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Spring Home and Garden Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 1, 2008

In the spring
A homeowner’s fancy lightly turns to outdoor living

By Jo E. Prout

Spring is the season for home improvements, and outdoor living spaces like patios, decks, and even kitchens can be added now for months of warm-weather use.

The average client for Richard Ott, of Custom Building of East Berne, wants something fairly simple. Ott said that a 12-by-16-foot deck is standard.

“That’s what most people are after,” Ott said. Wrap-around or multi-level decks can cost between $2,000 and $20,000, he said.

Other people want something more extravagant.

“Anything they can do indoors, we can do outdoors,” said Tom DePalma, an administrator with CR Gas Logs and Fireplaces, Inc. in Voorheesville. “Family rooms are passé. The years have moved living space outdoors. It’s a resort without leaving to go to a resort.”

CR Gas Logs creates custom outdoor patios, fire pits, pergolas, and stamped concrete with landscaping. Grills, outdoor entertainment centers, and cabana structures are also offered by CR Gas Logs. The company has been in business for 35 years, but has branched into outdoor spaces in the last six.   

DePalma said that grills can now be solar-powered, and that cabanas with folding shutters can be built for outdoor reading or napping areas.

CR Gas Logs hosts gourmet grilling classes featuring host chefs from Jack’s Oyster House, the Albany County Country Club, The Epicurean, and BFS Mediterranean. Funds raised from each grilling class support different charities, DePalma said.

Some clients “begin with a simple grill for $500,” he said. Other grills can range from $700 to $2,000, he said.

Kitchen islands, like those found in homes, are popular now outdoors, he said. The islands can include a sink, grill, refrigerator, stereo system, television, and a covered structure to protect it all. Costs for patio islands can range from $3,500 to $9,500, DePalma said.

CR Gas Logs did a recent project at a Clifton Park home, installing an outdoor cooking island and an outdoor fireplace. Next to the pool, CR Logs added a stamped concrete patio and landscaping. The concrete was mixed to color-match the landscape stone, giving the entire space a 13th-century English garden look, DePalma said.

“It came out beautifully,” he said.

While most of Ott’s clients choose simple garages or decks, along with other traditional kitchen or bath renovations, a Delmar client recently created a resort-like patio.

“We raised the house up to have an elevated patio,” Ott said. He graded the area with a bulldozer, backfilled and elevated the home with stones, and built stairs into the stonewalls that surrounded an octagonal deck with a hot tub and two entrances into the home. The project was 1,100 square feet.

“It was a pretty unique project,” Ott said. The cost was about $65,000, he said.

A deck takes Ott about a week to complete, he said.

“I pretty much do everything, myself, and work with two or three guys,” he said. He suggests that people hoping to improve their homes try to schedule in the winter, and “get their prices and thoughts together. I’m almost booked up through the year, now,” he said. “Before they do anything, [they should] research the project they want to do, and check out the people before they do the work.”

“Many people think that the outdoor room is out of their reach, but they can do it incrementally,” DePalma said. “Interest-free financing makes it affordable.” He said that some people have an outdoor island built, then add side grills, a refrigerator, and a covering later.

Because many of the outdoor pieces can be ordered pre-made, installation can take only a day, he said. More complicated orders, like those with coverings and stamped concrete, can be done in one to seven days, he said.

“You can do it slowly, or do it all at once. It makes it very affordable,” he said.

Spawned thoughts
Through the generations, one home fits all

By Paige Spawn Pierle

My grandmother’s wedding gown was designed like the one worn by Elizabeth Taylor. A sequence of gems wove through her long lace sleeves. A satin collar covered the base of her neck then turned to lace, which met more satin on her heart-shaped bodice. Layers of lace and satin skirts poured out from her waist to the floor and shaped into her cathedral-length train.

After her wedding, my grandmother passed her gown to her sister who wore it with a different veil. It was then given to my grandmother’s sister-in-law, who cut off the train. She passed it to her sister, who cut off the lace top. One dress fit all.

