Demand Pops For Furnaces That Burn Corn
By JOHN J. FIALKA
The latest weapon in Art Hallman's five-year battle against soaring utility bills arrived in his basement last month. It clicked on, sending a pulse of toasty warmth through his home in downtown Minneapolis just as the temperature outside headed toward zero.
The welcome new device: a furnace that burns corn.
"It's beautiful," exclaims Mr. Hallman, a retired mailman. He went on the warpath in 2000, turning off his gas furnace after paying a $400 monthly heating bill. After that, he struggled to heat his house with a wood stove. "I had to bring in wheelbarrows full [wood], clean out ashes, soot and creosote," he recalls. "Those days are over. This burns absolutely clean."
Corn warmth also comes cheap. Mr. Hallman pays an area farmer $1.60 a bushel to fill the back of his pickup truck with dried kernel corn. He unloads it into a plywood bin in his garage. Every morning he pours a couple of pails into a hopper on top of his furnace, which burns a little less than a bushel a day. He figures his new monthly heating bill will be less than $60.
That is a very attractive number, not only to Mr. Hallman, but to roughly 30,000 other people who snapped up corn stoves and corn furnaces this year, twice last year's total. According to industry estimates, sales of the stoves have doubled every year over the past five years that they have been tracked. This year's record buying surge struck after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf of Mexico, sending the prices for conventional heating fuels to record levels.
The same storm also blocked the port of New Orleans, leaving a glut of unsold corn in the Midwest and knocking corn prices down to their lowest level in 19 years. "We did an initial run of 1,000 furnaces and they were all sold by the time we started to manufacture them," says John Wager.
John Heppner, owner of Poulsen Ace Hardware in Eaton, Colo., saw his entire inventory, several hundred corn stoves, fly out the door by early October. His manufacturers told him they were sold out, too. "I think people are losing confidence that the price of conventional fuels will remain stable," he says. "They're getting irritated and they want a plan B, something whose price stays intact."
Plan B for Rich Hannon, 60 years old, the hardware store's controller, was to plunk down $2,800 for one of the last stoves and take it home. Now his family puts on their clothes in the morning in front of the glowing stove in their family room. "We turn down the heat at night to 65 degrees and in the morning we turn it up to 75 and all the rooms in the house become comfortable," he says. It reminds him of the days when he grew up around a wood stove in his family's farmhouse.
Corn stoves and furnaces operate on the same principle, with kernels fed from a hopper on top of the device. The furnace is made to hook into the distribution ducts of a heating system and heat the whole house, while the corn stove is free-standing, designed to radiate heat in a single room. The exhaust from both is clean and cool, requiring only a small duct to the outside, rather than a chimney. Mr. Heppner notes that the exhaust carries a faint odor of popcorn, but his neighbors thus far haven't complained.
Corn farmers are getting increasingly used to the idea of burning a food source as energy. Congress currently offers heavy subsidies for corn-based ethanol, a gasoline additive. Within four years, ethanol will be the nation's second-largest market for corn, running just behind feeding it to livestock, says Geoff Cooper, spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association. In contrast, corn-burning in stoves and furnaces, he says, has been a "tiny niche market," but this year the industry has begun to watch its growth.
Burning corn as a heating fuel dates back at least to the Great Depression, when farmers threw nearly worthless corn into their stoves because they couldn't afford the price of coal. It made a messy, sooty, intermittent fire because corn cobs don't burn well, but in the early 1980s, after the first oil price shock in the U.S., several people began to tinker with the process.
Dried corn doesn't burn easily. The process in modern stoves and furnaces is controlled by computer chips and temperature probes, explains Dane Harmon, president of Harmon Stove Co. in Halifax, Pa. He says he came up with the modern technique in the early 1980s while working as a welder, although his first stove was designed to burn dried wood pellets. He later changed the combustion process to handle corn. Owners don't continually shovel corn into the furnace -- corn-filled hoppers on top of the stove do the work.
Dennis Buffington, a professor of engineering at Penn State University, is one of the few outside experts watching the industry expand. Corn-burning, he warns, isn't always what it is cracked up to be. City people have a harder time finding a source of dried, shelled corn and a proper place to store it. Many people buy the corn directly from farmers.
"I was contacted by a person who lives on the 33rd floor of an apartment in Manhattan and I said 'Lady, I don't really think this is for you,' " he recalls. Moreover, burning corn produces ash and some grayish clinkers that have to be removed, he points out. Some manufacturers exaggerate the heating efficiency of their devices, which puzzles Dr. Buffington.
Calculating the new post-Katrina prices, he figures that to make a million British thermal units of heat it takes $22.64 of heating oil, $33.80 of propane or $16.47 of natural gas. But burning corn can do the job for $8.75. "The truth, in my opinion, is that corn is such a good deal that the data don't need to be hyped," he concludes.
Roger D. Castleberry, vice president of United States Stove Co. of South Pittsburg, Tenn., says sales of wood pellet stoves have begun to falter, partly because the industry can't make wood pellets fast enough, so his company is selling a multi-fuel stove. It burns corn, cherry and olive pits and alfalfa pellets. Customers report that it also heats up pretty well when stoked with certain brands of cheap, dried dog food. "We really don't recommend that," he cautions.
John J. Fialka at firstname.lastname@example.org
Like many inventions, the origins of the modern corn stove are a matter of some dispute. Mike Haefner, 51, president of American Energy Systems Inc., in Hutchinson, Minn., says he came up with the first corn stove in 1985. He designed a hopper that slowly fed kernels of dried corn into a pot-like combustion chamber that burned the corn with high efficiency. Sales were good for a couple of years, he recalls, but then they fizzled, so he refined his stove some more. "People called me crazy, but I kept doing it."