we put a pellet stove on the floor and it’s sold,” said Penny Walmer, office manager of Scott’s Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Cambridge Springs.
And customers who seem to be making the switch to pellet stoves are those who heat with oil.
On Thursday, the U.S. Energy Department reported oil users, which comprise nearly one-third of the households in the Northeast, may be the hardest hit, paying an average of 23 percent more this heating season (October to March) than last year. And natural gas, which is used by nearly half of the households in the United States, is anticipated to climb about 18 percent. Propane and electricity rates are also expected to rise 10 or 11 percent.
Tom Wilson, an agricultural engineer with Crawford County Cooperative Extension, said transitioning from oil to wood has become a popular way for people to cut their expenses between one-half and one-third.
Traditionally October is the month when retailers begin to see wood pellets and stove sales slope upward. But this year officials from Tractor Supply in Meadville went with a hunch that people might be thinking about winter a little earlier than usual.
“For the first time ever, we began a program in July so that people could layaway large quantities of wood pellets to ensure that they woul have enough for the winter,” said Vicky Shidemantle, assistant store manager. “We sold everything we had in stock and even have a waiting list, so as quick as the pellets come in we will call them.”
Along with the pellets, Shide-mantle said Tractor Supply also stocked up on the stoves and began selling them in July as well. She said people also “went crazy” and “bought all of the stoves up too.”
Shidemantle said the store continues to receive shipments, and that up until last week, the stock was pretty stable. But she’s been telling people who are “on the fence” about buying that if they are thinking about changing over, “don’t wait!”
“There are people who just come in to look, and others who are pretty serious about buying,” she said. “I tell them ‘this isn’t a sales pitch’ because we knew that there was going to be a big demand with the high fuel prices.”
Wilson said what may appear to be a local problem actually extends globally as the appetite for wood pellets continues to expand in the overseas market. Wilson said this is partly due to the Kyoto Protocol which went into effect in 2005 and now gives many Europeans carbon credits on pellets as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Ironically, Wilson said up until seven years ago, there was an overabundance of sawdust, the principal component of wood pellets. Sawmills, furniture companies and other wood product manufacturers were just anxious to get rid of it. But now with the invention of wood pellets and the growing global demand, Wilson said there is “ultimately a shortage of sawdust.”
Officials from Wood Pellets Co. Inc. of Summerhill and Allegheny Pellet Co. in Youngsville, two pellet fuel plants in Pennsylvania, both confirmed Wilson’s statement. Each said they were currently out of stock.
The shortage of wood pellets is nothing new, though most retailers said this year the availability seems to be an issue because people are unsure about the economy. But officials from Penn State said now is the time to consider home heating options.
"If you're currently heating with fuel oil that’s approaching $4 per gallon, you should definitely be looking for an energy alternative, whether it's wood or coal or wood pellets,” said Dennis Buffington, professor of agricultural engineering. “Anyone heating with fuel oil or propane, especially, should consider alternatives — not as a replacement necessarily, but to have another system they can rely on for at least a portion of their heating needs.”
Penni Schaefer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paying $200 per ton for pellets is the same as paying:
- $1.67 per gallon for heating oil
- $1.18 per gallon for propane
- $12.50 per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas
- 4 cents per kWh for electricity