My husband’s grandparents made a similar investment when they purchased their house 60 years ago. Like my grandmother’s wedding gown, their house survived many alterations and was home to several relatives—the most current being my husband, Joe, and myself. One home fits all.

When owned by Joe’s grandparents, white wooden siding covered the exterior and yellow trim bordered the windows that complemented the yellow door. My mother-in-law grew up here, sleeping in the back bedroom while her parents slept in what is now our dining room.

The house grew with them. A few months before she got married, her father converted one side of the attic into her bedroom. He paneled the walls and covered the floor with yellow carpet. Her parents then slept in the back bedroom and converted their old room into a dining room.

When Joe was born, this house was his other home. His grandparents babysat him while his parents worked. He caught the school bus from this house and returned here after school. Joe played outside while his grandfather watered the chives and squash growing in his garden. His grandmother fed him snacks and tended to her two circles of plants—one with hyacinths and the other with tiger lilies.

Joe’s grandparents passed away when he was in college. Joe and his father gave the house the attention that Joe’s grandfather was not able to in his later years. Walking through the rooms they saw floors to sand, walls to paint, and rooms to gut.

Insulated double-pane windows replaced single-pane windows that had attachable storms and screens. The kitchen metal cabinets, enamel countertop, and linoleum floor were torn out as wood cabinets and a laminated countertop and floor took their place. Joe and his father installed new Sheetrock in the bathroom as well as a new shower, sink, and floor.

The house was ready for Joe and his friend to live in while they attended college. Joe’s denim couch replaced his grandma’s floral couch. His computer desk replaced her vanity in the back bedroom.

After a few months, Joe’s other grandmother got sick and could no longer climb the stairs in her three-story house. My father-in-law wanted his mother closer to him. My husband then moved back in with his parents so his grandma could move out of the city and into Guilderland.

Plush beige carpets now covered the hardwood floors, to his grandma’s favor. Sunlight shone through her mauve curtains, giving the rooms a rosy hue. My father-in-law hung her large mirror in the dining room. Her plastic-covered couch replaced Joe’s denim couch and her mahogany bedroom set replaced his computer desk. Yet, after half a year, her health declined further. She ended up moving into a nursing home.

At this point, Joe and I were engaged. His parents replaced the wood siding with silver vinyl. Burgundy shutters guarded the sides of the windows. My father-in-law converted the second attic room into our bedroom, covering the walls with Sheetrock and building us a closet. My husband painted the walls cream and blue. The concrete step on the side of the house was chiseled down to make room for a covered wooden porch.

We moved in this house when we got married. We planted a flower garden under the front windows, adding a deep red rose bush to match the burgundy shutters. We cleared out the brush in the backyard, which was once his grandfather’s garden. We dug up his chives and planted them in our new garden, on the side of the house.

The circle of tiger lilies from his grandmother still grows—yet her circle of hyacinths is now buried beneath our new concrete patio. We transplanted some of those plants around the border of our house.

We sit on the denim couch from Joe’s time in college. His computer desk is set up in the back room. The rooms are still rosy, as the sun shines through the mauve curtains from his other grandmother. Her mirror still hangs in our dining room.

This summer, we want to plant trees along the border of our backyard. In years to come, we will need to rearrange our computers, books, and closets to make room for cribs and toys. Our home will then be home to a fourth generation—our future children. It will grow with them as it did for Joe’s grandparents and as it is growing with us.

One home fits all.

Incredible edibles
Learning to live off the land

By Jo E. Prout

A poor gardener am I, which makes wild edibles one of my favorite hobbies. With baseball season comes a new spring crop of edible “weeds” that will hold me over until my fitful gardens start spitting out peas and lettuce.

“Good thing we weren’t settlers, or we would have starved,” is the phrase around here each summer. I put my six edible tomatoes from 27 plants and my limited amount of zucchini last year — not even enough to pickle — down to the cool summer and my location up in the cooler hills. Those reasons didn’t account for my neighbor’s lovely garden, or the bushels of tomatoes my friend gave away from her 12 Better Boy plants in a suburban garden, but I did start most of my vegetables from seed and they might not have. So went the excuses all season.

