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Squeezing more from your money: Heating houses with corn stoves

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

You can heat your house with corn for about $2 per day, but the equipment is hard to find.

Sam Crawn, owner of Sam's Do-It-Best Hardware, had just one corn stove left in stock Monday morning.

The $1,989 unit, made by U.S. Stove Co., (800) 750-2723, burns about a bushel of corn per day, Crawn said.

"They have been around a long time, but they have regained popularity," he said.

There is a good reason for the popularity -- on Monday, the price of crude oil was rising on fears that Iran would cut their oil exports following pressure from the West to allow nuclear power inspections. That is not good news for residents who see their natural gas, propane and heating oil costs rise dramatically this winter.

On Monday morning, a bushel of corn could be purchased for $2.07, a Growers Co-op, Brazil, spokesperson said. You could take last month's heating bill, divide it by the number of days billed and get an idea of your daily heating expense. That $2.07 could stack up pretty well. If you multiply $2.07 by 30 days in a typical month, a corn stove might cost $60 to heat your home.

The stove is rated at 40,000-60,000 BTUs, similar to the output of a furnace in a small home, and the corn is auger-fed, as needed, from a bin. On the side of the unit is an electronic control to help the resident regulate the temperature of the room. The corn stove is installed similarly to a wood-burning stove. Installation instructions call for the stove to be 6 inches from combustible surfaces, such as walls. A non-combustible surface must be laid for the stove to set on. The $1,989 price tag includes a chimney kit and installation instructions for the do-it-yourselfer.

Sam's Hardware has found the unit to be popular. Sam ordered three stoves in October, they arrived in December and he immediately sold two.

He doesn't anticipate being able to get more stoves in the near future.

A corn stove is not the only way to heat with Indiana corn. Some consumers are buying larger corn furnaces that are installed outside and boil water to heat buildings.

Bryan Baker installed a corn furnace to help heat his 12-unit apartment complex in Walkerton, Ind., about 18 miles south of South Bend. The system warms water that cycles through baseboard pipes to heat the apartments.

Baker expects the corn system to reduce his yearly gas bill by about 70 percent.

That means the furnace, which cost $15,000 to buy and install, would pay for itself in about two years, the South Bend Tribune reported Sunday.

"I think there's gonna be a lot of guys like me that are looking into this stuff," Baker said.

While the industry is still in its infancy, retailers and manufacturers say sales are growing.

"It actually really took off last year," said Pete Spangler, owner of LMF Manufacturing in Lock Haven, Pa. "It had been steadily building but then when gas prices went up last year, business really picked up."

Now, Spangler said his company has a backlog of orders for the corn boilers.

Steve Larson, sales and marketing manager for Minnesota-based Northwest Manufacturing Inc., said the company introduced the systems last year and by the end of the year they accounted for about 20 percent of the company's sales.

But Purdue University agricultural economist Wally Tyner said corn heat's appeal likely will remain largely rural. Corn fuel might be a bargain for farmers and neighbors who can buy corn in bulk from them, but delivery costs could drive up costs in cities, he said.

"My hunch would be that it will always be small," he said. "I don't think that it will ever be a huge deal."

Advocates say corn furnaces burn more cleanly than wood-burning furnaces.

"In the research we've done to compare wood-fired boilers to corn boilers, it appears that the corn systems are much cleaner-burning," said Jeff Zehner, president of the Walkerton Plan Commission.

Walkerton does not have an ordinance governing corn heat, though officials are considering whether to regulate wood-burning furnaces.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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