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Alternate Heat | Fall 2003 Out Here Magazine

As temperatures tumble, keep your heating bills low

By Hannah Wolfson

Photography courtesty of United States Stove

A cozy family room and toasty kitchen are requirements this winter. But does the bill for a nice warm house chill you to the bone? You can cut heating costs any number of ways, ranging from turning down the thermostat to installing alternative heat sources.

The simplest way to save is to use less energy in the first place, says Davis Bookhart, senior project director with the Consumer Energy Council of America. Before cold weather arrives, seal windows and doors, check ducts for leaks, and make sure your insulation is up to snuff.Turning down the thermostat also can save money. Dropping your heat back 10 degrees for eight hours a day can lower your heating bill by 5 percent.

If you're remodeling, try incorporating passive solar features, which make the most of the sun's rays to provide free heat. Broad, south-facing windows will bring in extra warmth. Tile, brick, or even concrete floors will absorb heat during the day and then release it after dark.These low-tech ideas have been around for centuries. "There's so many things that people figured out hundreds of years ago and we've forgotten about, which is too bad," Bookhart says.

One of the oldest heating methods — wood — still is very much in demand, especially with energy prices on the rise, says Rodger Castleberry, vice president of sales and marketing for United States Stove Co. in South Pittsburg, Tenn.

A renewed demand for wood stoves began 30 years ago with the first oil crisis, Castleberry says. "America turned to woods stoves. They're very economical, easy to install, and they cut the heating bills substantially," he says.

Sales fluctuate, but as primary fuel costs spike each year, so do sales of stoves fueled by wood, coal, and wood pellets, he says. And all indications are that alternative heating will be particularly popular this winter, because primary heating costs — electricity, natural gas, propane — are expected to rise sharply, Castleberry says.

No longer are wood stoves the pot-bellied behemoths at old country stores; newer models are highly effective in supplementing oil, gas, or electric heat.

"I think what people are looking for now are stylish and contemporary plate-steel stoves," says Jim Pitchford, sales manager at United States Stove. These stand-alone models, which cost between $500 and $700, come with glass doors so you can enjoy the fire and blowers to circulate the air. Better yet, they emit less air pollution than traditional cast-iron stoves.

Another alternative is the wood-burning furnace. Set side-by-side with a conventional furnace, wood-burners — which range in cost from $900 to $1,800 — can heat an entire home with wood or coal.

High-tech options for whole-house heating range from geothermal heat pumps, which draw warmth from within the ground, to zone heating, in which each room has its own heat source. But the real wave of the future, Pitchford says, is the corn-burner.

Yes, these stoves really burn dried corn, along with wood pellets, soybeans, even cherry pits. Pollution-free, they can run all day on a 40-pound bag of fuel. Though they cost between $1,000 and $1,500 they're catching on.

Hannah Wolfson is a writer based in Birmingham, Ala.