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Scarcity of wood pellets makes chilly winter for stove owners

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Those who heat homes with pellet-burning stoves are in a scramble for fuel, due to a nationwide shortage in an unusually cold winter.

Retailers say customers looking to buy bags of wood pellets this month have been turned away empty-handed, as distributors cannot keep up with demand. Cold weather in January and February, coupled with the increasing popularity of the stoves as an alternative heating source, has made pellets a commodity in unusually high demand this winter.

Michael S. Stratton, owner of Stratton Hardware Ltd., 1336 Washington St., said the True Value Co. franchise has been without 40-pound bags of wood pellets for the past two weeks. On Thursday, a database showed that True Value’s main warehouse facility in Cleveland, Ohio, had a backlog of 23,100 pellet bags that have to be shipped to stores across the country.

The Watertown store is awaiting a shipment of 250 bags, which are supposed to arrive next Thursday, Mr. Stratton said. But it wouldn’t surprise him if they don’t, because arrival dates have been pushed back before.

“Last week, the estimated delivery was February 21,” he said.

Before the winter began, stores across the country did not have the foresight to order enough pellets to meet high customer demand caused by low temperatures in January and February, Mr. Stratton said. As a consequence, those retailers are all asking for more pellets from distributors at the same time, causing a massive shortage.

“Stores were buying pellets based on the mild winters we’ve had in the past three years, and they weren’t prepared for this,” Mr. Stratton said. “Last year, we ordered pellets based on what we sold the past two to three years. Next year we’re going to buy more, but we don’t want to buy too much and have five to 10 tons of pellets to store for the next year.”

William E. Kinne of Watertown, a customer at the hardware store Thursday, said he has been frustrated with the challenge of finding wood pellets ever since he bought a stove on eBay about five years ago. He said quantities of wood pellets shipped to big home improvement retailers in Watertown are always scooped up fast.

“I’ve gone to Lowe’s and Home Depot to buy them, and every year it’s the same problem,” he said. “They get a supply shipped in, and it’s gone right away. Obviously, the problem gets worse because there are more stoves on the market.”

On Thursday, a store associate from Lowe’s, Route 3, said the store has had no bags of wood pellets for roughly four weeks because the retailer is done selling them for the winter season. The store typically has pellets in stock through February, but its final shipment was purchased swiftly by the end of January because of high demand.

Bags of wood pellets had been gone for about a week at Home Depot on outer Coffeen Street, an employee said, but the store was expected to receive a 22-ton shipment Thursday. It likely will receive a few more shipments before the season ends.

An Arsenal Street hot spot for wood pellets is Tractor Supply Co. On Thursday, it had only 11 40-pound bags for sale that were left over from its latest shipment Feb. 12. A sign next to the bags said customers soon will notice “pine wood” pellets for sale, rather than premium grade, because of a shortage caused by the “extreme winter.”

An associate said the store is expecting its next 22-ton shipment of pellets to be the “pine wood” variety, which it hasn’t sold before. Shipments of pellets have commonly been sold out in a week this winter because of the surge in demand.

Walldroff Farm Equipment Co., Murrock Circle, sells wood pellets that are manufactured year round by Associated Harvest in LaFargeville. Co-owner Marcus A. Walldroff said sales of pellets at the Watertown retail store have climbed about 20 percent this winter, mainly because supplies at other local stores have dried up. Along with its loyal customers, the store is acquiring new customers who ordinarily buy pellets elsewhere.

“We control our supplies so that customers who have bought wood stoves here can be ensured they have pellets,” Mr. Walldroff said, adding that production at the LaFargeville facility has spiked to keep up with demand. “We used to run out there with trucks twice a week, but we’re now running out there almost daily” to pick up pellets.

The hardware store expects to sell anywhere from 80 to 100 stoves this season, Mr. Walldroff said, and many of those customers continue to buy pellets from the business. He said the store will have sold about 400 wood stoves to local residents in recent years.

“That’s going to increase the demand for fuel,” he said.

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