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Posted at 10:12 AM on Sunday, October 15, 2000

Heating alternatives
Higher natural gas prices leading many to consider fireplaces

The Salina Journal

TOM DORSEY / The Salina Journal
Jim Kerby, co-owner of Milestone Hearth Service & Stove Store, puts the

finishing touches on brick work around a new fireplace Tuesday at a Salina


Steve Miles and Jim Kerby expect to be busy when frost forms in the fall.

But this season they're swamped.

"We're booking into November," said Miles, co-owner of Milestone Hearth Service and Stove Store, with Kerby, his brother-in-law. They sell, install and service gas and wood-burning fireplaces and stoves.

More customers than ever are finding their way to the store at 245 S. Fifth, which opened in 1994, but their motivation is not so much the shivers as it is the savings.

"Most people that are coming in are expressing concern, anticipating higher heating costs," said Miles who has been in the business 22 years, "and they express an interest in keeping their heating bills down. A lot of people are expecting a harsh winter."

Alternative forms of heating are commanding consumer attention since temperatures dipped into the 20s, said Pat Wingler, manager of the Sutherlands home improvement center, 2450 S. Ninth, especially with an Energy Department prediction that prices of conventional fuels, like natural gas, are going up this winter.

"We always do pretty well with them," Wingler said of wood stoves that were featured in a recent Sutherlands sales circular.

Sales could be even more brisk this season, he said, driven by escalating fuel costs.

They could definitely climb this winter, said Dave Payne, president of Payne Oil, 410 W. North, a propane dealer.

"There's some potential for some high prices, certainly if crude oil stays as high or goes higher," Payne said, adding that cold weather "could drive prices up in a hurry."

Miles said customers have reported cutting their heating bills in half with wood-burning stoves.

Stoves and fireplaces

Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves are a cozy addition to home heating systems, but they also represent fire dangers. Here are some tips to consider before burning wood in your home this winter:

  • Each year, have your chimney professionally inspected and clean out any creosote deposits. To minimize buildup, burn only dry, seasoned hard wood in fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, and never burn trash. Avoid burning pine and cedar wood.

  • Do not use flammable liquids to start the fire.

  • Don't use excessive amounts of paper to build roaring fires. It is possible to ignite soot in the chimney by overbuilding the fire.

  • Never burn charcoal in your fireplace or wood stove. It gives off deadly amounts of carbon monoxide.

  • Be sure no flammable materials hang down from or decorate your mantel. A spark hitting them could ignite these materials and cause a fire.

  • Never leave a fire unattended. When you go to bed, be sure your fireplace fire is out. Never close your damper with hot ashes in the fireplace. A closed damper can help hot ashes build up heat to the point where a fire could flare up and ignite the room while you are asleep.

  • If your fireplace or wood stove hasn't been used for some time, have it and the chimney checked before using it.

  • Follow the directions on the package if you use man-made logs. Never break a man-made log apart to quicken the fire.

  • When installing a wood-burning unit, read and follow manufacturer's specifications, and follow local building and fire codes.

  • Close the screen or heat-tempered glass door when the unit is in use, to prevent sparks from igniting furniture, draperies or other items.

  • Stack newspapers, wood, matches and other items that might catch fire, away from the fireplace or wood stove.

  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends installing at least one carbon monoxide detector per household. The colorless, odorless gas is deadly.

    -- Sources: Steve Moody, interim chief, Salina Fire Department, and Steve Miles, co-owner, Milestone Hearth Service & Stove Store.

  • "The stove is providing constant heat, so when a furnace does come on, it doesn't have to run so long," he said, "and it doesn't come on as often."

    Modern wood stoves are 70 percent efficient, whereas an open fireplace is 10 percent efficient at best. They can actually cost you money by sucking warm air up the flue.

    "The airtight stoves prevent you from losing so much heat up the chimney," Miles said.

    The bulk of Milestone's sales are wood stoves, and there has been some movement in stoves that burn wood pellets. The wood-burning units aren't cheap. Average cost, with installation, ranges from $2,500 to $3,500.

    "I think people can justify installing them because they pay for themselves in savings," Miles said.

    He said gas stoves and gas logs for fireplaces are more for atmosphere, but in the past 10 years there has been a buying trend for those products.

    "They put out heat, but I can't say they're going to save any money," Miles said.

    Payne questions the wisdom of some consumers who seek to lower their heating costs by burning wood.

    TOM DORSEY / The Salina Journal
    Steve Miles poses with one of the wood-burning stoves for sale at Milestone Hearth Service & Stove Store, 245 S. Fifth. Miles and his brother-in-law Jim Kerby own the store, which has been open since 1994. They also sell wood- and gas-burning fireplaces.
    "The only way wood is cheaper than gas at any price is if you cut it yourself," he said. "If you buy it, you'll pay a lot more per Btu."

    A Btu, or British thermal unit, is the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of a pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit.

    Miles disagreed. He said even though the savings would be greatest if one went to the work of cutting wood, there would be a savings also in purchasing firewood. A cord of wood -- a stack 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long -- costs from $100 to $150.

    "I haven't burned two cords of wood in a winter in a long time," he said. "If you're getting it yourself, you're definitely going to see a savings. Either way, you're going to see a savings."

    Miles said wood stoves also serve as backup heat in case of a power outage.

    Fires add risk

    Any form of home heating carries risks for fire and carbon monoxide poisoning. Adding diversity to your system requires being that much more careful, said Steve Moody, interim chief of the Salina Fire Department.

    "If rates go up, we anticipate more people might try to save a buck by using alternative ways of heating," he said. "More people may be looking to heat with wood. You can do that safely if you use precautions."

    Any heating system should be checked by professionals and maintained, Moody said. Miles and Kerby advocate the National Fire Protection Association's recommendations: Have your chimney inspected annually and cleaned when necessary.

    Soot and creosote, substances of unburned particles that collect in the flue, can ignite and pose a fire danger, Miles said. Bird nests and other items in the chimney can also cause problems.

    "The biggest producer of creosote," he said, "is not giving the wood stove proper oxygen."

    Dense, hard woods -- oak and walnut -- are the best to burn, Miles said, but they're hard to find. Medium-grade woods like locust and hackberry, are more common in this area. Wood should be dry and not green.

    The partners have enjoyed the heavy sales, but they admit it would be better if the business was steady throughout the year.

    "The best time to call us is in the spring and summer," Kerby said.

    Wood stoves have to meet strict government standards for emissions, Miles said, and that has reduced the number of manufacturers from hundreds in the 1970s to about 20 today. But better designs have reduced the required distance from a combustible wall from 3 feet to a minimum of 5 inches with some models. The average distance is 10 to 12 inches.

    "You have to make sure they're installed correctly," he said. "If they are used properly and maintained, they are safe."

    *  Reporter Tim Unruh can be reached at 823-6464, Ext. 137, or by e-mail at

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