By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future writer
Sometimes, on a winter night, staring at red-hot coals in the wood stove, it’s not hard to see how harnessing fire put us on a course of global domination and civilization-building.
We’ve come a long way since we huddled in a cave as a haunch of antelope seared over the flames in a rock hearth. But not so far, really. Energy is still at the heart of our lives. And wood is still an important source of it. Wood has been enjoying a renaissance over the past few years as oil and propane prices stayed high and inventors developed new ways to burn it.
“Wood is very strong here in Maine. Very strong,” said Marty Farnum, the co-owner of Northern Lights Hearth and Sports in Farmington. “The wood stoves today are amazing. Very efficient. It adds aesthetic value to a home and you can heat your entire home with them. It just produces that penetrating heat.”
As late as 1940, 53 percent of Maine homes were heated with wood, according to U.S. Census data. By 1970 that had dropped to 2 percent. After the oil price shocks of the 1970s it shot up to 15 percent. By 2000 it had dipped to 6.4 percent and in 2009 stood at 8.7 percent.
The latest U.S. Census figures show that between 2005 and 2012 the use of wood as a fuel jumped 50 percent in the northeastern U.S. as homeowners scurried to get out of the way of high oil prices, which peaked in Maine at an average of $3.61 last April, according to the Governor’s Energy Office. In Maine the number of households relying on wood as a main heat source more than doubled. According to the Census Bureau, some 2.5 million U.S. households have wood as the main heating fuel, up from 1.9 million in 2005. An additional 9 million use it as a secondary fuel.
While stick firewood is still the most common version sold, wood pellet stoves are becoming more popular.
For most consumers, price is probably the primary reason for their choice of wood heat. Other factors often influence the equation: the concentrated heat of a wood stove; the idea of firewood as a local, renewable resource. If they’re cutting the wood themselves they like the idea that they’re practicing self-reliance. Then, there’s the knowledge that, in a power outage, a traditional wood stove will still keep you warm.
You remember the ice storm of 1998? Days without power. Houses slowly going cold.
That ice storm “was one of the best things for firewood that ever happened,” said Paul “Butch” Reed of Reed’s Firewood. People who hadn’t fired up their wood stoves in years were scrounging for firewood. Cars and trucks lined up bumper to bumper down Reed’s driveway “even to get a few armloads. It gave firewood sales a huge boost.”
Ten years later oil prices shot up and stayed high, persuading more people to think about alternatives to oil and propane. This past fall firewood dealers in Maine were selling out.
It’s hard to get a handle on how much wood Mainers burn. According to the Maine Forest Service’s 2012 Wood Processor Report, firewood processors and pellet plants processed just over 146,000 cords, with 64 percent of that going into pellets, according to Ken Laustsen, the MFS biometrician. But Laustsen says that doesn’t tell the whole story because it doesn’t account for people who cut their own. Laustsen says that a 1999 Maine State Planning Office survey that estimated 400,000 might be closer. However, that was before pellet stoves became hot.
Firewood dealers range from the person cutting and splitting a few dozen cords a year off their own woodlot to companies that do a few hundred cords to a few thousand. Reed’s Firewood in Durham, for instance, produces about 3,500 cords a year for 1,000 customers in some two dozen towns.
Though wood-as-heating fuel is popular right now, the industry does face some challenges. Competition from other fuels iis one; perceptions of the industry another, said Scott Salveson, the director of the fledgling National Firewood Association, formed three years ago to represent firewood dealers, processors and wood stove companies.
There’s the perception of firewood dealers as fly-by-night operators, said Salveson. “We call them the rusty truck guys,” he said.
Established firewood dealers agree. Stories abound of customers overcharged; or stuck with short loads, low value wood, or green wood instead of dry.
“The big thing is being honest with customers. The firewood business doesn’t have a good track record for honesty as to what product is being delivered and what the homeowner is being charged,” said Dave Moore, a co-owner of Maine Coast Firewood in South Windham, which sells 1,000 to 1,200 cords a year.
Don Olden, who operates Wooden Nickels Firewood in Windham, said “until the last year I had a lot of the elderly and some people in town that were, quite frankly, taken advantage of” in the past.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for firewood processors is the cost of wood. Most don’t harvest their own trees. They buy tree-length stock and then run it through a firewood processor that cuts the stems to length, splits them, and dumps the sticks into a truck by conveyor.
