By Sally Anderson Cook
Winter is still months away, but homeowners finding fuel oil costs skirting the $5 per gallon mark, have already begun to worry about next winter's heating bills.
In many cases, they are searching for energy options that range from solar and cord wood to pellets and propane.
"One thing we're finding is that people are scared to death," said Bob Starr, owner of Radiantec in Lyndonville that ships heating components throughout the country. "We're getting so many calls from people who want us to do something magical."
That hope for something "magical" brings people to Radiantec because the company is a pioneer in the solar and radiant heating system fields.
"It's basically gone through the roof. It's almost more than we can handle," Starr said of the demand for solar technology for heating." It's an investment of course and it's gone up, but not as much as heating oil."
Most of the demand is from residential customers, since new construction is way down, he said. So far in July, business is up 60 percent, but in May and June, solar sales were up 40 percent each month.
The good thing about solar, he said, is that customers can do a little, such as putting in solar for domestic hot water, or a lot for more gains.
Solar energy may be used to retrofit an existing house for savings of 25 percent to 35 percent or for maximum gain built into a new house of solar design for 90 percent of its heating.
A new house that has some of the requirements for heating with solar energy such as radiant heat and is winterized efficiently may realize gains somewhere in between, probably 50 percent or even more.
"It's the kind of thing people want to do as much as they can," Starr said. "It's environmentally friendly and energy efficient."
Some of the uses of surplus warm water in the warmer months are turned toward heating gardens or watering with warm water early.
"That way, people can compost efficiently and grow their own vegetables so they don't have to rely on produce grown elsewhere with a lot of chemicals, preservatives and pesticides, he noted.
"The cost of a solar system yields 20 to 50 percent in energy savings, which is surprising good up here," Starr said. "That's a 14 percent yield tax free when oil was a $1 per gallon. So, it's even more now."
Besides the energy gain, Starr says his company likes it because its also a reduction in carbon footprint.
A good place to start researching solar energy for heat is on the Radiantec Web site where there are links to a solar library, New Shelter Magazine articles, and the U.S. Department of Energy Report.
Propane Eyed For Conversions
With propane viewed as more stable in price and slightly less than heating oil, there seems to be growing interest in that source. Propane is technically tied to fuel oil since it is a product of the cracking process that produces various grades of heating oil as well as gasoline.
Besides solar, Radiantec recommends the large Polaris water heater with a big heat exchanger making it 95 percent efficient for heating hot water used in radiant under-floor heating systems.
"It's the most efficient unit out there," Starr said. "It has a good size tank, and you can put a big heat exchanger in it."
Interest in gas is on the upswing, according to Amerigas customer service representative Deb Taylor.
"We've had a lot of inquiries about locked in prices from both regular customers and potential new customers," Taylor said. "Right now, we're offering locked in prices of $2.84.9 per gallon a minimum of 300 gallons."
People are wondering if they can convert their existing oil furnaces to propane. It's only a matter of changing the gun, she explained.
"There's more interest for home heating than for hot water - new homes especially," she said.
Free-standing propane stoves or fireplaces are also offered by gas supply companies, and Taylor said the direct vent is about 80 percent efficient while the power vented type are the highest efficiency at 90 percent. They cost on average of $1,400.
Cord Wood And Pellet Stoves
Currently, the biggest demand right now is for free-standing pellet stoves as supplies of hardwood pellet fuel struggle to keep up in the Northeast Kingdom.
"We have one company that can ship free-standing pellet stoves now," said Cheryl Mitchell, who along with her husband, Steve, own Littleton Pool, Spa, and Stoves in Lyndonville. "We have 15 ordered from another company that we are hoping to have by September and some companies won't have any available until next year."
But, she said there seems to be no problem with other pellet burners like indoor and outdoor wood and pellet furnaces and fireplace inserts that are all in stock or available.
Last year, pellets were selling at the store for $215 per ton, but this year they are $270 ton, she said.
"Right now, I have none to sell," Mitchell said. "I have nine tons ordered, but they can't promise when or if I'll get them. They are having a hard time finding them."
The price of stoves has gone up too, about 30 percent, due to an increase in steel costs, she said.
Fireplace inserts are at $2,700 and up, inside free-standing stoves begin at $2,200, inside boilers go for $5,700 and the outside wood burners are on special at $4,895, she said.
At Agway in Lyndon, pellets are starting to catch up with demand which is a long waiting line, but they cost $300 per ton.
"The number one seller here is pellet stoves," said DeeDee Collette, owner of Collette Plumbing and Heating in Orleans. "They have been the best sellers for eight weeks."
But, right now there is a 42-day wait for her popular line of Quadrafire brand stoves.
The free-standing pellet burners start at $2,299, while the fireplace inserts start at $2,518, and they are available.
"We've also had a lot of inquiries about free-standing wood stoves, but that could be because they are having a hard time finding hardwood pellets," Collette said.
While she doesn't sell pellets, she bought enough for the winter for her stove from Colton's for $240 a ton. A ton includes 50, 40-pound bags, and the average home of about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet could be heated with 4 tons for the winter.
"They are very, very efficient," she said of both the free-standing or the fireplace inserts.
At Appalachian Supply Company in St. Johnsbury, outdoor wood furnaces have been selling very well, Roger Kendall said. "Sales have at least doubled compared to last year," he said.
They run about $10,000 for an outdoor wood or propane burner or $7,500 for an outdoor pellet furnace.
Free-standing pellet stoves have an eight- to 10-week delivery time, he said. Pellets there are priced at $290 per ton.
Tips To Remember
Key points to remember for new wood or pellet burning customers is that the fuel must be stored in a dry place, or it will get soggy and not burn well, according to Logan Brown of Efficiency Vermont.
"Pellets are like rabbit food. They have to be kept dry," he said.
"People also have to remember they have to be able to move them around," he said, referring to the weight and mass of the 40-pound bags.
Another tip for homeowners he had was if people are going to resurrect an old wood stove to use this winter they ought to have it thoroughly checked out, and make sure they have a safe, clean chimney.
With concerns about heat for this winter, Brown is also worried about people bringing back inside those ventless kerosene heaters like Kerosun that were supposed to be safe but weren't.
"Vent free heaters are especially dangerous, if people have been weatherizing their homes," he said.
Again, he said Efficiency Vermont has found that the most important thing people can do is to weatherize their homes, when it comes to saving on heating costs regardless of the fuel.
"The markets are constantly changing," he noted.
By Sally Anderson Cook
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