In some parts of Kentucky, 'a lot more people burning wood' to heat homes

There's wood smoke rolling from more chimneys around Kentucky these days than just a few years ago.

The number of homes using wood as a primary heating source — measured by heat consumption — hit a 40-year low in the state in 2001, but the number has rebounded to more than double what it was that year, according to information from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

James Davenport, who lives in Casey County and sells firewood, can vouch for the statistics. Davenport said demand has been so great that his stockpile was lower than it had been in years. He was working in a cold wind last week to split more wood.

"I know there's a lot more people burning wood," he said.

The increase mirrors a national trend.

The number of U.S. homes where people heated primarily with wood went up from 1.9 million in 2005 to 2.5 million in 2012, an increase of 30 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The increase has been particularly marked in the Northeast, where wood use increased more than 50 percent in 10 states, according to the agency.

Nationwide, 2.1 percent of homes use wood as their main heating fuel.

The figure is higher in Kentucky — 2.8 percent, or more than 47,000 homes, according to the Kentucky Energy Profile 2014, which includes information on energy production and consumption in the state.

Those figures were from 2012. That's the last year with reliable data, but indications are that wood use has held steady since, said Aron Patrick, an analyst with the Energy and Environment Cabinet involved in researching and writing the energy profile.

Lewis and Casey counties had the most homes in 2012 where wood was the main heating fuel, with more than 20 percent each. Altogether, there were 19 counties where more than 10 percent of the homes used wood heat.

Price is one key reason for interest in the world's oldest home-heating fuel.

Patrick said the price of electricity, natural gas and propane went up from 2003 to 2010.

"As the price of one fuel rises, the consumer searches for cheaper alternatives such as wood," he said.

Arvis Pat Wesley, a retired school-bus driver in Casey County, said he chose wood over electricity because of the price.

He and his wife, Sarah Jane, had used wood for years to heat their farmhouse but had a heat pump installed three winters ago.

They still use it for cooling, but they went back to wood for heating after getting a bill for more than $300 that winter.

It takes storage space and a bit more work to heat with wood, such as carrying it in and feeding the fire, and it can mean getting up during the night to add more fuel.

But it's not a big chore, Wesley said.

"It don't take two to three minutes to get a couple sticks of wood and stick it in there," Wesley said.

Besides, he said with a grin, his wife is the one who tends the fire in the middle of the night if needed.

Davenport said he liked the convenience of electric heat when he and his wife moved to a doublewide mobile home with a heat pump.

"I thought it was slick, turning that thermostat, until I got a bill," he said — $400 for January.

Davenport, 40, put in a wood stove and cut a hole in the roof for the flue.

"It stays comfortable here," he said.

The cost of heating with wood compared to other fuels varies depending on a number of factors, including access to wood.

Many people would rather use wood heat because they think it's warmer than electric heat.

Kathryn Sayers, who lives in Casey County, said she and her husband put in a wood-burning stove for heat when he built their home in 1978 because they like the warmth of wood. Plus, she can dry clothes or cook on the stove if needed, which came in handy when their electricity was out for several days one winter, she said.

"The best pinto beans you ever ate are cooked on a wood stove," Sayers said.

Doug Buis, whose family has run Buis Appliance & Furniture in the small Pulaski County town of Eubank since the mid-1950s, said demand was up for wood and gas stoves.

It can take weeks now to get products from one maker that he used to be able to get delivered in three days. The manufacturer is working overtime to keep up with orders, Buis said.

"Every day somebody's coming in the first time," looking for a stove, he said.

Paul Martin, who has run a store in rural Casey County for more than 30 years, now called Dutchman Metal, said his supply of wood stoves sold out quickly this winter.

"I got a bunch of stoves and they were all gone," Martin said. "People are really going to wood."

Manufacturers have expressed concern that a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would drive up the price of new stoves, making it more difficult for people to afford them.

The federal agency wants stove makers to upgrade technology to cut emissions of fine particles and other pollutants, which it says hurt air quality.

The rule would apply only to units made after it took effect.

The industry supports new standards, but the proposed standard would be difficult to meet and could drive small stove makers out of business, representatives have told the agency.

The EPA, which said the benefits would outweigh the costs, has not finalized the rule.