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With high heating costs, demand for assistance, firewood, and chimney sweeps is up in N.H.

 Volunteers help out at the Sean Powers Wood Bank annual work day
Rosalie Smith
Volunteers help out at the Sean Powers Wood Bank annual work day

As the price of heating a home spikes, community action agencies and wood banks are preparing for a difficult winter.

Southwestern Community Services generally serves about 4,000 clients each year through their fuel assistance program. This year, they received 4,600 applications before the program technically opened on Thursday, according to Keith Thibault, chief development officer.

“What we're just seeing now is an indication of a much more intense need coming up,” he said. “I don't want to get too dramatic, but we've never seen this before. This is unprecedented in terms of cost.”

Thibault said the CAP agencies have worked to prepare for the difficult season ahead, and hope more people connect with them to apply for assistance.

“We've been trying to be really realist about what this is going to be,” he said. “I think we hit the ground running.”

Ryan Clouthier, chief operating officer at Southern New Hampshire Services, said his organization is also seeing an increase in need. They’ve also seen people apply for the new state emergency energy assistance programs approved in September, which raised the income cap for Granite Staters seeking help with heating costs.

Last winter, New Hampshire received a lot more money from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also called LIHEAP, than it had in the winter of 2020-2021. The state received less money from the federal government this year, but has about $19 million left over from last year, according to the Department of Energy. That means there is more money available through the LIHEAP program this year than the state spent during each of the last few winters, the Department said.

Extra funding for LIHEAP and the additional state program are helping, Clouthier said. Funding for weatherization assistance recently approved by the state can help households drive down their costs in the long run.

“But there's always a need for more,” Clouthier said.

Granite Staters can apply for assistance with heating and electric bills through their local community action agency; you can find your local CAP agency here.

Wood banks

Wood banks, where Granite Staters can get extra wood for the winter, are also expecting extra demand this year.

About 1 in 14 households in New Hampshire use wood as their main source of heat, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s four times the national average.

Melissa Gallagher is the executive director of Grapevine Family and Community Resource Center in Antrim. She says most people come to their wood bank before the state’s fuel assistance program kicks in – or after it runs out.

This year, she says, more people are pitching in to help their neighbors make it through the winter.

“More people reached out to us than is typical to offer wood. And I think it was just that recognition within the community that this is going to be a hard year to heat homes.”

About 80 volunteers showed up in Hopkinton for a volunteer day to support the Sean Powers Wood Bank earlier this month, said Mary Congoran, who runs the project.

“It was just beautiful,” she said.

Congoran says even residents who use other sources of heat might start supplementing with wood as the price of other heating fuels go up. According to federal data, the price of heating oil – the most common source of heating in the state – is higher than it’s been in at least three decades.

“We're just worried coming into the fall because I just feel like anybody who has the ability to burn anything will be doing it,” she said.

Congoran’s wood bank has started bringing cords of wood to transfer stations in Andover, Salisbury, Sutton, and Bradford, saying visitors can take an armful with them and donate as they’re able.

New grants are available from the U.S. Forest Service and the Alliance for Green Heat to support firewood banks this winter.

Preparing a chimney

As more Granite Staters look to save money by burning wood this winter, companies that clean and repair chimneys say they’re seeing an increase in demand.

“The busy season started extra early and we've just been flat out for months,” said Matt Mair, who owns Black Moose Chimney and Stove. “We're booking at least two months ahead of time now, even with extra people and extra trucks on the road.”

Mair says he’s seen customers turning to alternative heat sources like wood stoves as the price of oil becomes untenable for many, and heating sources like propane, natural gas, and electricity spike in cost too.

The influx of people turning to wood heat this year has brought particular challenges.

“We're seeing a lot of people trying to make functional chimneys that are going to require a lot of work,” he said. “A lot of people are just trying to resurrect some fairly old and kind of sketchy systems.”

It’s important to make sure chimneys are clean and in reasonable shape, Mair said, because the chimney protects a house from the heat a wood stove produces. The dirtier and more neglected a chimney is, the more likely it is to catch a house on fire.

Mair, who is vice president of the National Guild of Chimney Sweeps, said companies across the state and country are seeing the same increase in demand, which comes at a time when hiring is also a challenge.

Copyright 2022 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Mara Hoplamazian
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