Leonel Reyes cuts firewood at Jillson's Farm in Sabattus, Maine, on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Credit: Daryn Slover / Sun Journal via AP

The realities of high fuel prices and concerns among insurers about safety risks are casting a shadow over the bucolic image of wood stoves.

A Down East legislator said some constituents told him they can’t get their homes insured because they use a wood stove for heat. He has heard similar complaints in the past, but this year they are more frequent because of  economic conditions.

He is looking into how big the problem is and whether anything can be done about it, including possibly introducing a bill. Maine ranks second only behind Vermont in using wood or wood pellets for home heating, with 13 percent of homes using it in 2019, according to federal data. As oil prices keep rising, some homeowners are using wood as an added and less-expensive heat source.

“I’ve gotten quite a few complaints when I run into people at the post office saying insurance companies have made it really hard,” said Rep. Kenneth “Bucket” Davis, R-East Machias, who was just elected to the seat. Davis heats his home with wood but has had no insurance issues.

Davis has heard complaints in the past, but there are more this year as Maine heads into a cold winter with high fuel prices. His predecessor, former Rep. William Tuell, also a Republican, said he has heard complaints for years, but more recently as residents get pinched by high heating and other expenses. Many have come from older Mainers, he said.

Davis, wanting to see the extent of insurance denials, posted a notice on Facebook asking if constituents thought insurers should be able to deny people coverage based on their heat source. Many said it is not fair to people who are struggling to pay for utilities to take away a heat source or charge extra because of it. Others understood the concerns of insurance companies, but said a properly installed wood stove should be acceptable.

Still, it isn’t wood stoves that account for most residential fires in the U.S. It is unattended cooking, which accounts for about half of home fires in the U.S., according to the National Fire Protection Association, followed by heating equipment.

Maine insurers are typically private companies, many of which are local branches of nationwide firms. Each sets its own policies for coverage. There is no statute that would require a company to write insurance for a home heated solely with a wood stove, the Maine Bureau of Insurance said.

Many companies will insure a home with wood heat as long as there is a separate central heat source, it said, but they may require safety inspections prior to writing the policy. The bureau recommends that consumers should shop around for coverage.

Homeowners have a right to request a hearing with the bureau if their policy is non-renewed or canceled.

When issuing policies, State Farm relies on installation standards set by manufacturers, including whether the floor or surrounding areas need to be protected from the heat the stove generates, Kevin Bates, a licensed insurance producer in the Portland branch of the insurer, said.

Bates said wood stoves pose risks for water damage if pipes freeze when the heat is out, fire if improperly installed or not maintained and carbon dioxide poisoning if not vented correctly.

Having only a wood stove for heat also could prevent a homeowner from getting insurance because a centrally located heat source does not heat the home evenly.

Bates said the bigger issue is that some people can’t afford safety precautions like safe venting or protecting walls and floors.

“Their budgets are being stretched in ways that are not allowing them to take the preventative safety approaches necessary to protect the most important assets that many of them have,” he said.