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North country residents adopt creative home-heating methods as fuel prices rise


When Deborah P. Massell and Jackson L. Francisco were designing the energy-efficient home currently near completion on their Potsdam plot, they were motivated by the traditional factors that push and pull on the average homeowner: a desire to live in an environmentally efficient — and cost-effective — manner.

But they also were motivated by a factor on the minds of north country residents during this year’s frigid winter: the desire for a radiating, long-lasting warmth that conjures images of reclining by a fire with tea and a book inside the safe confines of home while the temperature steadily plunges and the sun long has since retreated.

To get that kind of heat, the duo has constructed a custom 10,000-pound masonry-mass wood stove that works in conjunction with surrounding soapstone and a sand-insulated, 6-inch-thick concrete slab — as well as 1,600 pounds of lime plaster on the walls — to store and radiate heat from all sides. The house, which is 2,000 square feet, also is passive solar, a method of building that relies on near air-tight insulation and a design orientation that takes advantage of heat from the sun. The house has windows angled south to maximally absorb the sun’s rays.

“Our house is like a battery,” Mr. Francisco said. “It takes on a charge and then very slowly lets that charge out.”

While retailers say relatively inexpensive natural gas prices have led to somewhat of a plateau in sales of renewable appliances such as pellet stoves, many north country residents have turned to alternative methods of home heating — from the numerous iterations of wood-fueled stoves to simple passive solar designs, many of which hearken to basic, ancient principles rather than advanced technology.

Despite seemingly beneficial forces — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s recent legislation promising support for the renewable heat industry, the opening of ReEnergy on Fort Drum that some say is driving up the price of heating wood, and the cost increases of other fuels — the decision to retrofit a house with a renewable, more efficient or just more convenient heating system remains a challenging and often expensive proposition.


Although the most traditional and simplest of home-heating methods, wood is used by only 14 percent of households in St. Lawrence County, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In Jefferson County, the figure is 8 percent, and in Lewis County it’s close to 30 percent.

Over the past four to five years, wood stoves have become much more efficient, increasing the amount of wood that gets fully combusted and thereby maximizing the heat produced per unit input, said Clarkson University engineering professor Philip K. Hopke, who has conducted several studies on fuel efficiency.

New catalytic stoves and inserts, known for their long, even heat output, have efficiencies up to 83 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, which notes that while advanced combustion wood stoves provide significant heat, they often work efficiently only when the fire burns full-throttle so it gets hot enough to burn combustible gases, with temperatures reaching 1,100 degrees.

Advanced combustion stoves use a metal channel that heats secondary air and feeds it into the stove over the fire, burning volatile gases but not slowing combustion. Catalytic stoves tend to cost $2,000 to $3,000 but use less wood and last longer with proper operation, according to the Alliance for Green Heat, a nonprofit that works to educate the public on wood and pellet heat.

The Alliance says about 80 percent of stoves sold in the United States are non-catalytic, a method that uses air injection to ignite smoke. Such stoves are cheaper, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, and are easier to operate, holding a fire overnight or throughout the day without the need to reload. And they have efficiencies of about 65 to 75 percent.

Masonry stoves, a technology retooled from ancient principles that “represent the oldest, high-efficiency way of heating with wood,” are large heaters built with some type of thermal mass such as ceramic, tile or bricks, according to the alliance.

The premise of the masonry stove is a variation on the rocket stove, which is good for quick heating and cooking and uses a high-temperature burn chamber with a secondary air supply. In the masonry stove, heat travels through various channels, warming the thermal mass, which then radiates warmth in a gentle, long-lasting heat. The stove minimizes the release of volatile compounds in the burning process, as a secondary burn chamber inside the main steel portion introduces new air that then burns them at temperatures upward of 1,200 degrees. The upstairs damper is closed when the fire is down to coals to limit air movement.

Masonry stoves are a means to address the shortfalls of wood stoves and rocket-mass heaters, according to Jerry J. Bartlett, who lives in an off-grid, uniquely wood-heated home in Colton.

“I’ve found a way to easily and cheaply modify an older wood stove that would give me the cleanliness of the rocket-mass heater but have the ability to do far more than the rocket-mass heater,” he said.

Mr. Bartlett found a large mid-1970s fisherman’s stove with a step-up design and flat surface for cooking, which he lined with 2-inch-thick fire brick so that he could heat the stove to temperatures hot enough to burn wood cleanly without burning the metal. He placed three tons of textured cement landscaping stones around the stove, which absorb the vast majority of the heat it generates.

Though it takes some time for the house to heat up — four to five hours — once it does, “it’s like a sun; they radiate all night long,” he said.

Testament to how cleanly his stove burns, he said, is that he only a few weeks ago cleaned the chimney for the first time in eight years of having the stove, and only emptied two coffee cans of ash, a level of efficiency he attributes to the presence of the bricks, which allow for high-temperature burning.

