Winter's a long way off, but...
Last weekend, we got our corn stove installed in place of our propane fireplace. We thought a gas log fireplace would be cool, until we experienced the price of propane. After the first month, we never used it, because every time we had a fire, all we could see were little dollar bills burning in the flames.
That first propane bill last November was quite a shock. I don't believe there's much chance of any fuel derrived from petroleum getting cheaper any time soon. With our monthly heating bills approaching $500 last winter (a fairly mild one) even without using the fireplace, something had to be done.
You've probably seen those wood pellet stoves in stores. I heard those were pretty nice, except when demand exceeds supply and the pellets are not available (like last winter).
There's also the option of a wood-burning stove. But without a tree in sight on our property, we'd be buying and storing quite a bit of firewood, trying to keep it dry, and hoping it didn't bring termites with it. Plus we'd need an entirely new chimney system. Not to mention the fact that burning wood is far from the cleanest way to heat your home.
So we turned down the thermostat, put on sweaters, turned it down again, and waited for warmer weather. We were a bit stumped.
Enter the corn stove. Actually, it's not a corn stove. It's a biomass stove. It will burn wood pellets, corn, wheat, oats, barley, sunflower seed hulls, olive pits, cherry pits... whatever you can get your hands on that's small enough and combustible enough. But here in south-central Ohio, corn is cheap and abundant.
It may sound strange to use corn as a fuel source, but it burns very efficiently, and with surprisingly clean emmissions. A bushel of corn weighs about 56 lbs, which is about the size of an extra large bag of dog food or kitty litter. That bushel costs in the neighborhood of $2.00. It will heat a 2000 square-foot house, in the dead of winter, for about 24 hours. It is the heating equivalent of about 5 gallons of propane, which, in our area, will cost you five times as much.
The downside of all this is that you have to have a lot of corn on hand. You can buy bushel bags at a feed store, but that will cost you $5.00 or more, instead of the $2.00 at the grain elevator. We'd still be saving quite a bit over propane, but I'd rather pay $2.00 than $5.00 for the same reason I'd rather pay $5.00 than $10.00 for the equivalent amount of propane. It's a big difference over the course of a heating season.
So, sometime before it gets cold again next fall, we're going to have to acquire a gravity wagon. That's one of those big, square, funnel shaped carts you see around farms from time to time. That shouldn't be too hard to accomplish.
I tried out the stove last night. Boy it puts out a lot of heat, even on the second-lowest setting. It's a nice heat too. Not too dry, not too humid. I ran it for a couple hours to satisfy my curiosity. I had to open quite a few windows to let the cool evening air in.
The nice thing about it is that we opted for stone work around the chimney. That should create a nice radiant heat sink. In addition, our fireplace is in a room with a vaulted ceiling that goes up to a loft area. That gives us a great channel for the warm air to get to the upstairs. Hot air rises, and all that. The ceiling fan will help too. Plus, there's an air return vent for the furnace in that room, so if we really wanted to thoroughly circulate the heat, we could turn on just the fan for our existing furnace and draw the warm air from the living room throughout the house. We may not need to bother with that though. I like the bedrooms to be cooler than the rest of the house. Our bedrooom is conveniently located at the opposite end of the house. We'll just have to see how it all balances out next winter.
We figured that even if propane does not increase in price next season (yeah, right), and even after we shell out for the stove, the installation, and the gravity wagon, we will most likely make up the cost in a single winter -- especially if we take into account a $2000 tax credit.
If we ever really feel ambitious, we could probably grow enough corn to get us through the winter on about an acre.
I've also got a crazy, hairbrained scheme in the back of my head involving perennial sunflowers. The big sunflowers you usually see are annuals, just like corn. You have to plant it every year. However, there's a perennial variety of sunflower out there. It doesn't produce seeds as prolifically as the annuals, but what if you could increase seed production over time? What if you could plant a large stand of heavy-producing perennial sunflowers, harvest the seeds each year, eat the meat out of the seeds, and heat your home by burning the hulls?
There's probably a thermodynamics problem there somewhere. I'm probably trying to get more energy out of a system than I'm putting in. But it's fun to ponder...