High Heating Bills Prompt some Minnesotans to Burn Corn
Some Minnesotans fed up with their high energy costs are turning to corn to heat their homes this winter -- a switch that's slashing their heating bills to as little as $30 a month.
Many of the corn-burning consumers are using appliances built by American Energy Systems of Hutchinson, which has been making cornstoves and fireplace inserts for 12 years with little fanfare -- until this season.
When homeowners realized that heating costs were going to soar, they started snapping up manufacturer Mike Haefner's cornstoves so quickly that his sales jumped 500 percent in August, he said.
Low corn prices also kindled the demand. Word of mouth and the Internet have fanned business so much that Haefner can't keep up.
Last year, he made about 1,000 of the corn-burning appliances. That brought in about $1 million in sales with a net profit of about $60,000. This year, he'll need to cap production at 5,000 of the units, Haefner said.
He'll boost his 12-person work force by another 30 employees and will move to a building three times bigger than the 8,500-square-foot steel building that he now uses to build 30 models of corn, gas and wood heating appliances.
No chimney needed
The forced-air corn stoves retail for about $2,175, with installation typically about $150. Haefner said consumers save up to $2,000 by not having to install a chimney system as they would with wood stoves. Instead, the cornstoves require a 3-inch galvanized vent pipe installed through a wall.
Buyers in eight foreign nations are eyeing Haefner's clean-burning corn stoves, which plug into an electrical outlet and draw as much electricity as a 100-watt light bulb.
On a recent afternoon, workers grinded, welded and fine-tuned the corn stoves and other heating appliances in Haefner's Hutchinson plant.
"It started picking up last year," he said. "Then in July or August, as soon as people found out heating costs were going to soar, it went nuts. This year, if we could have handled it, we'll probably get a 2,000 percent increase in orders."
Since last fall, the cornstoves have made up 97 percent of Haefner's production in his 26-year-old heating appliance business.
He is negotiating with several manufacturers to build corn-burning appliances for him in their shops. One manufacturer would build 50,000 of the corn-burners, which come in five models, Haefner said.
Haefner estimates that since he began making the corn-burners, he's sold about 7,500 of them. They come with a five-year warranty.
Haefner, 46, is a former South Dakota farm boy who began his first business, building gas appliances, at age 20 with $200 in his pocket.
In the years that he's sold the corn stoves, he's overhauled the units completely, upgraded the electronic components and doubled the heat exchange in the units, which now kick out 50,000 BTU of radiant heat.
American Energy's corn-burning appliances are certified to nationally recognized safety standards, said Edwin Hodgson, a project manager with Intertek Testing Services of North America, a worldwide testing firm.
"This product is as safe as any heating appliance in your home," Haefner said. "It won't operate if the fire goes out. It won't operate if it overheats."
His stoves also burn wood pellets, cherry pits, olive pits, wheat, rye, barley, oats and waste-paper products, and they are being designed for rice. But it's the corn that burns most cost-effectively and cleanly, Haefner said.
Industry observers such as Ron Langley of Cheyenne, Wyo., say Haefner's technology has overcome problems that other corn-burning manufacturers still are trying to solve. Haefner said he used chemical engineers and other experts to do that.
"We've put a lot of science into it," he said, describing his product as "the only corn-burning appliance in the world that is scientifically and specifically designed to burn corn."
Inside each stove, an auger feeds corn from a 75-pound bin into a firepot. A stainless steel stirrer that resembles a tiny hand turns the corn. A handful of oyster shells is mixed with every 75 pounds of corn, and that together with injected air helps the corn burn cleanly.
That unique design prevents the formation of "clinkers" in the firepots, Haefner said. Clinkers are caused when the protein, fats, sugars and starch in the corn do not burn evenly and instead clump together into hard chunks that won't burn.
"There are some [products] on the market but nothing like Mike's," said Langley, owner of Global Spas and Stoves in Cheyenne. "It's kind of like everybody else has a Model A and he has a new Dodge Viper. I'll take as many as he can get me. In Colorado and Wyoming, I think I can sell between 1,000 and 3,000. Right now, Mike owns the industry."
Nationwide and in Canada, nearly 600 dealers are selling American Energy's corn-burning appliances, Haefner said. Another 200 or so dealers are selling his 25 other products.
Bill Wilcke, an engineer with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, advises consumers to think about long-range implications before buying corn-burning stoves. Corn prices are low, he said, "but you need to add in the cost of the corn burner plus the corn fuel feeding and storage system." Corn-burning stoves can be fairly easy to manage in rural areas where there is convenient access to corn, but that's not the case in urban areas, he said.
From the countryside to suburban cul-de-sacs, the buyers of the American Energy corn-burners are trumpeting the alternative energy source.
Take Keith and Kris Borgeson, a Cambridge couple who say they're doing their part to help the farmer, keep the environment clean and save the trees. They use two corn-burning stoves to heat their 4,000-square-foot house for just under $2 a day, Keith Borgeson said.
"I've been just shouting this from the mountaintops," Kris Borgeson said in her toasty family room. Her house doesn't smell like popcorn; the field corn doesn't even pop.
The Borgesons estimate that if they were using propane and electricity to heat their home -- as they once did -- they would be paying about $660 a month. Most homes can get by on one corn-burner, paying about $30 a month for corn, they said.
"It's a very environmentally safe product," Kris Borgeson said. "Corn is grown everywhere in the world, and it's a four-month renewable resource."
The Borgesons are so excited about the corn-burners that they became dealers. Among customers last week were Sherry and David Croes of Rush City, who had checked out wood-pellet stoves but opted instead for a corn-burner.
"It's good for the ecology, and it's a way for me to fight back at the people I believe are gouging me," David Croes said.
The Croeses examined the gritty, granular ashes of the corn-burner, which the Borgesons say produce about 20 times less ash than a wood-burning stove.
Twice a month, Keith Borgeson drives his truck to a nearby farm and pays $29 for 17 bushels of corn, which he stores in garbage cans. The Borgesons burn about two-thirds of a bushel per stove daily, he said.
Keith and Kris Borgeson grew up on farms. They advocate buying direct from the farmer rather than paying more at a feed mill.
"I'm telling people who buy corn to find a farmer, make a link," Kris Borgeson said.
Out the Borgesons' back window, beyond their silver propane tank that sits unused beneath an apron of snow, a bright light shines from far across the fields. It's shining on the farm of Frank Becker, who sells them their corn.
Becker has been using a corn stove for five years now, along with his wood-burning stove. He appreciates the way his cornstove keeps burning long after the wood stove has gone out when he's working.
"All you've got to do is dump in a couple of pails and you're good for a couple of days," Becker said. "That's what I like."
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Joy Powell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2001 Star Tribune. Republished here with the permission of the Star Tribune. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the express approval of the Star Tribune.