“The biggest challenge for us right now is getting the wood and keeping enough wood on hand so we can supply our customers and keep them happy,” said Debbie Potter, who runs Potter Family Firewood in Kent’s Hill with her husband Gary. She said it’s difficult to lock in a price for logs, and her family’s small company, which processes about 400 cords a year, is competing against the nearby Verso Paper Mill in Jay for logs.
Olden has been in business for six seasons. The first year he had logging crews trying to sell him wood. This past year he had to call around to find it. “There’s been a huge demand. All the mills are busy and the biomass plants are going. There was a big demand.” When he started he was paying $80. The most he’s paid is $130. “It’s gone up considerably.”
Dave Moore of Maine Coast Firewood said “over the past two to three years we’ve seen the cost of raw logs up 30 to 40 percent. That’s significant. It all depends on where it’s coming from, what the species are. A lot of things. But everyone is paying $100 to $130 a cord.”
Given high prices, efficiency is a priority, said Moore. “When we fire up for a day of processing we have to put 12 to 16 cords through the processor to make it worthwhile. That’s with two guys. With three guys it’s not profitable. And maintenance on the processor is very high. We’re out running at temperatures sometimes 10 below zero. When it’s that cold you’re just waiting for things to break.”
Moore said he and business partner Steve Burton do seasoned firewood and kiln-dried firewood. The cost of kiln drying drives up the consumer’s per cord cost: Moore has to buy waste wood to fire the kiln, there’s the extra handling, and electricity costs to run the kiln. In the end their profit margin is about the same as on seasoned wood. “The advantage to us is that we have dry firewood year round,” said Moore.
After a few days in the kiln the moisture content is about 15 percent, he said.
“People are pleasantly surprised with the product,” Moore said. “It’s nice wood. Kiln-dried wood takes all the questions out of firewood. A homeowner knows they’re getting a superior product. There’s no dirt on it and it’s clean. People appreciate that and are willing to pay more for it.”
You might think that all heat is created equal. Firewood dealers, stove salesmen and wood stove devotees beg to differ. Wood stoves put out a “more penetrating,” more room-filling, cozier, comfier heat, they say. A more satisfying heat.
Ernie Gurney and his partner Pam Wegman are among those loyal to wood heat. They put up about eight cords a year to feed the wood furnace in their house near Rangeley and two residences they serve as caretakers for.
They buy tree length or eight-foot logs that Gurney saws to stove length and splits. “It’s my exercise program. I put in an hour or two a day in the spring and summer processing it,” Gurney said.
The cost of wood is cheaper than oil, but largely because they buy logs and do the cutting and splitting. And that cost has gone up. They paid $125 a cord for their latest shipment, Gurney said. Even if oil and wood were at par, however, they’d probably stick with wood, he said. “The nature of wood heat makes it a different kind of warmth. It’s a warmth that tends to permeate the area.”
One thing might alter their loyalty to wood, he says: if they just couldn’t physically do it any more.
That happens. In fact, it’s probably one of the factors behind the growth in pellet stoves, which today hold a 30 percent market share. Farnum at Northern Lights Hearth and Sports’ in Farmington said stove sales in his area are split about evenly between traditional wood stoves and pellet stoves.
“Pellets have come on strong in the last five years,” Farnum said. Processing your own firewood “is a lot of work. If you’re physically able to do it and have the time it’s a good thing. Then you have people who’ve burned wood for 30 to 35 years and can’t do it any more and they’re moving into pellet stoves.”
So what’s the future of wood heat? Many things could influence that: The price of wood, and the recently lower price of oil. New federal regulations designed to reduce particulate pollution from wood stoves and outdoor boilers could add to the cost of a wood stove. Or might not. Increasing availability of natural gas could have an impact over time.
The NFA’s Salveson predicts “moderate” growth in wood burning over the next five years. “Many people are coming to see firewood as an ecological resource. Sustainable and renewable,” and emitting little pollution, he said.
If oil prices stay low some people may be seduced into filling their tanks and letting thei firewood piles dwindle said Moore, though not everyone will. “Are we ever going to get away from it entirely. Absolutely not. There’s always going to be demand for firewood.”
Joe Rankin harvests, splits and stacks five cords of firewood a year to heat his New Sharon house.