MARQUETTE - In recent years, many people have sought the economic benefits of heating their homes or other structures by burning wood, but some officials suggest taking a close look at the idea first.
The U.S. Department of Energy says that before the 20th century, 90 percent of Americans burned wood to heat their homes. As fossil fuel use rose, the percentage of Americans using wood for fuel dropped, falling as low as one percent by 1970. Then during the energy crises of the 1970s, interest in wood heating resurfaced as a renewable energy alternative, officials said.
Energy Department officials said there are now pellet fuel appliances, which burn small pellets that look like rabbit feed and measure up to 1 inch in length. Pellets are made from compacted sawdust, wood chips, bark, agricultural crop waste, waste paper, and other organic materials. Some pellet fuel appliances can burn a wide variety of biomass fuels, including nutshells, corn kernels, small wood chips, barley, beet pulp, sunflowers, dried cherry pits, and soybeans, officials said.
Jeff Jette feeds the outdoor wood furnace situated on his Ishpeming Township property. The unit is the primary heating source for Jette's home and shop and also provides his hot water supply. (Journal file photo)
Alger County Michigan State University Extension Director Jim Isleib said a person really needs to pencil out the comparison of wood heat versus available alternatives such as natural gas, propane, electricity, fuel oil, wood pellets, et cetera.
"In recent years, cost of natural gas has gone down, and cost of stove wood has gone up, so the possible economic advantage has changed," Isleib said. "Even so, wood heat is likely to be more economical than electricity or propane in most areas of the Upper Peninsula, even with wood at $80 per cord in 8-foot lengths."
Isleib said, "there are hidden costs to burning firewood including vehicle expense, for those cutting and hauling their own firewood, power saw expenses, a person's time also has value, wood splitter rent or purchase, maybe the expense of putting up a firewood storage shed."
"People heating with wood generally pay more for homeowner insurance and this should also be considered," he said. "I don't know much about the costs of hearing with fuel oil, but I expect the comparison would be similar to propane."
The Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council said that the amount of money that can be saved by switching from electricity or fossil fuel to wood depends on the cost to install the new system, the annual cost of the fuel you are using now, the annual cost of the wood fuel you would need, and the financing arrangements.
The council said one way to determine the economic value of installing a new wood boiler is considering the time it takes for the annual fuel savings to pay for the installation - this is called the payback period. Different organizations require different payback periods.
Private businesses, for example, may require a payback period of 2 to 5 years. Government organizations typically tolerate much longer payback periods. Installations with payback periods greater than 30 years are usually considered poor projects.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.