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Making Intense Heat

Oct 30, 2007- Wise Heat

Mark Freeman started Kuma Stoves Inc. in the back of his pickup. A quarter-century later, Freeman says he expects the Hayden, Idaho-based wood- and oil-stove manufacturing company to continue to grow at a "slow, but comfortable" pace, with revenue this year projected at about $1 million.

Freeman, who grew up on a farm in central California, made and sold his first wood stove for an uncle back in 1981. Then, other relatives wanted them.

Soon, he decided to go into business and chose the Greek word Kuma, which he says means "intense heat," for his company name.

"I put a two-line ad in the classifieds for custom-built wood stoves and went from there," he says. "My first shop was in the back of a pickup, where I built, painted, and then delivered stoves.."

He’s been in North Idaho for 13 years. "We just kind of came up this way with a business that fit in the Pacific Northwest," he says.

Kuma Stoves, located at 2150 W. Hayden Ave., remains a family-owned operation, with Freeman as president and chief designer. His wife, their three children, and a son-in-law are among his six employees.

Split firewood is stacked neatly outside on the front porch of Kuma’s small rustic showroom which has a few models of Kuma stoves and fireplace inserts on display. The manufacturing facility, with three welding stalls, is directly behind the showroom.

"We form the steel and build the stoves here," Freeman says. "We do up to 10 stoves a day, and about 1,000 units annually, but we can handle more volume."

Much of the manufacturing space is taken up by stacks of square-bodies of stoves and fireplace inserts ready for painting and further assembly.

Freeman says he may need to decide within a year or two whether to expand the company’s 8,000-square-foot manufacturing plant onto adjacent property, or move to a larger site, to accommodate growth.

The doors and other cast parts for Kuma stoves are made at N.E.W. Castings, a Spokane Valley foundry. Freeman says he has turned down inquiries to have the parts manufactured for less in China. "We’re passionate about ‘made in the USA,’ " he says.

He says he’s more likely to look at foreign suppliers for quality than for price. "My glass comes from Japan only because it’s the best glass," he says.

The stoves are built, painted, tested, and shipped at Kuma’s Hayden plant.

Freeman says the wood-stove industry is "recession proof."

"Whenever energy prices spike, we can’t keep up with demand," he says.

Kuma stoves are sold throughout the U.S., mostly through hearth appliance dealers. They’re marketed directly to dealers and stocking supply distributors and are available locally at Spokane-area Auto Rain Supply Inc. stores.

Freeman also sells to the Coeur d’Alene Market from the factory showroom.

"In states where there are no dealers, we sell through the Internet," he says.

Retail prices for Kuma’s wood stoves and fireplace inserts range from about $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the model.

"They are right in the mid- to upper-range market," Freeman says.

Kuma’s oil stoves start at about $1,400 retail. Freeman says the oil stoves stand alone in the market. "We don’t have any competition."

The busiest time for manufacturing is in May, June, and July, when Kuma ramps up production to deliver stoves to dealers ahead of a surge in demand in the fall. "If dealers all called in August and September, we couldn’t fill all the orders at once," he says. The company offers discounts to dealers who place orders in the "off-season."

"It’s important to a manufacturer to be operating year-round," Freeman says.

Fuel efficiency Kuma’s wood stoves are close to 80 percent efficient, he says, meaning that only 20 percent of the heat generated in them escapes through the chimney pipe.

"You need some flow-through loss for providing a draft," he says.

The benefits of having an efficient stove, Freeman says, are lower emissions and "a lot less trips to the woodpile."

While wood stoves remain Kuma’s bread and butter, the company is enjoying growing demand for stoves that burn oil. Kuma started manufacturing oil-burning stoves less than 10 years ago. Now they’re about 10 percent of the company’s production.

The stoves can burn various types of oil, including fuel oil, stove oil, and biodiesel.

Oil is the choice of heat for many places in Alaska, Freeman says. The New England states and California are other hot spots for oil-burning stoves because of burning restrictions for wood and difficulty in getting wood fuel, he says.

On a typical winter day, a Kuma oil-burning stove can keep about 1,000 square feet of floor space comfortable while burning about a gallon of oil, he says. Around here, heating oil costs about $2.50 a gallon.

Despite uneven demand for oil stoves because of the rise in fuel-oil prices in recent years, oil stoves are making a comeback as more people become aware of biodiesel, a fuel derived from vegetable sources.

"A lot of people are cooking their own boidiesel by turning waste vegetable oil into fuel for vehicles," he says. "Some of them are finding out they can heat their homes with it, too."

Kuma oil stoves are approved for burning biodiesel.

"We’re a pioneer in that area," Freeman says. "We get weekly calls from people who see our Web site, largely because nobody else is doing it."

Freeman claims Kuma Stoves is the only manufacturer of natural-draft oil stoves. The gravity fed oil-vaporizing stoves, like all Kuma stoves, require no electricity to operate, he says.

With an oil-burning stove, fuel flows by gravity from a satellite tank, which is typically set up on the outside of a home, into a vaporizing burner.

Freeman is excited about what he sees as the potential for biodiesel.

"You can take fallow farmland and grow crops to make oil," he says. "It’s both renewable and recyclable."

He says he uses commercially refined biodiesel made from used vegetable oil to heat his shop.

The commercially refined biofuel costs about the same as conventional fuel oil, he says. But for those who can make it themselves from used cooking oil, the cost is about a third that of home-heating oil, he says.

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