And such a modified wood stove is something “absolutely anyone could do,” he said; the fire brick he used is available in most home goods stores. He said he paid only $60 for the brick and about $150 for the three tons of cement stones.

Not only does his stove generate warmth throughout his house, it uses less wood than a traditional wood stove: he went from about 11 cords a year to seven or eight.

“It’s less wood, and the wood is doing more,” he said.

When it plummeted to 30 below outside earlier this winter, he said the temperature in his house reached 80 degrees.

“If there was some way of doing it better, I’d take the whole thing out and do it,” he said of the stove setup.

Masonry stoves range from about $8,000 for factory-built models to $20,000 for on-site-built ones, according to the Alliance for Green Heat.

The masonry stove in the home of Ms. Massell and Mr. Francisco is a Finnish Contraflow design made by Maine Wood Heat. In the center of their home, it’s surrounded by soapstone cladding, a material made of talc and magnesite known for its abilities to conduct heat. The stove burns two small fires every 24 hours; Ms. Massell said the stove typically uses 40 pounds of wood every 12 or 24 hours.

The house also has electric heat as a backup, but rarely requires it. “The masonry heater is doing all of it,” she said.

The house also is heavily insulated, using spray-foam insulation and cellulose, with 6-inch-thick walls and an 11 -inch-thick ceiling.

All features combined, but particularly because of the stone’s thermal mass, Ms. Massell said that in temperatures of 20 below, she could open the door for an hour and the temperature of the house would change only one degree.


The pellet stove, fueled by compressed sawdust or wood chips made of forestry or other wood residuals, is the wood stove’s counterpart in convenience and is making slight gains in north country homes, retailers say.

Of the 114 million households in the United States, nearly 22 million own a stove, and about 13 percent of those — roughly 2.8 million — use pellets, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, which does not track use by county or region.

Since many in the north country heat with cord wood, “pellets have become a natural transition,” said Michael J. Newtown, a SUNY Canton engineering professor who studies biofuels, including grass and pellets.

“If you’re looking for supplemental heat, these are ideal ways to do it,” he said. “Pellets are definitely inexpensive compared to fuel oil.”

While pellet stoves can cost $500 more than wood stoves, installation costs typically are much lower, as pellet stoves often can be configured to run through existing heat ducts without installing a chimney.

At Sundance Leisure, Watertown, costs range from $1,789 to $4,679.

Most homeowners buy pellets in 40-pound bags, and costs range, depending on the type of wood, from $210 to $245 a ton. Most pellet stoves take about a bag or two a day.

“You don’t have to go out and throw logs onto an outdoor wood boiler — you get the pellet bin filled up and you set it and forget it,” said Mr. Hopke, the Clarkson professor. “In terms of ease of use, it’s going to be much more comparable to oil or a propane burner, depending on how much bother you’re willing to put up with.”

Residential sales of pellets are up this year, according to Patrick J. Curran, CEO and president of Curran Renewable Energy, Massena, which supplies pellets throughout the north country and as far west as Michigan. He said his business anticipates selling about 70,000 tons this season, but has the capacity to produce another 30,000 and could have sold 25 percent more volume if the company had the cash flow during the off-season production period.

While sales were tapering off by mid-January last year, Mr. Curran said the company hopes to run through the remainder of this year producing pellets seven days a week due to high demand. Pellets have been scarce at many north country retail outlets in the last month.

“Going forward, we anticipate the market is going to be a little stronger,” Mr. Curran said.

He estimates that 90 percent of customers who buy from Curran are using the pellets for stoves, as opposed to the larger-scale boilers and furnaces that have been widely adopted in Europe.

While pellet stoves have evolved, Mr. Curran said, “the ultimate pellet appliance hasn’t been built.” He said he believes that appliance would incorporate features of highly efficient European boilers, such as improved self-cleaning. Pellet stoves do require slightly more maintenance compared with natural gas or propane setups, he said; routine tasks include emptying the ash drawer and cleaning the burn pot, ash traps and glass.

Sales of pellet stoves at Sundance Leisure have been “pretty steady” as well, said sales consultant Julie M. Hutton. She said sales have “dipped slightly” since oil prices peaked in 2008, but she said the stoves are still popular; the store sells about 10 percent more pellet stoves than wood stoves.

Ms. Hutton has had two pellet stoves in her own home for more than five years, as well as a propane burner. The stoves enable the house to run the burner less and, between the two, she said she spends about $800 in pellets each year and a “very minimal amount of gas.”

“I didn’t want the mess of wood,” she said. And there’s the convenience factor — she can feed the stove a 40-pound bag of pellets once a day, leave for extended periods, and the house is “plenty warm.”


