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Why Burning Wood To Stay Warm Is Back In Vogue


People in the nation's capital looked up on Sunday to see horizontal snow on the 30th of March. Weekend snow also turned up in Connecticut, Maine and Pennsylvania, and some other places. It was one more reminder of a brutal and long winter, which for some, was also a painfully expensive winter to heat their homes. Record numbers of people have turned to an old-style and cheaper alternative: Wood.

Here's Rhode Island Public Radio's Kristin Gourlay.

KRISTIN GOURLAY, BYLINE: Every four years, an army of interviewers visits thousands of American homes to talk energy. They're dispatched from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to ask householders about everything from how much energy they use to how they heat their homes. And they've spotted a trend that might surprise you. Over the past seven years, the number of homes in the Northeast relying primarily on wood for heat jumped by about 100 percent. In Rhode Island: 150 percent.


ROSS COTTRELL: So we get this going, and I'm just going to give it a little spark here with the paper.

GOURLAY: Ross Cottrell is kneeling in front of an olive green woodstove, snapping bits of kindling to stoke a fire.


GOURLAY: And now it's getting toasty here in his mother's house in Tiverton, Rhode Island. It's a working-class neighborhood, perched on hills overlooking Mount Hope Bay.

COTTRELL: We use it here more to supplement our heat. We have a high-efficiency gas burner.

GOURLAY: Cottrell says the two fuels combined, plus some new insulation, have slashed heating bills by more than a couple thousand dollars a year. But for Cottrell, the woodstove is more than a money-saver. When the power went out during the last blizzard, his mother's was the only home on the block with heat. The stove was a lifesaver for neighbors, too, including a chilly pet lizard.

Those desires to save money and achieve a little energy independence have driven up sales of woodstoves.

MIKE MEDEIROS: My name's Mike Medeiros. We're at Hearthside Fireplace and Patio in Warwick, Rhode Island.

GOURLAY: It's a giant warehouse space off a busy road, with rows of woodstoves and fireplaces and fancy barbecues.

MEDEIROS: Surprisingly, in what has been a downed economy, we've grown, you know, 20, 25 percent every year over the past four years, and a lot of it has to do with oil prices.

GOURLAY: Medeiros says that's made woodstoves - and increasingly, pellet stoves, which burn little balls of compressed sawdust - an easy sell. What's more, new models are much more efficient, and the federal government has offered tax incentives for swapping out your old stove. But if that doesn't clinch the deal, this usually does.

MEDEIROS: The wood heat is a different kind of heat than you get out of your regular heating system. It's a saturating heat. It's hard to explain, but you feel it absorb to your bones.

GOURLAY: So, is every New Englander hauling the oil tank to the curb and hunkering down in front of a woodstove? Not exactly. But the growing crackle of all those new fires is music to the ears of John Crouch. He's a spokesman for the woodstove industry's Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

JOHN CROUCH: I fully expect that after this winter, there'll be a lot more stocking up next summer, as people lay in a good supply of wood.

GOURLAY: But don't expect woodstoves to dominate the home heating market anytime soon. They take a little more work than your average central heating system.

For NPR news, I'm Kristin Gourlay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kristin Espeland Gourlay joined Rhode Island Public Radio in July 2012. Before arriving in Providence, Gourlay covered the environment for WFPL Louisville, KY’s NPR station. And prior to that, she was a reporter and host for Wyoming Public Radio. Gourlay earned her MS from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and her BA in anthropology from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR.

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