FARMINGDALE — The falling temperature means many Mainers are scrambling to get vital resources to heat their homes, and firewood suppliers also are scrambling to meet that demand.

Wait times and prices for fire-ready wood are climbing.

“We just can’t make (firewood) fast enough,” Andy Allen, of Farmingdale’s A.W. Allen Firewood, said Thursday. “We can buy plenty of wood. It’s doing the work to get it to the customer.”

Debbie Potter, owner of Readfield-based Potter Family Firewood, said on Friday that her business is done selling wood for the season — that’s weeks sooner than usual, as they typically stop in November. She said she has seen a rise in demand in the past couple of years, but her set number of customers are all squared away for cold weather.

“We have a set number of customers and we take care of them,” she said.

Allen said he’s seeing a rise in demand because his customers don’t trust oil prices, which frequently change, and some of them want a cord for an emergency.

“That’s one cord that people (never) used to buy,” he said of the added demand. “If I get 150 calls, that’s 150 cords.”

Allen also said the long cold snap last year — which the Kennebec Journal reported was a catalyst for demand — has not been mentioned when people are buying wood.

“They seem to forget what took place,” he said. “(Buying wood) is something you’ll do tomorrow and then, all of a sudden, it’s two months later.”

Potter said that as the weather gets colder, more people panic about their firewood supply. That pushes demand higher until the chilly weather breaks for the spring.

Meanwhile, the state released a study on Tuesday that illustrated the effect of using wood pellets and chips to heat large buildings, estimating an economic impact of using Maine-manufactured wood fuel at more than $20 million — without taking into account residential and industrial use.

A lot of effort goes into making whole, untreated logs into fire-ready wood, according to Allen. Some of the wood Allen sells is dried in a kiln for three to five days before it’s dry enough to burn most efficiently. When the temperature is above freezing, the cycle takes a minimum of three days. During cold snaps, the kiln needs to burn hotter and it may take five days to dry completely. Some other logs are dried naturally over the course of a few months — called “seasoned” wood.

Despite the lengthy process, calls are pouring in by the dozen and the wait for Allen’s firewood is now three to five weeks.

“Right now, for the past three or four weeks, we get 10 to 20 calls a day,” he said. “Unfortunately, some people we have to decline.”

Prices are up a little from last year, according to Allen. He sells kiln-dried cords for $345 and seasoned cords is $290. He said that raw wood prices are about $10 to 15 higher than last year, something he attributes to pulp and paper mills paying more for the product.

The most proactive option, and the cheapest at $235 a cord, is buying green firewood. The wood — which has not yet dried completely — is best purchased between April and July to allow adequate drying time.

According to the Governor’s Energy Office, heating oil prices in Maine on Oct. 15 averaged $2.99 per gallon. According to a 2017 University of Missouri study, 1 cord of firewood is equivalent to 108 gallons of heating oil, or about $323 in oil. Allen’s prices for kiln-dried are higher, but prices for green wood and seasoned are lower.

Homes usually use 6 to 7 cords of wood during a year. The Governor’s Energy Office said average homes use 540 gallons of heating oil per year.

Like Potter, Allen said that his regular customers, of which there are about 300 at A.W. Allen, come before new customers.

Allen’s firm sells about 1,500 cords in a year. Demand comes from a 30-mile radius from his Maple Street business. He said he sells about 70 percent of his annual product from September to November, when people are stocking up at the last minute before winter begins.

“We tell them every year to get it in July and August,” he said.

Allen, who runs the business with his son, Jake, and a few helpers, told the Kennebec Journal in February that wait times are usually about two weeks. During last winter’s February cold snap, those wait times were upward of seven weeks.

Andy Allen prepares to collect logs Tuesday to process at his Farmingdale firm, A.W. Allen Firewood. “We’re shipping firewood out faster than we can make it,” he said of demand this season. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Those who are turned away, Allen said, usually are outside the business’s coverage area or simply can’t wait for the order. He said he can’t make much money selling a single cord and trucking it outside of the Augusta area, so he turns down those orders. This forces customers to look elsewhere, which Allen said could force them to get desperate for a good deal.

Allen warned that some sellers on Craigslist and other private sale platforms offer product that isn’t fire-ready and, because the customer burns more of it to get proper heat, it ends up costing the customer in the long run when the wood supply runs out early in the season.

“There’s only a few big firewood people around (and) once I tell (the customer) ‘no,’ they make three or four phone calls,” Allen said. “They might find someone on Craigslist with a cord, and that may be a good deal. Everybody wants to go shopping for the cheapest price.”

Charles Niebling, of the Portland-based firm Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, said prices for wood pellets and chips have stayed relatively stable and are dictated by the price of propane and oil, but there is little data on firewood-fueled homes.

The number of homes using wood as a primary fuel source is rising nationwide, including in Maine.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 2016, 13.1 percent of Maine’s homes — 72,713 of them — use wood as home heating fuel. That number grew by about 1 percentage point each year, from 8.7 percent — 47,475 homes — in 2009 to as high as 13.4 percent in 2015 before a slight drop in 2016. Those figures are in line with national figures.

On Tuesday, the Maine Forest Service — in partnership with Niebling’s firm — released a report documenting the economic and environmental effect of heating community, commercial and institutional buildings. The study analyzed the use of wood fuels in 2017 in hospitals, college campuses, schools, municipal buildings and private businesses.

The study found 106 new installations were made to provide heating by wood chips or pellets, mostly to cut cost from heating oil. Those installations used 19,000 tons of wood pellets and 49,000 tons of wood chips last year, while some pulp mills use up to 2 million tons.

Niebling said the pellet and chip industry is largely sustainable, as growth in Maine’s forest is currently higher than the rate of deforestation and the industry is less prominent than the pulp and paper mill sector. A ton of wood pellets can be likened to 120 gallons of heating oil and has an average cost of $250, making an average savings of about $100 per ton. Homes usually use a little more than 7 tons of pellets in a year.

The study estimated the total value of annual economic impact generated by Maine-made wood fuel was $20.6 million. The estimate was based on the cost of pellets and chips compared to heating oils and the effect of buying Maine-manufactured wood chips instead of buying oil and some of that money leaking to out-of-state refineries. Niebling said that almost 80 cents from every gallon of oil purchased in Maine returns to refineries in other states or countries.

“When you use chips or pellet, your fuel dollars are maintained in the Maine economy,” Niebling said.

The report found that there was about $5.5 million savings by using wood fuels in those aforementioned types of institutions over using oil.

The study did not evaluate residential or industrial use of wood as heating fuel, but the report released Tuesday said “these sectors have also grown significantly in the last decade and make substantial contributions to the state’s economy by displacing the need for imported oil, propane or natural gas.”

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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