Chilly mornings in one household in Newton begin with a scoop of wood pellets to feed the wood stove inhabiting what used to be the family’s fireplace.
Yan Ni and her husband, Ying Wang, used to spend $1,000 a month on oil to heat the 86-year-old two-family unit they converted to a single-family home. While remodeling, they replaced windows, insulated the walls and roof, and converted the main heating system to natural gas.
But it was the installation of the wood-pellet stove that stoked the family’s bottom line.
“We keep it on all day long. It keeps the downstairs pretty well heated. Upstairs is all gas, but most days you never hear the heat go on,” Ni said. “The original heating system was old and not efficient. Our gas bill now in the coldest month is $200.”
The key, said Ni, an emergency room physician and mother of two daughters, is the 40-pound bag of hardwood pellets they feed the stove each day as temperatures drop. Over the course of winter, Ni said, her family uses two tons of pellets, delivered annually by South Shore Wood Pellets in Holbrook.
They keep the bags neatly stacked in the attached garage for easy access. The last batch cost about $640, including delivery, Ni said. The leftover ash they scoop out of the stove’s bottom and use as fertilizer in their vegetable garden.
“I can’t believe how green we have become,” Ni said.
Her family is not alone.
In Massachusetts, where the average cost of heating a home is $1,700 a year, 1 percent of homes are heated by wood, according to the Department of Energy Resources. Natural gas is by far the most popular heating fuel in Massachusetts, firing up 48 percent of homes, while oil continues to fuel nearly 34 percent. The other sources of heat are electricity (13 percent), propane (2.5 percent), and solar (less than 1 percent).
A few blocks away from the Wangs, Rob and Kirsten Kelley are in the midst of replacing 26 windows in their Newton home while mulling over which new natural gas system will replace their outdated and inefficient oil furnace.
The Kelleys are updating their 1849 Italianate Victorian with the help of a zero percent loan from Mass Save, a partnership of utility companies and the state aimed at helping homeowners and businesses become more energy efficient. The Kelleys qualified for a loan that covers $500 per window — which is less than the cost of the wooden Jeld-Wen replacements, but enough to make it financially feasible for the family of five.
“We are painting the insides ourselves to save another $200 per window. Times 26 windows, that is a lot,” Rob Kelley said.
The commissioner of the state Department of Energy Resources, Mark Sylvia, said his agency’s focus is on higher efficiency and lower emissions, with more than $32 million in grant programs aimed at helping residents, businesses, and municipalities upgrade older heating and cooling systems, or take advantage of renewable-energy sources, including solar power and so-called biomass fuels, such as wood pellets.
“At the end of the day, we want to provide heat and reduce costs,” Sylvia said.
Last winter, the state ran a pilot program just after Christmas to encourage homeowners to swap their old wood and coal stoves for wood pellet stoves, which are cleaner burning and more efficient. The incentive program was modest, with qualified homeowners receiving grants of $1,000 or $2,000 on a first-come, first-served basis.
The first round of the program, with just $100,000 in funding from the Department of Energy Resources, Department of Environmental Protection, and Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, drew so many applicants it ran out of money within 12 days.
A second round of grants, this time with $800,000 on tap, drew even more applicants, prompting the state to stop accepting applications altogether Jan. 27 while pledging an additional $250,000 to meet the unexpected demand.
“We see that as an indication for the demand,” said Catherine Finneran, senior director for Renewable Energy Generation at the Clean Energy Center, which administers many of the state’s subsidized energy programs. “These programs were highly popular and oversubscribed very quickly. The benefits are lower heating costs and increased environmental quality.”
A similar incentive program to help homeowners replace oil-burning furnaces with high-efficiency wood pellet furnaces also exhausted its $475,000 in funding and stopped accepting applications for grants of $7,000 to $15,000 as of Oct. 31.
No decision has been made on whether to renew the residential wood stove change-out program, but Sylvia sees wood pellets as a viable and renewable alternative to fossil fuels. In 2008, for example, the state replaced the old furnace at the Quabbin Reservoir Visitors Center with a wood pellet furnace. Doing so, Sylvia said, has saved $30,000 in annual heating costs for the facility.
Longtime Quincy oil dealer Ken Williams, president of Scott Williams Inc., said he has seen about 5 percent of his customer base on the South Shore adopt wood stoves as secondary heat sources over the years, but he does not see even the new pellet-based burners as realistic replacements for oil or gas. The average homeowner simply does not want to keep shoveling pellets into a hopper, he said.
“We are usually the last ones to find out, but when you see a customer use roughly the same amount of oil year in and year out, then drop off dramatically? That is usually indicative of someone using a wood stove or pellet stove,” Williams said. “At the same time, a lot of people I am talking to are just not running to it. It seems like a step backward, like going back to burning coal.”
Nor has Williams seen many of his oil customers rush to convert to natural gas systems, which are more complex to operate and repair.
“We put in far more new oil equipment than we lose to gas,” Williams said. “Oil is a bit more expensive now, but that is a short-term blip, the result of fracking, overproduction, and a glut on the market’’ that combined to lower the cost of natural gas, he said. The price, he predicted, “is going back up.”
National Grid spokesman Jake Navarro said the utility continues to see an increase in new customers for natural gas, whether they are converting from oil systems or through new construction.
“National Grid does not service furnaces, but our experience is not that they require more or more difficult service. It is actually the opposite, that they require less service than their oil equivalents,” Navarro said.
According to National Grid, the number of Massachusetts customers converting to natural gas went up in the last year, with 6,674 new installations between April and November, putting the company on pace to reach an anticipated 7,896 new customers for the fiscal year ending March 31. At the same time last year, National Grid had 5,899 new installations, and ended its 2012 fiscal year with 7,230 new installations.
“A lot of those are conversions but the numbers include new construction, too,” Navarro said. “As the trend shows, there is a huge demand for natural gas.”
While prices have increased in the last year, Navarro said, natural gas remains about 20 percent cheaper than oil to heat the average home. Prices still may go up as demand increases on the few pipelines bringing natural gas into New England, Navarro said, but the situation could change, with the industry considering adding at least two more supply pipelines.
Meanwhile, Williams encourages his roughly 3,500 customers to keep their homes as energy efficient as possible, including regular maintenance of furnaces and taking advantage of the home-energy audits performed by Mass Save, which offers a range of incentives to help reduce energy usage.
“Virtually every piece of equipment we sell goes through the Mass Save program,” Williams said. “Mass Save does insulation, too. Anything people can do to tighten up that thermal barrier in their homes is a plus.”
Proper budgeting also helps, said Williams, who said most of his customers take advantage of a 12-month payment plan to cover not only oil deliveries but annual maintenance of their burners, too.
Mike Torchio, co-owner of Mike Torchio & Sons Inc. heating and plumbing service in Brighton, has some simple tips for making homes cozier in winter. Hang heavier drapes on windows with only blinds. Check weather stripping around doors, and use door snakes to halt drafts coming from underneath.