The children didn’t notice. We have enough wild edibles in the yard and the back field to keep them busy spring through summer. Most wild edibles taste better young, so springtime is the busy time for gathering.

Right now, wild chives are stretching to the sky. These hollow, swirly-topped onion-family plants grow wild along roadways, in fields, and in my backyard. They grow in clumps, and were the first green things to be seen before the grass caught up two weeks later. By now, the chives are nearly 12 inches tall, unless a little girl already picked them for her basket. We started picking them at six inches.

We do use wild edibles sparingly, and only after comparing them to a botanical reference book or website. No one wants to make a hospitalizing mistake. Last week, the wild chives flavored our butternut squash and corn soup. The kids didn’t eat the chives; they only pushed them around in their bowls. Picking must be more fun than eating when it comes to chives.

Cattails, though, are always best for eating, not picking. If you get a stubborn cattail, you can end up on your backside from trying to haul it out of the swamp or creek. Landing wrong side down is only fun the first few times.

Lucky for us, we have a swampy creek, or ditch, in the backyard. New cattails should be peeking out from the dried over-wintered stalks next month. When they’re 12- to 18-inches high, the children’s favorite sport besides baseball will be pulling them out, or asking me to pull them out, and then peeling them, upside down, like bananas to get at the cucumber-like inner stalk. Only the first two or three inches from the bottom are soft enough to eat.

The children like to eat them raw, but cattails can be sautéed and served warm. My father once told me they could be roasted on a campfire, too, but ours never last long enough for us to find out.

Around the same time, fiddleheads should start poking up. Fiddleheads are young ferns before they unfurl. I haven’t tried these. I enjoy knowing that, if I had to eat them, I could, but for now, I won’t. I did try canned fiddleheads from the grocery store once, but one bite was enough. Perhaps fresh fiddleheads, like fresh green beans, taste much different than canned, but I am not interested enough to find out. Sautéing or boiling fiddleheads, after checking a book or other reference on wild edibles, is probably best.

Another wild edible we have in abundance if we refrain from mowing is milkweed. As I plucked the milkweed stalks from our back garden last year, I felt guilty tossing them on the ground without gathering them. I read once that they could be served like asparagus. Anyone trying them should certainly read about them, as well. We like our milkweeds in the field to flower and form pods for gathering and drying. They are beautiful, if messy, dried in arrangements.

Dandelion farms are unnecessary. I have dandelions in abundance, and they are free for the taking. Aside from dandelion wine made from untold bushels of the tiny flowers, the leaves of the young plants can be used for salads. The leaves of older plants can be bitter, but are still edible.

My grandmother refused to eat them of any age, as her mother had picked and served them. Each year, I pick a small amount and offer them to the children. The first few times, my son tried them. Now he refuses them. My daughter will still try the first one of the season, but she promptly spits it out. But if we were ever hungry, we’d have food to eat, I say. They tell me to go to the store.

Visits to the Cohotate Preserve near Catskill are always fascinating. In addition to the pond where we look for tadpole clutches, the picnic area near the Hudson River, and the paths with small footbridges over the steep hills, the preserve offers information about edible plants found in the area. Tea from pine needles, hulled acorns roasted multiple times, and a lemonade-type drink from sumac flowers are some of the options.

Each sounds less appetizing than the first, but each time I see another sumac seedling popping up along my driveway, I wonder if I ought to gather some of the flowers from its parents and make lemonade. I don’t. I pull or cut the seedling, and drink iced tea from the store, instead. Knowledge is a wonderful thing, but so is a commercial grocer.

I’ve taught my children to never, ever eat any mushroom they didn’t buy at a store, but I catch my son sticking grass in the corner of his mouth every summer while he looks for frogs. My little Tom Sawyer is more of a Donald Trump-type. He’d rather own several grocery stores than supply them.

