NOV 5, 2006
Wood-Stove Maker Shows Mettle >


A Salem metal-parts maker tries to diversify by getting into a rare business

Zephyr Engineering, a metal-parts manufacturer, is cozying up to a new business: its own line of wood stoves, manufactured and designed in Salem.

The company has capitalized on a resurgence in wood-stove sales by creating the Zephyr Stove. Retailers have just started to sell the stoves, which Zephyr officials hope will diversify the business.

"The cycle of making other people's parts has gotten worse, not better," said Clay Dennis, the president of the Salem company. Manufacturing metal parts for motor coaches, among Zephyr's most important markets, has been off because high oil prices are squeezing RV sales. Zephyr needed to try something new, he said.

Zephyr is the first new U.S. wood- stove manufacturer in a decade, and the only company building wood stoves in Oregon, Dennis said. Strict emission standards, which are required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have thinned the ranks of U.S. wood-stove manufacturers from 550 in the mid-1980s to 18 today, he said.

"It's kind of a black art to make a wood stove that can pass the latest EPA regulations," said Dennis, a mechanical engineer with previous experience in designing wood stoves.

A wood stove no longer can be a simple steel or cast-iron box. Government tests mandate that stoves burn cleanly under a variety of conditions. Dennis built a dozen Zephyr Stove prototypes before designing one that met the requirements.

Stove designers have changed the way air is introduced into the stove and the kinds of bricks and thermal materials used for the stove's lining. The stove can emit little smoke, even at low burn rates, to pass EPA's test.

Zephyr's wood stove has a two-cubic-foot fire box and sells for about $1,400. It's arriving in stores at an auspicious time: wood-stove sales, after being flat for almost 10 years, are booming.

"Last year, there was a definite uptick because of increases in electric, oil, and gas prices. That's really continued throughout the off-season and into this year," said Tim Nissen, the owner of Home Fire Stove at 1695 Market St. NE in Salem. The retailer is one of 10 stores selling the Zephyr Stove.

Demand for stoves was so high last year that stores had trouble keeping wood and wood pellet stoves in stock, Nissen said. Soaring propane and heating oil prices in the upper Midwest and New England, where bitter cold makes home heating a life-or-death essential, contributed to the tight supply of stoves, he said.

Zephyr doesn't want to leave the business of making metal parts entirely, but it aspires to make wood-stove manufacturing at least a third or more of its business within two years, officials say. The company has about 32 employees at its plant at 2800 Pringle Road SE.

To distinguish its wood stove from the competition, Zephyr put a large ceramic glass window on the front of its product. The 10-inch by 21-inch window is one of the largest in the industry.

The company also uses a material called Skamolex, which is made from pressed vermiculite, instead of fire-brick to line its stove. Skamolex does of better job of reflecting heat than fire-brick and also makes the fire appear brighter, Dennis said.

Dennis wanted the stove to have a modern look to appeal to consumers who like contemporary styles.

"I've tried to make it look vaguely like a big, green television," he said. His theory is to make the stove blend in with most common element in most living rooms. or (503) 399-6657

Comparing Heating Costs
Annual heating costs vary based on a number of factors, such as size of the home and whether it's a mild or severe winter. Here are estimates for how much it would cost to heat the typical Willamette Valley home:

Electric resistance heat: Based on 797 kilowatt hours per month, the cost would be about $1,266 per year. The cost with a new electric heat pump would be less than half of that amount.

Natural gas: Based on energy use of 642 therms per year, at NW Natural's rate of $1.34 per therm, the cost would be about $861 per year.

Heating oil: The typical Oregon home with an oil furnace uses 290 gallons per year, although some go through 500 gallons. The statewide average price is $2.27 per gallon. The cost could range from $658 to $1,135.

Oak firewood: It takes about three cords of oak at cost of about $450 (if the wood was purchased in the summer when prices are at their lowest.)

SOURCES: NW Natural, Oregon Department of Energy, Zephyr Engineering

DEQ Encourages Stove Replacement
Efforts to replace older wood stoves, made in the mid-1980s and earlier, with newer models that pollute less could help Zephyr Engineering's wood-stove business

The Oregon Department of Environment Quality has proposed legislation that would provide grants to encourage homeowners to upgrade their wood stoves.

The DEQ also has asked Gov. Ted Kulongoski to back legislation that would require replacement of "non-certified" wood stoves when a home is sold.

About 94,000 homes in Oregon burn wood for heat, said David Collier of the DEQ. Surveys have found that about half of the homes in Oregon that burn wood do so in wood stoves.

More than half of wood stoves used in the state are older, non-certified stoves.

Oregon environmental officials enacted the first wood-stove emission regulations in the mid-1980s, which the EPA later used as its model for federal standards. The EPA's increasingly stringent standards have put more Oregon communities at risk for violating the Clean Air Act.

Although Salem meets federal air-quality standards, particulate levels are high enough that officials are concerned, Collier said.

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