Step into any home in rural Alaska and there’s a good chance that a Toyostove is what’s keeping it warm. Toyostoves are heaters that run efficiently on stove oil. But the supply of Toyostoves in Alaska is running low, and it’s yet another symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just ask Bethel Toyostove dealer Grant Fairbanks.
Fairbanks said he has four Toyostoves in stock, and his supplier told him it can’t fill any additional orders until November at the earliest.
“And then those supplies will be limited,” said Fairbanks. “So it’s going to be a rough year for people that want to get a Toyostove.”
Rural Energy Enterprises is the only Toyostove importer for all of Alaska and several other states. CEO and President Jason Evans declined an interview with KYUK but wrote in an email that the company has half the inventory of Toyostoves it normally does. He said the company has placed limits on the number of Toyostoves that dealers can purchase so they don’t create a run on the low inventory.
Evans said the shortage has “no end in sight.”
For the limited number of Toyostoves that are available this year, Evans said, they may be more expensive due to huge increases in shipping costs.
Toyostoves generally cost between $1,000 and $3,000.
The heaters are made by a company in Japan called TOYOTOMI. Fairbanks said that company is facing the same pandemic-fueled problems that are plaguing the auto industry.
“They are having a very hard time getting computer chips and circuit boards and relays, and then also ocean shipping,” Fairbanks said.
Evans, the statewide importer, agreed.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for computer chips has skyrocketed as more people stay home and use electronic devices. On top of that, various COVID-19 outbreaks temporarily shut down major ports, creating shipping backlogs that still haven’t been resolved.
Robert Pitka is the tribal administrator in Toksook Bay, a village with about 650 people on the coast of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Pitka said that in Toksook Bay, Toyostoves are ubiquitous.
“Practically every household in Toksook I know of uses Toyostoves,” Pitka said.
He said about half of homes also have a wood stove, but many rely solely on Toyostoves to heat their homes. Like any appliance, Toyostoves can break down. Pitka said the tribe was planning to use coronavirus relief funds to stockpile several Toyostoves this year. That way, they could provide a replacement for families if their heater stopped working. But so far, he said, the tribe has only been able to purchase one.
Pitka said that for many rural communities in Alaska, the Toyostove shortage could become a matter of life or death.
“It’s an emergency need. I can only put it that way,” Pitka said. “Sooner or later, someone’s going to break down a Toyostove. We can’t just leave out a family in the cold.”
While the Toyostove shortage will hit families hardest, businesses that sell the heaters will suffer as well. In Bethel, Fairbanks said that he sells anywhere from 20 to 80 stoves a year. He had expected a strong year of sales because villages like Toksook Bay have coronavirus relief funds to spend.
“And so they want to buy Toyostoves, and they can’t get them,” Fairbanks said. “It’s really gonna hurt my business.”
Fairbanks said that while Toyostove sales will suffer, another business opportunity will open up: repairing old, broken stoves.
“I encourage people, instead of buying a new one, to rebuild them, because you can rebuild an old Toyostove for half the price of a new one and it’s just as good,” Fairbanks said.
He said that even if people in Y-K Delta villages pay to ship their broken Toyostoves for him to repair in Bethel, it would still be cheaper than buying a new one. But he won’t be able to service all the Toyostoves in the region. For anyone in rural Alaska that is mechanically inclined, he said, this would be a good year to start a Toyostove repair business.