The one wild edible we do harvest, and the one that everyone helps with, are wild grapes. The kids pick with me each September as long as grapes remain in their reach, and we make grape jelly, or, if we have slim pickings, grape syrup.

I didn’t use a reference book for the wild grapes. My other grandmother visited once and offered to help with them. Sharing knowledge between generations, in person, is the best kind of inheritance. If I’d only inherited my grandmothers’ knack for gardening, we could have homemade pickles with our jelly. At least the kids won’t care. If they don’t get cucumbers this year, they’ll enjoy the cattails.

A grand experiment
Tunnel gardening lengthens the growing season

By Jo E. Prout

Peter Ten Eyck is using innovative farming equipment at his Indian Ladder Farms in Nw Scotland. The high tunnels are so new, in fact, that a visitor might not notice anything out of the ordinary, or think that they were anything more than greenhouses.

“It’s fairly new stuff,” said Tom Gallagher of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Center in Voorheesville. “It’s been around for four or five years.”

High tunnels look like greenhouses, but are open at either end, allowing ventilation. The tunnels create a warm, dry environment for plants.

“Cornell Cooperative Extension is definitely trying to support and encourage the adoption of high tunnel use in New York,” said Chuck Bornt, of the Capital District Vegetable Program with CCE, based in Rensselaer County. “New England has been very successful for many years with high tunnel production. I think that the possibilities are quite endless in tunnels. We have a fairly large grant dedicated to increasing the use of high tunnels in New York through the New York State Farm Viability Institute.”

Ten Eyck is starting his third year with the tunnels. He described them as season extenders — by capturing heat under plastic pulled across plastic tubes, or hoops, one can grow plants faster and earlier in the spring, or longer into the fall.

“So I could really be more of a Southern grower,” he said. “We put up our experimental project.”

Ten Eyck said that he is a member Eco-Apple, which is a group of 11 growers who try to use fewer pesticides. The tunnels allow him to use less fungicide.

“The environment is basically dry,” he said.

Getting started

The tunnels are each 25 feet by 300 feet, and three are tied together for stability. The first bay has fall, or day-neutral, strawberries planted in the ground. After the first spring crop, these plants will produce a second fall crop right through October, Ten Eyck said.

“Fresh strawberries in October is pretty cool,” he said.

Bornt said that high tunnels benefit small commercial growers, or “those that maybe only have one to five acres of vegetables and are marketing at local farmers’ markets. The key is to grow crops that either you can get a good early jump on and get into the marketplace early, or have product during the fall or early winter when outdoor field production is done,” he said.

Ten Eyck’s second bay had housed strawberries in trays elevated off the ground with irrigation piping. The trays were waist-high and were easy for seniors, or those with disabilities, to pick. These would be less labor-intensive, and produce at a time when Ten Eyck’s Jamaican workers had already left for the season, he said.

“That did not work,” he said. The strawberries were planted in coconut husks.

“The soil is essentially sterile,” he said. The pH value of the soil became altered, and iron and other nutrients were thrown off balance. He said that the growers must care for the soil and monitor it closely.

“I’m not going to give up on it,” he said.

The third bay houses fall-bearing raspberries, which grow all spring and produce berries by Labor Day, Ten Eyck said. Last year, Indian Ladder Farms was picking raspberries all the way into the first week of November.

“It was a wonderful thing, and I’m going to open it to the public this year instead of picking, myself,” he said.

Next to the three tunnels, Ten Eyck planted 50 cherry trees on one acre. He is considering covering them with tunnels, also, because of two advantages.

Heavy rains just before picking can cause cherries to crack, he said.

“By having plastic over it, it isn’t going to happen,” he said.

Birds can also wreak havoc on a cherry crop.

“They just come out of nowhere and eat those sweet cherries,” Ten Eyck said.

“This never could have been done before because the cherries are too big,” he said. The root stocks he used for the trees should hold his trees at 10 feet high, instead of the usual 25 feet. Like many farmers using new innovations, Ten Eyck is seeing uncertain results.

