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3 Easy Ways to Install a Pellet Stove

Corn Stoves for Homes are Hot Item

Thanks to a consumer craze sparked by high home-heating prices, the new corn-burning stove that Al and Carol Schwarz of New Ulm, Minn., just ordered won't arrive until February.

But they couldn't wait that long, so they drove to Homeland Heating & Fireplace in Hutchinson to see one.

"I didn't think they would look this good," Carol Schwartz said. "I thought they would be dirty, but they're nice."

In a sign that Americans are getting serious about energy efficiency, sales of the stoves are soaring so fast that manufacturers can't keep up.

Some customers are already putting deposits on stoves that will not roll off the assembly line until next year.

"We're sold out now through next June," said Mike Haefner, owner of American Energy Systems of Hutchinson, the world's largest manufacturer of corn-burning stoves. "By the end of the year, we might be sold out through 2006."

Haefner's company forecasts that its U.S. retail sales next year will hit $60 to $65 million, up from about $15 million five years ago.

Advocates of corn-burning stoves say the savings from them can be substantial. People can heat their entire homes with corn for as little as $1 to $3 per day, Haefner said.

That compares with $6.16 per day that the typical residential customer is expected to pay in Minnesota for natural gas this month -- twice as much as in November 2003.

Using corn to heat homes can indeed be efficient, said Phil Smith, an energy specialist for the Minnesota Commerce Department. It also cuts your contribution to carbon in the atmosphere, he said.

Some are going to extremes to heat with corn.

Take the burglar who crept into the Foster Flame Shop in Foster, Neb., this month and took nothing but a hard-to-come-by Baby Countryside stove, valued at $1,800. Owner Kevin Siedschlag intended to keep that last Baby for his own home.

"Not only did I get the shaft by losing the stove, but now I have to buy propane to heat my house," Siedschlag said.

He and other dealers say they've never seen such demand.

"Just this morning I had three more people come in here looking for a corn stove," Siedschlag said. "I tell them late winter would be the God-awful earliest they could get one, but more like late spring."

In Frederic, Wis., dealer Bill Didlo's flood of calls began in August.

"After the hurricanes, the price of gasoline went up so quickly, by 30 or 40 cents a gallon, and the next day my phone was ringing off the hook," Didlo said.

"People were looking for alternatives. They liked buying corn from their neighbor, and they wanted to keep the money in this country."

Hearthmakers such as Haefner say the trend is a sign of a new era emerging: Consumers who once gave little thought to renewable energy are turning to corn with almost nationalistic zeal.

"Yes, the high prices fuel that a bit, but people are genuinely concerned that we're wrecking our environment, we're eating up our fuel reserves and we're being held hostage by any little whim that comes along, whether it's political, whether it's terrorists, whether it's the oil people," Haefner said.

The backlog of orders is growing not only because it takes time to make the stoves, but also because dealers are scrambling to install more of them, said Don Johnson, director of market research for the national Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

"The manufacturers are producing the units as fast as they can, but the consumers want them faster," Johnson said.

Some industrious farmers are delivering shelled, dried and bagged corn. And some communities, such as Hutchinson, are using mulching equipment to bag corn for customers.

A clean burn

Near Grantsburg, Wis., Mike and Tracy Peterson and their three kids enjoy a cozy fire in their Countryside corn stove. That was the first model, and it remains a bestseller for American Energy Systems Inc, which expects to ship out 8,500 to 10,000 of them in the United States this year.

The Peterson's, who also use a wood-fired boiler to heat their two-story home, have quit using propane. Their friends have seen the corn burner and bought their own.

A little corn goes a long way, Mike Peterson said.

The hopper holds 70 pounds, which burns for 40 hours, he said. Peterson bought $220 worth of corn in fall 2004 from a farmer and has plenty left.

Proponents of using corn as a heating source say it burns cleanly and evenly, doesn't need chopping and ends the dirt, bark and insects that can come with cordwood. Corn is poured through the stove top into a hopper and trickles into a burn pot 6 inches or less in diameter. A blower forces air into a carbureted fire.

"When the fuel increases, the air increases," said John Crouch, spokesman for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. "When the fuel decreases, the air decreases. It make the stove automatic, and that means you can have it on a thermostat."

This year, in the Baby Countryside and a new furnace, Haefner introduced revolutionary new technology -- a combustion system that regenerates for extended burn times and almost no ash.

A hopper that holds 40 pounds of corn in the new Baby Countryside can burn 38 to 40 hours on a low setting and 24 hours on a high setting, Haefner said.

In 1973 he built the world's first certified biomass fuel stove for burning corn, wood pellets, wheat and more.

Now about two dozen companies make corn stoves, but Haefner dominates the market by far. In the past five years he has expanded from 12 employees to 53 and says he needs more. He built a second plant in Hutchinson and is continuing to add manufacturing partners, including a Minnesota company with factories in China to make components.

His biomass appliances cost from $1,800 for a Baby Countryside to $3,000 for a furnace. Prices are scheduled to rise slightly.

For Haefner, it's not just about profits. "I'm thinking about long-term solutions," he said. "If this is ever going to be a mainstream product, it has to be affordable for everyone."

Federal legislation is expected to include a rebate of up to 25 percent, up to $3,000, on heating appliances that use agri-fuels, including corn. The U.S. Energy Department is working out details for possible introduction next year. But that's no reason to delay buying a stove, Haefner said.

"Right now, consumers who invest in a corn-burning or biomass fuel appliance are going to see a 60-percent yearly return on that investment," he said. "Most customers will see a one- to two-year payback. That's money in the bank."

Joy Powell  612-673-7750

UNITS SHIPPED (thousands) NET SALES (millions)

Jan. thru Jan. thru Percent Jan. thru Jan. thru Percent

Sept. 04 Sept. 05 change Sept. 04 Sept. 05 change

Pellet stoves 33.0 66.0 100% $40.6 $94.1 131%

Wood stoves 52.7 57.5 9% $40.2 $46.4 15%

Other fuel stoves 6.4 7.4 16% $9.0 $13.5 50%

Totals 92.1 130.9 42% $89.8 $154.0 71%

Sales of corn-burning and other solid-fuel appliances have soared, especially July through September, after news that heating costs would jump. Pellet stoves and "other fuels" both include corn-burners.

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Copyright 2005 Star Tribune. All rights reserved

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