Flame begins to flicker out in once-hot wood stove industry

Almost everyone who heats his home with fossil fuels is taking some comfort from the news that oil and natural gas are in plentiful supply this winter. But there is at least one small sector of the economy that doesn't greet this news with quite the same enthusiasm: the wood stove industry.

Like a fire left untended for too long, the industry is flickering erratically and, some suggest, threatening to go cold.

From a starting point of fewer than 200,000 units a year, wood stove sales grew steadily - if unspectacularly - between 1972 and 1978. In 1979, however, something dramatic happened. Fueled by concern over oil prices and supplies, Americans turned to energy alternatives in large numbers. The wood stove industry, in particular, turned red hot. By most estimates, sales topped 1.2 million units.

The boom lasted only one year. It is conservatively estimated that sales fell last winter to about 800,000 units. And now many of the hundreds of US stove manufacturers are overstocked and on shaky ground, says Susan O'Rourke, director of public relations for the Wood Heating Alliance in Chicago. Some manufacturers were reporting sales off by 50 percent in August - the time of year when they normally begin to pick up for the coming heating season, she says.

(Not yet known is what impact quartz and kerosene heaters are having on wood-stove sales. But both devices are far lighter, cheaper, and more convenient to use than wood stoves and, says Ms. O'Rourke, the industry is worried about them.)

One analyst, Andy Shapiro of the Wood Energy Research Corporation in Camden, Maine, says: ''The industry is probably still pumping out 1 million units a year , whereas the market is probably three-fourths of that. You can walk into a stove shop and negotiate a 10 to 50 percent discount right now. Or they'll use gimmicks like, buy a stove, get a cord of wood free. Or, buy a stove, get a set of cooking utensils.''

Mr. Shapiro, who is generally critical of the industry, adds flatly: ''It is on the verge of bankruptcy. The mortality rate as far as manufacturers going out of business is concerned is going to be quite high.''

He cites several factors as contributing to the decline:

* Public concern over the supplies of heating oil and natural gas - fed by the news media - has eased since the winter of 1978-79.

* The combination of high interest rates and consumer inability to borrow money. At retail prices upwards of $400, wood stoves are an expensive investment.

* Negative publicity about the effects of creosote - a byproduct of wood-burning - on human health.

* Consumer impatience with poor workmanship, as when stoves advertised as being airtight turn out not to be, or when door handles come uninsulated.

Last week a federal court in Vermont awarded one manufacturer a $1.3 million settlement on grounds that a competitor was marketing direct copies of its stoves. The copies, made in Taiwan, allegedly were of lower quality.

Shapiro also thinks the industry hasn't paid sufficient attention to developing newer and better products. ''I've been touting for more than five years now that they should be putting funds aside for research and development, '' he says. ''They have categorically refused. We ought to be in the fifth generation of technology; we're not even in the second.''

Others who watch the industry closely do not share Shapiro's pessimism. Says David Zackin, publisher of Alternative Energy Retailer magazine in Waterbury, Conn.: ''You're dealing with a lot of young, small companies. Most of them have been in business only three or four years. It's like any other business proposition; they're so busy putting out the stuff that they haven't taken the time'' for research.

Mr. Zackin calls 1979 a ''freaky'' year for stove sales and claims that ''if you take it out of the picture, we're still seeing an upward trend.''

''We may have to go out and sell stoves and stop being an order-taker,'' he adds. ''Some people aren't good salesmen. But the industry is not desperate. The industry is not going to go out of business.''

Indeed, says Ms. O'Rourke, the Wood Heating Alliance is taking positive steps to meet old criticisms, like establishing a certification program through its Auburn, Ala., testing laboratory. All manufacturers who want to join or to remain members of the alliance must pass the testing program and display the certification label.

''We want to help motivate increasingly efficient products,'' she says. ''We would like to develop industry standards so the government doesn't impose them.''

She also says outside influences, like federal deregulation of natural gas prices, could spur new growth in wood-stove sales.

One indicator that such growth is still possible is a survey completed last June by the Corning Glass Works of Corning, N.Y. The company, which makes heat-resistant windows and invented catalytic combusters for stoves (similar in function to catalytic converters on automobiles) questioned 20,000 male heads of households across the US and found that of the more than 13,500 who replied, 4.7 percent said they definitely would consider buying wood stoves in the next three years. Another 7.5 percent said they probably would consider such a purchase.

That, says Corning spokesman Allen Miller, translates to potential sales of 1 .2 million to 2.7 million units, or $720 million to $1.2 billion. These projections, he claims, are in line with the stove industry's own.

Even Shapiro thinks companies that come out with cleaner-burning, more energy-efficient stoves first ''will do very, very well.'' He says his firm knows of one developer in Maine whose new stove invention will burn small or large ''charges'' of wood with equal efficiency, will generate little or no creosote, and will be competitive in price with stoves on the market now. The developer reportedly is looking for a manufacturer.

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