“The ones under the tunnel are more robust” and growing taller than expected, he said.

“In some cases,” Bornt said, “crops grown in tunnels can be of higher quality than field-grown produce. We have several growers [in the region] who are growing herbs, spinach, and other greens all year long in high tunnels.”


“The challenge of putting up one of these tunnels is they’re big,” Ten Eyck said. He recalled joking with his workers that they would either put up the tunnels, or gift-wrap the Voorheesville Mobil station.

“That’s a lot of plastic to put out,” he said. The covers are good for three or four years. “You can’t leave it up in winter because of the snow,” he said. He rolls his up so the UV light does not degrade the plastic.

“One thing you worry about is wind. You push the plastic up high, like a sail, so wind can get through,” he said. In rain, the plastic is pulled down.

The cost of the equipment, itself, is another challenge. Tunnels marketed to home or small commercial growers that are half the size of Ten Eyck’s cost thousands of dollars.

“There are lots and lots of high tunnel variations,” Bornt said. “Many of them could very easily be used by home gardeners, especially things like PVC pipe with floating row covers, which can make for very nice, cheap tunnels.”

Commercial tunnels, though, are a different story.

Ten Eyck said that he has an additional expense of $3,000 a year to pay for the tunnel over the three-year period. He said it’s a “close call” at this point.

The first year was spent setting up the tunnels. The second year, he had crops.

“This third year, we’re going to have to see where we go,” he said.

Ten Eyck was open about his operation.

“I just think it’s worthwhile for people to know where their food comes from,” he said.

“Those who have found a marketing niche, I think, are doing quite well with tunnels,” Bornt said. “One way I measure that is how many tunnels I see being built each year. When those already with a tunnel or two continue to build them, it tells me that money is being made.”

Bornt said that a video about the use of high tunnels was recently produced. Growers who wish to view it can contact the CCE.

Learning from Landis about the wild things in our midst

By Saranac Hale Spencer

Among the wild birds of flight, a blind owl alights on a familiar hand, tethered to his mistress by the weightless strings of obligation.

Years ago, he arrived at Susan O’Handley’s door after being struck by a car, and, after a months-long stay at a veterinarian’s office, he returned to her for rehabilitation.  Now, he travels with her as part of her work, teaching children about wild things.

One of their stops is at the Landis Arboretum — 548 acres of deceivingly well-orchestrated nature, where each tree and flower is carefully catalogued.

“Oaks are our bread and butter,” said Fred Breglia, director of horticulture and operations at Landis.  The arboretum has more than a dozen Oak trees that are over 300 years old, he said.  Indeed, the farm where the arboretum now sits was named for the oak that is its icon.

Oak Nose Farm, perched atop a hill in Esperance, was home to the Lape family, whose 1820’s homestead serves as the center of the arboretum.  A stone’s throw away, just past a small pond and up a hill, stands the roughly 400-year-old oak tree, overlooking the peaks and valleys, and the farms that dot the landscape below.

Its massive trunk was hollowed by an ice storm in 1961, ten years after George Lape founded the arboretum and named it for his friend, plant enthusiast Fred Landis.  As Breglia rounded the side of the oak, where sunlight poured through a hole in the trunk, he repeated Lape’s description: the storm raged through the night, sounding like gunshots as it tore the branches off of trees.

“The arboretum means a lot of things to a lot of people,” he said.  Some people have made hundreds of visits, but never in the daylight, he said, explaining that a group of astronomers come to Landis so that they can see the stars in the deep dark country sky.

Others come for nature programs, like the one O’Handley offers with her owl.  She and her husband, Jeffrey O’Handley, started the Wildlife Learning Company, which they run from their home in Hartwick. 

“We have a modified garage and an aviary,” she said of their set-up, where they house the wildlife that they use for teaching.

The main objective in their programs, O’Handley said, is to inspire stewardship of the environment.  “If they care about the animal,” she concluded, “they’ll care about the habitat.”

