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Corn-burning stoves the alternative heating fuel of choice

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sales of corn-burning stoves and firewood are heating up as people look to escape soaring fuel costs this winter.

Sales of corn-burning stoves and furnaces are so hot they may be hard to find, some dealers say. But that hasn't stopped the enthusiasm of would-be buyers.

Wood-burning stoves, the traditional alternative fuel that people have chosen whenever there is a sharp rise in energy prices, are apparently not as popular as they were even a few years ago. People are opting instead to pay more for pellet- or corn-burning stoves since, according to dealers at least, there is less ash and fewer chances of chimney fires.

John Mills, owner of M&M Small Engine Repair on 605 W. Milwaukee Ave. in Storm Lake, said his chain saw sales are about normal for this time of year. Mills is quick to point out, though, that the true test will be when people get their first big energy bill this winter.

"It's really shocked me that I haven't seen more" chain saw sales, Mills said. He said his wholesaler had indicated that chain saw sales were indeed up in Northern states with the impending fuel crunch and higher prices.

Mills said one factor that might discourage people from installing wood burners is insurance companies. As a rule, insurance companies charge higher premiums when wood burners are used, and some will refuse altogether to insure a structure that uses wood heat. "A lot of insurance companies won't allow you to have one anymore," Mills said.

It's a different story with corn-burning stoves, though.

"We're selling corn stores as fast as we can get them," said Rich Nitchals at Bomgaars Supply at 1628 N. Lake Ave. in Storm Lake. Nitchals said the stoves start at about $1,700 and can burn either corn or wood pellets which run $3.49 for a 50-pound bag. The corn or pellet stove runs on an auger system which carries fuel to the firebox.

"I've got a pretty long list of names waiting for them," Nitchals said.

Kathy Sernett at Murphy's Flooring Gallery in Pocahontas agrees that corn-burning stoves are the hot item this fall with higher fuel prices in the offing.

Sernett said the stoves start at around $2,000 and will heat about 1,800 square feet. She said one customer reported that it cost just $250 to heat a large, two-bedroom house for a year.

One hears the same thing around the state - people are already afraid of higher heating prices and corn-pellet stoves seem to be the alternative heating option of choice.

"Our phone has been ringing off the hook," said Dana Rowcliffe, who along with her husband Wally runs Country Flame Technologies, of Strawberry Point.

"It's booming. In August we surpassed last year's total sales," Wally Rowcliffe said.

Sales started to climb in August when predictions of scarce heating fuel supplies began, Dana Rowcliffe said.

She said sales really took off after hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast, causing gas prices to spike.

Meanwhile, the price of corn has dropped because of projected near-record harvests and export disruptions caused by the hurricanes.

Loren Van Wyk, president of LDJ Manufacturing in Pella, which makes corn burning furnaces and boilers, said the difference between fuel and corn prices has helped his company sell 150 corn-fired heaters to dealers in a single day.

Bob Hill, of Hill Corn Stoves in Lisbon, said the units sell themselves.

"People are fed up with utility companies having control over their pocketbook," he said. "When they put a pencil to it, they find that corn is an economical and environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels."

Hill said a bushel of corn produces heat equivalent to 5.5 gallons of liquid propane.

According to a formula used by the Rowcliffes, someone paying $400 a month for liquid propane or natural gas can get the same amount of heat from a corn-burning stove for $138 per month.

Gary Nelson, of Lisbon, said his corn-burning stove saved him more than $1,000 last year. He said he will recoup his $3,005 initial investment in two more years.

His freestanding stove keeps his entire home warm in all but subzero weather, when his backup gas furnace kicks in.

Nelson said his homeowner's insurance premium went up $50 a year because of the stove, even though he believes his corn stove is at least as safe as a traditional furnace.

Dana Rowcliffe said corn is actually safer to burn than wood and fossil fuels because, unlike fossil fuels, it breaks down into carbon dioxide rather than potentially lethal carbon monoxide.

It also doesn't create flammable creosote deposits in chimneys or vent pipes, she said.

Corn isn't the only alternative heating source people are turning to ward off high heating costs this winter.

Larry Bitker, owner of Bitker Tree Service in Mason City, said orders for firewood are up 40 percent from last year.

He said he has sold up to 12 truckloads of wood already this fall. Such calls usually don't start until November, he said.

"It makes you wonder what this winter's going to be like," Bitker said. "Everybody's getting scared of the heating bills."

If one chooses the traditional firewood method of heating, there are a number of things to remember. First of all, you need to find firewood. If you have your own woodlot, that problem is resolved. If you don't, you need to remember that you have to find a way to cut and haul that firewood.

Costs include a chain saw, which can easily top $300 for even a moderate-priced saw. There's also the cost of a pickup and log splitter. Some people choose the old-fashioned method of hand-splitting, which provides a warmth all its own.

Sometimes, it might actually be cheaper to buy firewood, but be ready to pay $75 or more for a pickup load. If someone says he is selling you a cord of wood, ask the person to specify whether you are getting a full cord or a face cord of wood. A full cord is a pile 8-by-4-by-4 or 128 square feet while a face cord, or rick, is 4-by-8 and one level of wood deep. If you can buy a full cord of hardwood for $150, split and stacked, you've found a pretty good deal.

While wood stoves are substantially less expensive than corn-burning stoves, there is also the issue of venting. As a rule, a pipe for a wood stove should be at least as high as the roof of the home. Any pipe used for exhaust must be double-wall or triple-wall to avoid the chance of starting a fire due to contact between a hot pipe and wood in the home or other combustible materials.

Care should also be taken that there are no combustible materials beneath or behind a wood or corn-burning stove. Many homeowners put brick or slate under or behind a stove to ensure there is no possibility of combustion.

The best procedure is to contact your heating contractor to determine whether it is practical to install a wood or corn-burning stove in your home. Also check with your insurance company to make sure there are no problems in insuring your home if you install a wood or corn-burning stove.

Depending on how high energy costs go this winter, installing a wood-burning or corn-burning stove may or not pay for itself this winter.

It's better to look at alternative heating as a long-term investment. If it pays for itself in the next two or three years, and you don't mind a little extra work, it just might all be worth it.

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