In January, Curran Renewable Energy raised pellet prices 2.5 percent — the first increase in more than a year, Mr. Curran said. The hike was the result of increases in the cost of business, such as rising fuel prices. Mr. Curran said he believes the small increase shows a stability in the pellet market not seen in the prices of other fuels such as propane, which has skyrocketed this winter amid shortages and bitter cold in much of the country.

The weekly price of residential propane in New York stood at $4.19 per gallon last week in the north country, up from $3.07 the same week last February, according to NYSERDA. Residential heating oil was up about 10 cents a gallon in the same time frame. Natural-gas prices, while low for some time, have been on a less precipitous rise.

“There’s a market and need for all fuels,” Mr. Curran said. “If a person has natural gas running through the front yard, the economics make sense to use it.”

Many in the firewood business have said prices this winter have increased amid a scarcer supply, as several area loggers are locked into supply contracts with the ReEnergy biomass facility on Fort Drum, which chips forestry residuals for power generation.

Mr. Curran said he believes some of that increase can be attributed to higher fuel costs, and said the price of pellets hasn’t been directly affected.

Long term, though, they could be, according to Thomas P. Maguire, owner of Burrville Power Equipment, Watertown.

While he hasn’t raised prices this winter, he said they could increase $2.50 to $3 a cord next season as it becomes more difficult to get firewood from suppliers who have guaranteed a supply to ReEnergy.

Although that means increases of only $30 to $40 a winter for the average homeowner, “it’s another expense,” he said.

Ms. Sutton, of Sundance Leisure, said it’s too early to assess the implications of wood shortages, as she believes the frigid winter has led many to reactivate dormant wood stoves to combat rising fuel bills.

“I think people who have not been burning wood added to the demand that we haven’t seen in years past,” she said, calling it possibly more a circumstantial shortage than a trend. She said the pellet supply is tight currently, in large part because suppliers underestimated the need after last year’s mild winter.

And while it’s still too early to tell, she said, “the downside long term, if cord wood is getting tight, pellets are made from wood, so it makes sense that that could be a domino effect affecting the pellet supply.”


In his 2014 State of the State address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced an initiative called Renewable Heat NY, heralded as a means to harness the potential of forests, which cover 63 percent of the state. The initiative “will help catalyze a sustainable, private-sector-driven market for biomass heating — a renewable and highly efficient heating source derived from low-grade wood harvested from our forests,” the governor said. The first year of the program will focus on consumer awareness of biomass heating.

Mr. Curran said he hopes the initiative has some impact on his production. He’d like to see the state look into building what he calls “strategic pellet reserves.” With the north country’s long winters, suppliers such as Curran have only about five months to amass inventory.

“The reserve would help level prices and keep supply in tact,” he said.


Aside from investing in technology, many others have turned to passive solar home designs, which make use of the concept of a home’s orientation to maximize natural heating, as well as strong insulation.

Five years ago in Canton, Peter E. and Elizabeth B. Van de Water built a home on the Grasse River with a south-facing design that, coupled with its windows and insulation, is saving them $800 to $1,000 per year in heating costs. The house has 14 solar panels, as well as windows with low-E glass that provide light and passive solar heat. The house also is built into the hillside so that three sides of a finished basement are covered with earth: natural insulation. Timber-frame construction using native hemlock, as well as maple floors and cherry woodwork, and structural-insulated panels provide thermal mass that holds in heat.

While the Van de Waters previously heated with wood — and natural gas as a backup — the labor became too much, and the couple now uses only natural gas supplemented by solar gains. Mrs. Van de Water said they considered a pellet appliance but were deterred by the cost and prospect of delivery.

“With the efficiency of the insulation of the windows and the way the house is designed and the location with all the nice sun, we thought it made sense to go with just natural gas,” she said.

In the end, sound insulation might be the first line of attack for the homeowner reluctant to spring for a new appliance.

Average prices of alternative home-heating methods vary widely depending on the type of home structure and models purchased:
nWood stoves: catalytic models range from $2,000 to $3,500, while non-catalytic ones tend to be $1,000 to $3,000.
• Masonry-mass wood stoves: from $8,000 for factory-built models to $20,000 for on-site-built models.
nPellet stoves: on average about $500 more than wood stove counterparts, but about $500 less in installation costs. Average pellet costs range from $225 to $245 per ton.
• Geothermal systems: use the soil as an exchange medium for heat, based on the concept that the ground is warmer than the air. Installation costs range from $18,000 to $30,000. Save from 25 to 50 percent on electricity use and last up to 20 years. Various federal incentive programs available to offset cost.
• Insulation techniques such as Indow Windows: inserts that cost about $250 for a 4-by-3-foot window can save as much as 19 percent on natural-gas use.
• Passive solar home designs: orient the house and use building materials to maximize entry of heat from the sun. Depending on climate and project, up-front investment costs usually are about 10 percent more than traditional 2-by-4 construction.
Sources: U.S. Department of Energy,, Passive Solar Institute and Times interviews
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