With 27,000 plant species going extinct every year, Breglia said, arboretums are playing a leading role in conserving tree species.  About three species usually disappear in the United States each year, and he says that the arboretums “help to conserve species from going extinct.”

The Landis Arboretum is home to two pieces of old growth forest, the preservation of which Breglia also says is important.  He and a colleague, Bruce S. Kersher, recently contributed data for a bill currently in the New York State Senate that would help to preserve old-growth forests.

“Each old-growth tree, living since the early Colonial presence in our state, has aesthetic and historic significance, often providing significant benefits to land, air, water, flora, fauna, and noise reduction,” says the bill, named for Kersher, who died three weeks after submitting his data.

Maintaining wildlife in its place is important to the O’Handleys, too.  Many of the animals that they take in for rehabilitation have very little contact with them so that they will remain skeptical of humans, O’Handley said. 

Only those that will join their cadre of educational examples will get names, like Snickers, the cinnamon-colored owl.  The effects of his accident left him unable to live in the wild, O’Handley said, since he couldn’t even find the mice left for him in the large aviary.

“The turning point was when the baby came,” O’Handley said of the progress Snickers made after a young screech owl came to their home for rehabilitation.  Since the baby was to be reintroduced to the wild, it couldn’t have much contact with humans, she said, but Snickers could help it, “so it identifies and imprints on that same species.”

The young owl ended up going back to the wild, she said, and Snickers was better able to find his food in the aviary, she said. “Maybe the baby helped him.”


The Landis Arboretum will hold its annual spring plant sale on May 17 and 18 in Esperance; more information can be found at www.landisarboretum.org.

Rising fuel oil prices make wood heat attractive
Will prohibitive regs fire up wood burners?

By David S. Lewis

Many people consider burning wood to be as American as apple pie, and now, with oil prices over $100 dollars per barrel, some are considering making wood their home’s primary source of heat.  Not everyone thinks that’s such a hot idea, however; opponents say wood-burning boilers cause excessive local pollution and serious health problems.

Outdoor wood boilers look like a small shed with a smokestack.  Typically, the boiler unit is located within 50 feet of the house it is heating.  Wood fired in the lower part of the unit heats water in the upper segment.  This water, piped underground to the house for central heating, is also able to heat the home’s water. 

One outdoor boiler can heat several structures, such as a barn or shop, in addition to the house; it can even heat a swimming pool or spa.  The devices, which range in price from $5,000 to $15,000, depending on size and quality, are simple in design and allow homeowners independence from utility companies and their spiking energy prices.  These qualities make them appealing investments for many.

Critics of the technology say the boilers are inefficient and unsafe.  They point out the low height of the smokestacks on the units; most local laws say that a smokestack must be higher than the roof of the tallest nearby building.  The stacks on outdoor wood boilers are usually between eight and 12 feet off the ground; this prevents the smoke from dissipating and causes it to hang around at ground level during cold-air inversions. 

The burning inefficiency of the boilers constitutes the bulk of the problems their owners encounter, says Tom Todd, of the Washington State Department of Ecology.  Requiring manufacturers of outdoor wood boiler systems to design more efficient and environmentally-friendly boiler units would help solve the problem.

“Their thermal efficiency sucks,” Todd said during a phone interview. “Basically, when you heat something up, that heat needs to be held somewhere, or you just lose it and have to expend more energy to get it hot again.”

Indoor wood-burning stoves and fireplace inserts are required to operate at a certain level of efficiency.  When the Federal Environmental Protection Agency passed these regulations in the late-1980s, it exempted things such as fireplaces and outdoor cooking fires.  This allowed manufacturers to sell outdoor wood boilers without designing them to conform to the same emissions standards as wood-burning stoves. 

“They’re primitive,” said Todd, of the outdoor boilers.  “The efficiency on them is between 28 and 55 percent; on average they are around 43 percent, compared with a modern woodstove, which operates between 68 and 72 percent efficient. “ 

Outdoor wood boilers are effectively banned in Washington because the state requires a wood-burning stove to be certified through a test that requires four modes of operation, as is common for indoor wood stoves.

