SALEM, Ohio – Chances are the heating bill for your home shows signs that hot air truly does rise – both physically and in terms of heating bill figures – pulling dollars from your checkbook.
But there’s a underutilized and less expensive heat source especially suited for farmers and their rural neighbors right under our noses.
Corn stoves are growing in popularity and proving to be a good option over natural gas or electricity for wintertime heat.
Consumption. Though we’re warned of the consequences, American haven’t curbed fossil fuel consumption.
Every day, people are using the fossil fuel equivalent of all the plant matter that grows on land and in the oceans over the course of a whole year, according to Jeff Dukes, a University of Utah ecologist.
“Prices for oil and gas continue to climb and there’s no sign of a plateau,” said Dennis Buffington, a Penn State professor of agricultural and biological engineering.
Why corn? Among a list of fossil fuel alternatives, dry shelled corn stands out as something to be seriously considered, Buffington said.
The main reason: It’s the economics, stupid, Buffington quoted.
“Prices change on the markets, but corn prices won’t fluctuate as drastically as fuel oil,” he said.
Cost efficiency. A bushel of corn at 15.5 percent moisture will generate roughly 381,000 Btu of heat, according to Buffington.
A British thermal unit is the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of a pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit.
That single bushel can make enough heat to warm an average size home for an entire day.
According to American Energy Systems, a corn stove manufacturer, corn is the cheapest heat source when efficiency and heat output are considered.
At 85 percent efficiency, corn’s cost to produce 1 million Btu is $4.12. The next closest cost is fuel oil at $8.98.
One-hundred percent efficient electricity ranks in at $21.98 per million Btu.
Rural economics. The corn stove technology can help wean Americans from fossil fuel use and instead push consumers to use renewable resources.
It’s also a way to put more money in the pockets of farmers, either by selling their corn as fuel or using a corn furnace in their own home or farm shop.
“This is an excellent heating option, for farmers or anyone in a rural area with easy access to shelled corn,” Buffington said.
It works. Some suburban dwellers are also making it work.
In Takoma Park, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., a citizens group banded together to place grain bins in their community park, Buffington said.
“Incredible as it sounds, these people put bins up to get corn for heat. They don’t have to get as much at a time, and it’s renewable,” he said.
Natural furnace. The stoves, sometimes called furnaces or boilers, burn shelled corn and use a small electric fan to circulate air and heat.
While many of them are suited to heat one room, a few modifications and additions of ductwork can turn them into a whole-house furnace.
Growing popularity. When Buffington started a Web site about corn-based heat 3-4 years ago, he said he knew of half a dozen manufacturers of the stoves.
Today, he’s updated the site to reflect a growing number of manufacturers, around 20.
“I can say they are certainly increasing in popularity, based on the number of inquiries I get,” he said.
“Manufacturers seem to be doing very well, and the numbers keep increasing.”
Testimonial. Buffington, who’s used a wood burner for around 15 years in his own home, tried burning corn.
A small amount burned well, but adding too much at once caused smoldering, he said.
But just wait, he said. As soon as that wood burner goes bad, a corn stove will take its place.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
Real life: The sweet smell of corn heat
SALEM, Ohio – Homeowners love the sweet popcorn smell that emanates from a house vent and wafts through their neighborhood.
It’s better than smelling burning wood or coal and just one of the perks of Jeff Bentley’s corn stove.
This is the second winter of corn heat for Bentley, who lives northwest of Salem, Ohio.
“I’ve never had any complaints about the smell. And it sure piques the neighbors’ interest,” he said.
Cheaper heat. Bentley keeps his two-story home toasty with a bushel of No. 2 yellow corn.
The stove burns roughly 75 pounds of grain every two days. When temperatures drop below the freezing point, the heater gobbles up 40-50 pounds a day, he said.
The primary heat source for his home, the stove radiates heat and uses a register and fan system to keep Old Man Winter at bay.
Fuel source. His initial investment was around $1,600 for the used burner. He estimates his total winter heating bill – just the price of a bushel of corn a day – is around $225.
His natural fuel source is always handy, packed into 55-gallon drums in his garage.
Give it a try. Though corn stoves aren’t a new idea, they are gaining popularity. Bentley heard about the technology from a local farmer and decided to give it a try.
He admitted he was anxious about operating the stove’s computerized panel at first. Early mornings with no heat forced him to catch on, and after a few months he was warm and comfortable using the stove.
Requirements. Day-to-day operation also clued him in about burning additives and cleaning requirements.
Bentley’s model can burn wood pellets, which helps cut back on the heated corn sticking to the stirring device inside the burner.
He also cleans ashes from the burner daily, and does a more complete cleaning once a week.
Amazed. Bentley said corn stove benefits far outweigh traditional heaters.
“Its a nice way to support the agriculture industry. Burning corn makes a lot of heat, and the mechanics of the thing are just amazing,” he said.
In his living room, the burner is aesthetically pleasing, too.
“It looks just like a front-load wood burner, and you wouldn’t’ know any different unless you got up close and looked at it,” Bentley said.
– Andrea Myers
Key talking points
* Corn stoves are suitable for but not limited to homes in corn-producing states.
* Corn burns cleaner than wood or coal and supports the rural economy.
* Corn ash residue has modest fertilizer value and is not hazardous.
* Buyer beware. Check to see if you can burn 100 percent corn or if an additive is needed.
Get the details
* Compare heating values
* American Energy Systems
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