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As a rule, Lou Vetelino, manager of McQuade's Ace Hardware in Westerly, likes to keep two to three tons of wood pellets on hand.
But not even the four-ton shipment that arrived Tuesday at McQuade's could satisfy much of the late-winter demand for the fuel that homeowners burn in pellet stoves.
All four tons had been reserved in advance.
"Every day, we get a couple dozen calls," Vetelino said Wednesday. "We sign them up. Another shipment's due next week."
Locally, throughout New England and the Northeast, the story is much the same: With weeks of cold weather still ahead, everybody's out of pellets.
The extremely low temperatures that have reached into the South have ramped up demand for the pellets at the same time they've put a crimp in production at the mills that make them.
"What we have seen in the last 30 days is that a majority of the 140,000 (Connecticut) homeowners who burn pellets have all gone out and bought up an additional ton or two," Scott Olson, owner of CT Pellet, a Torrington-based supplier, wrote on his company's website. "When this kind of mass-consumption occurs on an acute level such as we have seen here, the remaining inventory across the state as well as the entire Northeast gets sucked up and a 'pellet-vacuum' is immediately created."
The pellets - cylindrical chunks of compressed sawdust and wood bits - are packaged in 40-pound bags and shipped in pallets of 50 bags each. A pallet, then, weighs a ton.
"We haven't had any for a couple of weeks," said Emerson Dexter, manager of the Cash True Value Home Center on Flanders Road in East Lyme. "Our last delivery was one pallet. It sold out immediately."
Dexter said his pellet-buying customers typically burn pellets to reduce their use of more costly home heating oil and may buy no more than a bag or two at a time. One bag, he said, can last about a day. The East Lyme store sells premium-grade pellets that go for $7.49 a bag, but other grades sell for $4 to $5 a bag.
In many cases, those who depend entirely on heat from a pellet-burning stove buy their pellets by the pallet, one of which can range in price from $250 to $375, according to Dexter.
Even big-box stores like Home Depot have been unable to keep up with the demand for pellets. The Home Depot in Waterford, for example, had none Wednesday. Tractor Supply Co. in Old Saybrook was taking online orders at $234.50 a pallet. It estimated shipping would cost an additional $250.
Kristin Bender, a cashier at the East Lyme home center, said she and her husband have been heating mostly with wood pellets for a couple of years, though they still have an oil furnace in their Waterford home.
Long before this winter's cold set in, the Benders shopped online for a deal and ended up spending $900 on three pallets.
"Right now, we're down to eight bags," said Bender, who's shopping again. "I think we're going to have to bite the bullet and burn some oil."