By DAVID GREEN
When Ted Hutchison first became interested in a corn-burning stove about three years ago, he felt lucky to locate one. Corn burners just weren’t that popular.
He and his wife, Ivy, were long-time users of renewable fuel. When they lived in northern Michigan on Drummond Island, they heated their home with a wood pellet stove, buying the fuel at a good price.
When they moved back to Morenci in 2000, their source of economical pellets was gone and they heated their two-story brick home with natural gas. They installed a high-efficiency furnace, but they missed the presence of a warm stove in the living room. Besides, with fuel prices increasing, it was an expensive house to heat. Eventually they bought a wood pellet stove to cut costs, but it wasn’t all that satisfactory.
“I didn’t like the performance,” Ted said, and, added Ivy, it lacked the safety features they wanted.
“That’s when I started looking into corn burners,” Ted said.
They were difficult to find. One day his father-in-law came back from Adrian and told him Lowe’s had three of the stoves on the floor. Ted hurried over and bought one before they disappeared. There was already another shopper there who drove down from Howell to buy one.
The Hutchisons are beginning their third season of heating with corn, and they’re very satisfied customers.
Ted says he’s burning about 230 bushels a year to heat his 2,200 square foot home. His $2,400 investment is already more than half paid off.
For Ted, there’s a lot to like about a corn burner.
Fuel is readily accessible, and if he weren’t buying corn from a relative, he figures he could grow his own on about three acres of land.
Corn doesn’t produce the emissions that come from wood, he said. It burns at a higher temperature and combustion is cleaner.
The Hutchisons describe the odor as similar to carmel corn. It’s not the acrid odor that wood can produce.
There’s much less ash than from a wood fire, it doesn’t require a conventional chimney, and the smaller stovepipe can be vented horizontally through a wall.
A hose draws in air from outside rather than using what’s already in the home. A blower delivers a steady stream of hot air.
It’s great to use before and after the heating season, Ivy said, to quickly take off the chill on a cool evening.
If the outlet becomes blocked for some reason, a sensor shuts down the burning process. The cleaner burning fuel won’t lead to chimney fires.
“It’s a safe operation and it’s easy to maintain,” Ted says. “You don’t need a truck to haul wood. You don’t need a chain saw, there’s no chain saw maintenance. No bugs. No poison ivy. No back pain.”
The stoves need side clearance of only six inches on three sides and three to four feet in the front. Ted puts a kettle of water on top to add some moisture to the house.
Not for everybody
Some people are accustomed to doing nothing more than turning the dial on a thermostat and occasionally cleaning furnace filters.
A corn burner requires more than that.
Corn has to be hauled to the home or delivered. Ted has a 500-bushel storage bin—much larger than what he needs now—and he carries in corn twice a day in a five-gallon bucket. The hopper at the back of the stove holds about a bushel and half.
The sugar in corn forms clinkers—a rock-like substance—that have be broken off the rotating mixer in the burning chamber every few days. Ted empties the ash pan every three days, and he figures it takes 15 to 20 minutes to clean the stove. The cleaner the corn—free of debris—the less ash produced.
Old corn is likely to have weevils. Wet corn won’t burn as well. Seed corn is treated with chemicals and will give off toxins.
Future of the fuel
Ted expressed some concern about the future of corn as a fuel due to increasing prices. Last year, he said, corn was selling for under $2 a bushel. This year it’s closer to $3 and even more if purchased from a mill and more yet if delivered.
“I think corn is a good way to go for personal heating,” he said, “but I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the ethanol plants.”
Farmers are getting a better price and that leads to higher costs for corn-burning families.
Ted doesn’t look forward to expanded wood burning because trees, though renewable, take a long time to regenerate. He likes the idea of a fuel that can be renewed every year.
He sees the use of a corn furnace as an environmental statement.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “I think if everybody did a little, it would add up to a lot.”– Nov. 8, 2006
It's the principle of the thing
Russ Davis spent a lot of time talking to other stove owners and reading through the discussion forums at the iburncorn website.
“I checked out about three or four manufacturers and I finally found the one I was looking for,” he said.
He installed his furnace last March as the heating season was winding down. That way, he figured he would have the opportunity to put it to the test, and if he had problems, winter would soon be moving on anyway.
“Sometimes I’ll look at the thermometer and it will be 80°,” Russ said.
He hasn’t tried to compute his actual savings, but he’s sure of one thing.
“All I know is that it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than last year,” he said. “It’s really working out well. I have a high-efficiency gas furnace and it does a good job, but it’s nothing like a corn burner. It’s the warmest my house has been in the 21 years I’ve lived here.”
Russ paid extra for a furnace with a self-igniter.
“You turn a switch and it superheats the corn,” he said.
Corn furnaces have a hopper to hold corn and an auger that delivers a few kernels every few seconds. It doesn’t take much and the actual burning chamber is surprisingly small.
Russ has a 250-bushel silo in his side yard to hold corn. He sifts out the debris through a piece of hardware cloth, unlike Ted Hutchison, the tinkerer, who built a shaking table with a blower.
Russ called Pettisville Elevator for a quote and had 200 bushels delivered for $2.94 a bushel plus $30 for delivery.
Russ likes the cost savings and the heat it produces, but he also likes the looks of the fire burning brightly in his living room.
“It must be cave man instincts,” he says. “Fire good, cold bad.”
He’s a true convert now and he loves breaking free of a major utility.
“I don’t care if it ends up costing more than natural gas,” he said. “It’s the principle of the thing.”• Is corn a green fuel?
According to John Abbot of iburncorn.com, the answer is “no.”
When people talk about information on corn burners, they often point to Abbot‘s website. That’s where Morenci’s Russ Davis turned to help narrow down the choice for his purchase.
Abbot is a leading proponent of corn stoves, and although he likes the money saved, he doesn’t look at corn as the answer to the quest for an alternative fuel.
A lot of diesel fuel is consumed in planting, harvesting and trucking corn, Abbot says. Furthermore, a lot of natural gas is used in the production of methane-based fertilizer.
“Yes, it’s renewable as long as there’s a ready supply of diesel fuel,” he writes on his web site.
Others criticize corn production as the most heavily subsidized crop produced. They fear that increased production through ethanol demand will push farmers toward a corn monoculture, requiring even more fertilizer than if a crop rotation of beans or hay were used.
The U.S. Wheat Associates export group points out that 30 years ago, America controlled half of the world’s wheat exports. Today that’s fallen to 22 percent as the country’s wheat belt changes to an expanded corn belt. However, corn is described as a more energy-intensive crop with much high water needs.
Abbot expects the potential for future fuel shortages will cause corn to become very expensive, and therefore, not a long-term solution.
• Can a corn burner play a role in heating something big, such as a school?
That’s what the school board in Merrill, Mich., is out to prove. Merrill’s middle school is now the second school building in the nation to install a corn-burning system as the primary heat source. The district expects to save about $10,000 a year in heating costs, depending on the price of corn.
The cost of the school’s new boiler is about two and a half times that of a conventional unit, but it’s expected to pay for itself within 15 to 20 years.
The school board was recently taking bids on 7,200 bushels of corn—the quantity expected to get it through a year of heating.