Cornering the Market on Cheap Heat
Local folks find relief in maize after gas bills make them blue
By Crystal Harmon
Aw, shucks, go ahead and make your corny jokes.
Your friend with the corn-fueled stove is laughing - laughing all the way to the bank with the money saved by swapping propane, gas or wood heat for a stove fueled by good, old-fashioned, locally grown corn.
"I heated my whole house last year for $450," said Steve Wallaker of Sterling.
"It's a slow, steady heat," said Craig Warren of Standish, as the orange fire crackled behind the glass door of the fire box. "There's really no smell, no dust. Just the comfort level alone makes it worth it."
"Our propane bills were just killing us," Omer resident Diane Veddor said. "We were paying between $300 and $400 per month." Last winter, Veddor said, she heated her house all season for $600.
A maize craze of sorts is sweeping the Midwest as consumers look to cut back on heating costs and do their part to reduce dependence on foreign energy suppliers. At least a dozen area dealers now carry corn stoves, and many report that the units are being gobbled up like buttered popcorn.
Mike Van Epps, who sells and installs corn-fueled stoves at The Kernal Burner in Saginaw, said the corn revolution is well under way.
"People come in to switch from natural gas, propane, everything," he said. "I predict that in five years, 75 percent of new heating systems will be fueled by corn."
Van Epps said the store has sold about 300 stoves this year.
"You'd be surprised," he said. "We sell them to doctors that live in Midland" and other cities as well as folks who dwell in the country.
Stove models, corn loads vary
The store on Gratiot Road carries eight different brands of stoves, including the Kernal Burner brand of furnaces that his family business fabricates in Saginaw, Van Epps said. Free-standing models range from
$1,495 to $3,295 and furnaces or boilers start at $3,795 and go for as high as $7,500.
Up to 25 percent of the price of a corn stove - as much as $750 - is eligible to come back to purchasers in the form of a federal tax rebate.
Van Epps said there's talk that the rebate will be even higher next year.
People concerned about how a silo might clash with their suburban sensibilities needn't worry.
"We sell corn in 50-pound bags, for $3.75," Van Epps said. "Most people can heat their homes for a bushel a day."
Up in Sterling, Wallaker said he decided to take action after his propane bills climbed to $180 per month in 2003 to heat his 2,100-square-foot home. He bought an insert for his fireplace for $2,500 that allows him to burn dry field corn instead of wood and he now uses propane solely for his water heater.
"It's just so efficient," Wallaker said of his new insert. "You don't feel bad dumping corn in. I fill the hopper (on top of the stove) right up and when it's sub-zero temperatures, I'll burn 600 pounds in a little over a week."
Wallaker buys corn from local farmers for $80 a ton and stores it in huge barrels outside.
Wallaker says corn produces less ash than wood, but the flame is comparable.
"I was amazed at just how well it did," he said. "When you see the small fire box and the way it burns, you're just totally amazed."
Without being at the mercy of the propane supplier, Wallaker enjoys a newfound sense of control as winter approaches.
"Corn is a commodity," he said. "Other fuels go up, but the price of corn actually dropped this year. If they start raising the price, I'm not really too concerned. I'll just plant corn myself if it goes up too much."
From buyer to dealer
Wallaker bought his stove from Craig Warren, who became a dealer of Countryside brand corn stoves (from American Energy Systems) after falling in love with his own Countryside pedestal model. He bought it three years ago for the 2,400-square-foot home he built just south of Standish, which he'd discovered was very expensive to heat with propane.
Not only did it bring his seasonal fuel bill down from $2,000 to $350, but the stove's heat was powerful and pleasant.
"I thought I was getting this as a supplement, but I haven't used propane or my fireplace for heat since I bought it," Warren said.
Like most corn stoves, Warren's vents directly to the outdoors without a chimney, much as a clothes dryer does. A friend made him an attractive wooden corn safe with glass doors that fits right in with the sophisticated country decor. He keeps the bulk of the corn in a "gravity wagon," which is sort of like a silo on wheels, out in the yard.
Kernels go into a hopper atop the stove, and an auger feeds down a few at a time to keep the flame going. A blower sends heat throughout the house.
The blower and auger are electrically powered, but Warren said he hasn't noticed a spike in his electric bill. The stove is also designed to burn wood pellets, and Warren has burned dry beans and cherry pits, too, just for kicks.
The 24 stoves Warren had in stock are all gone, and he has to put disappointed callers on a waiting list, he said. So far, four folks are paid up and waiting for his next shipment in January.
Skeptic changes his tune
One particularly tough customer was Craig Warren's father, Dick Warren, who was stunned when his son told him he was thinking about investing in a corn stove three years ago.
"I thought he had lost all his senses," said Dick Warren. "I sent him to college and thought he came out OK, then he tells me he's buying a stove to burn corn."
Craig Warren called his dad over to check out the unit after he'd had it installed, and the senior Mr. Warren quickly changed his tune.
"I sat in a rocking chair in front of that stove, and it amazed me the heat that'll come out of a kernel of corn. I kept having to move the chair back."
The elder Warren bought his own corn stove this summer, and so far, he says, it beats a wood stove hands down.
"I'm pretty near 72, and why would I want to cut wood, haul it in, haul ashes out and clean the ceiling every once in a while?" he said. "I've been happier than heck. This thing warms the place up just like that on cold mornings."
Dick Warren says politicians looking to help poor people with their heating bills should buy them a corn stove instead. And he likes the fact that the fuel is renewable.
"One thing about the corn over the wood," he said, "is that if you cut a tree down, you won't cut it again for 20 years. You pick the corn, and you can have another stalk growing next year."
In Omer, Veddor said she likes the environmental aspects of the stove as well as the economical ones.
"It's just something that's totally natural and acceptable," she said.
The corn stove in her dining room looks attractive, surrounded with a tile hearth, and heats her 2,000-square-foot home quite nicely, she said.
Her children, ages 7 and 9, think it's pretty cool, too.
"We buy corn by the half-ton from local farmers," Veddor said. "We keep it in garbage cans in our garage, and bring it in by the bucketful."
Veddor said corn stoves are catching on in her neck of the woods.
"It's becoming more common in our general area," she said. "People around here are used to it, but people up from Detroit are sure surprised by it. On occasion, people have commented that it smells like popcorn."
- Crystal Harmon covers consumer affairs for The Times. She can be reached at 894-9643 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.