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Love those stoves; Households race to switch to firewood, pellets to lower heating costs.

Byline: Thomas Caywood

Pamela and Roger Shaylor of Worcester took one look at their heating oil bill in January and decided to spend several thousand dollars on a stove that burns wood pellets to heat their home.

"That last tank of oil we bought was outrageous," Mrs. Shaylor recalled recently.

The stove was installed in their dining room in early February, and the Shaylors used only an eighth of a tank of oil for the rest of the winter, she said.

Before long, their neighbors on Mower Street were asking them how they liked the stove and eventually installing stoves in their own homes.

"There's lots of pellet stove discussions around Tatnuck now," she said.

Actually, those discussions have been going on across Central Massachusetts, judging from the stacks of wood and pellet stove permit applications local building inspectors processed all summer long, with heating oil prices pushing $4 a gallon.

State law requires residents to get local building permits before installing stoves that heat by burning firewood or wood pellets, and to have the devices inspected by a building inspector before using them.

If not installed properly, the stoves can pose serious fire and carbon monoxide hazards,

building inspectors said.

"Usually, I don't do any pellet stove inspections over the summer. I'm doing three to five a week right now," Charlton Building Commissioner Curtis Meskus said.

Even back in the oppressive heat of June, Winchendon Building Commissioner Paul Blanchard said, his office was getting an average of two inquiries about stove permits a day, and he was doing two or three inspections a week.

"It's unbelievable," agreed Fitchburg Building Commissioner Michael Gallant. "We're doing at least two or three inspections a day. It all started in early spring. It started to pick up during the summer, and now we're getting even more."

In Worcester, permits for wood and pellet stoves have more than doubled this year compared with the same period last year, officials said. From January through August of this year, the city issued 39 permits, up 129 percent from the 17 issued during the same period last year.

As in Mrs. Shaylor's neighborhood, Sanda Barry of Hubbardston said she had been hearing from neighbors and friends raving about how much money they were saving on heating with pellet stoves for years. Ms. Barry and her husband had looked at the stoves a few times, but never bought one.

Until May, that is, when the Barrys were told by their oil supplier that they'd have to shell out $3,800 for 900 gallons of oil.

"That was the turning point for us," Ms. Barry said.

They expect to break even on the roughly $1,500 they paid for a modest stove and installation this winter because their oil bills would have increased by about that much anyway.

There's just one problem: The pellets they ordered back in June haven't arrived yet. But Ms. Barry said she's told they'll be delivered before the frigid weather arrives.

Jody Carbonneau, who owns The Stove Place in Shrewsbury, said his two installation crews have been slammed with work, with more and more families like the Shaylors and the Barrys buying wood and pellet stoves in a desperate effort to save money on heating.

"There's still a huge demand, and the manufacturers are having a hard time keeping up," Mr. Carbonneau said.

One pellet stove manufacturer recently told him that in just 11 days it had received enough orders from retailers to keep the factory busy for nine months, Mr. Carbonneau said.

As of mid-September, The Stove Place had a waiting list that stretched all the way to December, meaning customers had to wait more than two months for their stove to arrive in the store, he said. Pellet fuel also can take months to get now amid the heightened demand.

"People are looking for help. They are looking at $800 bills every three weeks for oil fill-ups; that's $4,000 to $5,000 a winter," Mr. Carbonneau said.

The cost of buying and installing a high-end pellet stove, including installing the ventilation pipes, ranges from $3,000 to $4,000, he said. The price of wood pellet fuel also has gone up with increasing demand, but still sells for less than fuel oil, according to Mr. Carbonneau.

Wooden pellets have risen sharply in price since the summer and now cost about $7.50 a bag, or $375 a ton. The Shaylors paid $270 a ton in July.

An average 2,000-square-foot home requires about 3 tons per heating season, Mr. Carbonneau said. That works out to roughly $1,125 a heating season at current prices, not much more than the cost of one tank of heating oil.

The appeal of that math is evident in the workload of local building inspectors.

Mr. Meskus, the Charlton building commissioner, said when he inspects a heating stove he's checking to make sure it was installed according to the manufacturer's safety guidelines, which are established in independent testing laboratories.

The key things he looks for, he said, are that the stove is far enough away from anything that can catch fire, that it's ventilated properly and that it's sitting on some sort of flame-resistant base or hearth.

Some radiant stoves - ones that heat a room simply by getting hot as opposed to circulating hot air with fans - must be at least 3 feet from combustibles such as furniture and walls, Mr. Meskus said.

Circulating stoves don't get as hot to the touch because an electric blower is circulating air around the inner housing where the fire is and then distributing that heat to the room.

Stove permits cost $50 in Fitchburg. A building inspector can usually get to a resident's house to inspect a newly installed stove within a couple of days, Mr. Gallant said.

"We do highly recommend you have it installed by a professional firm," Mr. Gallant said. "When it's installed by the homeowner, a lot of times we have to go back for a second inspection because they're not installed according to the guidelines."

One big mistake his inspectors have been seeing, Mr. Gallant said, is that the stoves don't have a noncombustible material of

proper thickness underneath to serve as a hearth. The state building code says stoves can't be installed over carpet, hardwood floors or even ceramic tile, unless the tile is installed over a noncombustible backer board.

"We watch on the outside, too. A lot of your pellet stoves are direct vented to the outside through a 4-inch pipe," Mr. Gallant said. "If the pipe isn't high enough outside it could get clogged if we get a lot of snow quickly. That could push the carbon monoxide back into the house."

"I like to see it above reaching height so nobody, just a prank, can plug it up," he added. "I'd like to see it at least 8 feet high, but I'll settle for 4."

Mr. Meskus said about half the stoves he inspects were installed by homeowners, but most are installed properly.

"I've done 40 or 50 inspections so far this year, and I've failed about three," he said.

Even when a proper installation reduces the risk of fire or carbon monoxide poisoning, health advocates and state environmental regulators worry about the overall potential pollution impact of thousands of new wood fires burning throughout the winter.

The American Lung Association has warned that in much of the country wood burning from stoves and fireplaces is the largest source of particulate matter air pollution. The wood isn't completely combusted, and tiny specks, called particulate matter, escape up the chimney or through the vent pipe into the air.

Particulate matter has been linked to adverse health affects, especially in people with cardiopulmonary illness. Even pellet stoves, which burn cleaner than traditional wood fires, produce far more particulate matter than well-tuned oil and natural gas furnaces, according to the association.

The state Department of Environmental Protection meanwhile, is concerned about the growing popularity of outdoor wood-burning heating devices that heat water that is then circulated through radiators in the home to produce heat.

DEP spokesman Edmund Coletta said the agency expects to issue new regulations governing the devices within a few months.

"We were starting to see complaints coming in saying, `The person next door installed one of these, and if the wind is blowing right, the smoke is coming in my windows,'" he added. "There's not a lot of filtering going on, and in some cases you can have thick black smoke."

Contact Thomas Caywood by e-mail at tcaywood@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTOS; CHARTS

CUTLINE: (1) Pamela E. Shaylor of Worcester, with her dog Pete, sits in front of the family's wood pellet stove, which was installed in February. (2) Two pellet stoves on display at The Stove Place in Shrewsbury, where there is a waiting list. (CHART 1) Pellet stove shipments (CHART 2) Cordwood stove shipments

PHOTOG: (1) T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG (2) ALEX WITKOWICZ (CHARTS) T&G Staff
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 25, 2008
Words:1500
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