VINELAND — The cold, snowy winter has been a boon to Bob Marks’ business.
American Fireplace, on South Delsea Drive in Vineland, has been inundated with service calls and installation work this winter as homeowners looked for respite from high utility bills by supplementing their heat.
Marks, of Vineland, said every snowstorm is a mixed blessing. It guarantees phone calls, but he still has to go out in the nasty weather.
He was a professional cabinetmaker when he decided to apply his experience making mantels to install and service custom fireplaces and heating stoves.
“In the winter, my cabinetry business would die down. I learned more about gas service, tearing apart units and troubleshooting,” he said.
Fireplace businesses have been especially busy with service calls this winter as homeowners lean heavily on wood stoves or fireplaces to take some pressure off high electric or fuel oil bills. South Jersey residents have been spoiled by relatively balmy winters until recently, when “polar vortex” became part of the lexicon.
“This relentless cold and snow is keeping everyone away,” said Belinda DeCicco, of Hamilton Township, who runs the Firebox in Mays Landing.
Her shop offers fireplace accessories, from grates and firebacks to tools and stoves.
“At the end of March, we’ll get busy again. Next September, this winter will have a big effect on things. Nobody will want to go through this experience again,” DeCicco said.
Having a wood-burning stove or fireplace gives homeowners some freedom from the vagaries of the weather or the electric grid.
“If a storm is bad enough and knocks the power out, you’re not depending on anything but your own resources. That sense of independence is great. People don’t have to worry,” she said.
South Jersey’s weather-susceptible electric grid has motivated a lot of customers at the Fireplace People on Route 9 in Upper Township, said Manager Bill Farr, of North Wildwood.
“I would say 70 or 80 percent of people are looking for a backup system — something they can use as a backup if the power goes out,” he said.
A straight-line storm called a derecho knocked out power for days to parts of Atlantic County in 2012. And parts of South Jersey lost power for days to a February blizzard in 2010.
“A lot of people don’t forget that. Power was out for me for four days. North Wildwood was like a war zone,” Farr said.
His shop sells direct-vent and vent-free systems and offers wood-burning fireplaces and stoves with high energy-efficiency ratings. The shop has been inundated with service calls this winter as people encounter problems with neglected or rarely used equipment, he said.
And his shop sells a lot of contemporary gas-powered fireplaces that use faux driftwood, glass beads or river rock as a base, giving the mantel a one-of-a-kind look for the living room.
Marks and his wife, Cindy Woods-Marks, started American Fireplace in 2005 when they were feeling especially patriotic, which explains the company name. Their son, Doug, was serving as a U.S. Army military police officer in the Middle East.
Today, the couple’s sons Drew and Nate Marks work with their parents. They install new fireplaces and stoves and convert old fireplaces to natural gas or propane and provide maintenance, repair and service. They also sweep chimneys and provide other maintenance.
The store is in Vineland’s Urban Enterprise Zone, which charges a half-price sales tax of 3.5 percent on fireplaces, stoves and other building materials.
Vineland’s American Fireplace sells Napoleon Fireplaces, Lennox Hearth Products and Regency Fireplace Products. These brands offer the quality and price points that his customers in South Jersey demand, Marks said.
“The past couple winters were on the warm side. That slowed things down,” he said. “This winter, though, is pushing the business. People don’t want to go through another winter like we had with power outages and high heating bills.”
New Jersey residents consume less electricity on average than other households in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
But they pay among the highest energy bills in the country at $3,065 per year compared with the national average of $2,100 per year.
New Jersey is far more reliant on natural gas than the rest of the Mid-Atlantic or the U.S. It’s the top heating fuel followed by fuel oil and electricity.
The store offers options from traditional wood fireplaces to wood inserts that are more energy efficient. It also has gas fireplaces with realistic-looking logs down to the orange embers.
American Fireplace offers wood stoves, which have range tops that let people do actual cooking or simply boil water for tea, Woods-Marks said.
“Each stove has a different burn time — the time you get the fire going to the time it’s just enough hot coals to start another fire,” she said.
Most will last through the night, she said.
And they have stoves specially made to burn wood pellets, an option favored in some parts of the country, she said.
“We used to heat with pellets. We’d burn 1.5 tons of pellets per winter. They come in 40- or 50-pound bags,” she said. “They’re more popular in Upstate New York and western Pennsylvania. They’re not one of our biggest sellers.”
Wood has become a popular supplement to people’s traditional heat. People can buy it by the cord or cut their own, especially after strong windstorms.
The company uses a bucket truck to do most of its chimney sweeping. And the staff try to clean as much as possible from safely inside a home. But many jobs require work from a precipitous rooftop.
“That’s Bob’s job. He doesn’t seem to mind the heights,” she said.
Marks said he enjoys running his own business.
“Dealing with the public is fun. It’s not like a normal job,” he said. “You’re in a different house every day meeting new people. Working with a new medium — stone, marble or granite.”
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