“In the testing method we have, we require multiple test rates, and these suckers only have off and on,” said Todd.  Although it is a regulatory loophole, Todd said he didn’t think outdoor wood boilers would ever be efficient enough to pass regulatory standards.

Outdoor wood boilers usually have only two modes of operation: on and off.  The stoves are designed to switch into “idle” mode when the water reaches a pre-set high temperature, at which point the damper closes and the wood smolders in the unit. 

This cool-burning and inefficient fire causes carcinogen-laden creosote to accumulate on the interior of the unit.  When the water temperature reaches a pre-set low, the damper opens and the machine “belches creosote for 10 minutes” until it reaches normal levels of smoke, according to Todd.

Efficient boilers

“Some people modify them, and that helps a lot,” said Todd.  “One heating engineer lined his with thermal bricks and installed baffles to increase the distance the smoke had to travel to get to the stack and he was able to cut back on emissions significantly.”  Thermal bricks work to retain the heat and increase the time between the unit idling and re-igniting, he said.

The makers of Alternative Fuel Boilers’ line of wood-fired systems, Econoburn Gasification Boilers, declare their highly efficient boilers “90 percent efficient.”  The company’s system uses a secondary chamber to burn the combustible gases released by the wood; most other wood boilers send these gases up the flue.

Econoburn boilers meet Energy Star specifications; the cooperative program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Energy serves to promote efficient and environmentally friendly building products.  The highly efficient boilers also use a “ceramic heat refractory” which, like the engineer’s thermal bricks, serves to decrease the rate at which the water cools, lengthening the time between firings. 

The secondary chamber operates even when the unit is idling, burning up the gases and increasing efficiency while decreasing pollution.  According to the company’s website, www.alternativefuelboilers.com, customers may be eligible for state or federal tax rebates; the website also claims that Econoburn boilers, which operate at around 90 percent efficiency, are more efficient than natural gas, which averages 78 percent efficiency.

Other wood-burners

Wayne Stritsman, the owner and operator of Best Fire Hearth and Patio in Cobleskill, started his company in 1977.  He said the oil shortages of that time caused the interest in burning wood that prompted him to start his business.  He warns consumers against the outdoor wood boiler.

“Be very careful before investing in one of these outdoor wood boilers, because if not today, they are going to be outlawed tomorrow, and you will lose your money, and it is due to the environmental pollution,” he said.

Five residential outdoor boiler systems in Albany County have been shut down, Stritsman said; the New York State Department of Environmental Conversation’s code makes an outdoor boiler system subject to commercial emissions standards and the department is using that code to shut down the home boilers.  He believes that environmental regulations will eventually prohibit the use the outdoor systems altogether. 

 “I don’t think it is the right way to go, not ecologically, not in terms of efficiency or cost-effectiveness,” said Stritsman. 

Best Fire sells wood-burning appliances; just not the outdoor boiler variety.  The Cobleskill-based company sells fireplaces and inserts, as well as more sophisticated pellet-burning stoves, boilers, and fireplaces. 

The pellets, made from compressed lumber by-products, cost far less than oil or natural gas.  They are fed into the stove or furnace by an electronically-controlled hopper so there is less tending and owners can leave for several days at a time and not worry about returning to pipes burst from freezing.  The stoves are typically used to heat several rooms rather than the entire house.  Pellets cost $225 per ton, while fuel oil costs $500 for 125 gallons; wood pellets are therefore currently half as costly as fuel oil.

 “The Europeans have learned to use space heaters, because there is no reason to heat the entire house if you aren’t using the entire house.  Central heat is a luxury and space heating is more the norm in Europe,” said Stritsman.

A consumer looking to heat their homes with wood have many options, and while the notion of the outdoor boiler is appealing, it is not always practical, especially if you have neighbors who will be affected.  Unless the property to be heated is in a very rural area and includes outbuildings such as shops or garages that must also be heated, outdoor wood boilers may not be the best bet.

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