Monday, October 20, 2008

The (Cherry) Pits

I've talked here before about my difficulty in choosing the "best" winter heating fuel. We have a "biomass" stove, designed to burn wood pellets, corn, or other small, "pellety" fuels. Not that there have been many other options available up until now, but our appliance can hypothetically burn oats, sunflower seeds, grass pellets, and various other things.

I struggled with the ethical dilemma of burning corn for the same reasons I think ethanol is a flawed option. Namely, that you're pitting food and fuel against each other, which can only drive up prices. Not good in a world of seven billion people who all need to eat.

But it does burn hot and clean, and I can get it unbagged, in bulk, from very local sources - so I could "heat local." I could even theoretically grow enough myself to get me through a winter, which I keep hoping to try. Storage is a pain, because it attracts rodents and other critters, but once we got the chickens, at least we had a crack clean-up crew.

The other option, wood pellets, has its own pluses and minuses. Currently most of the wood pellets made come from sawdust - a byproduct of other industries. The downside is the sawdust has to be dried, formed into pellets, bagged, and shipped. It's usually been shipped a long way, but I can pick up the pellets within about 5 miles of my house.

From a practical standpoint, they both have their good and bad points as well. The ash from the corn is much easier to clean up. It's kind of sandy, and cools quickly, as opposed to the fine, fluffy ash from the pellets that stays hot for an hour after the fire is out. But the corn tends to form "clinkers" when burned - hard, black chunks of pure carbon that adhere to the stirring mechanism and have to be busted out from time to time.

Last year we settled on a mix of corn and pellets. It was kind of the best of both worlds. The ash was easier to deal with, there were no clinkers, and we could get some of the benefit of the lower cost and higher temperature of the corn, balanced with the easier and less ethically muddy pellets.

This fall, I was surprised to find my local supplier offering a third option: cherry pits. Like pellets, they are essentially a waste product. Like pellets, they have to be bagged and shipped. But unlike pellets, they are not manufactured. They also come from a much closer source: Michigan.

So I decided to give them a shot this year. I'm hedging my bets, with a fuel supply of two-thirds pellets to one-third cherry pits.

The cherry pits are less dense than the pellets, so a 40 lb bag is bulkier. This resulted in comically (and precariously) tall stack of bags in the back of the pickup truck. Their lower density means you can't pack as many into the stove's hopper, at least by weight.

I'm told they burn hotter and faster than pellets. They were priced the same. They have a lovely sound rustling together that reminds me of... something. A rain stick. And the exhaust (I can't really call it smoke) smells like cherry wood burning instead of roasted grain.

I'll have to report back after we've had some really cold weather to give a full report, but I have to say I like the concept. It's got a bit of a permaculture feel to it. I have high hopes.

I know I should end with some twist on a bowl of cherries and the pits. But I won't.


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At 10/20/2008 12:24 PM, Blogger Matt said...

My local supplier is making bio mass pellets from leftover food junk that his company takes to the landfill. It's still in the testing phase, but if it works out we'll have local pellets made from waste material that would normally go to the landfill. That's pretty cool.

Until then I burn corn. I have some guilt over the food vs. heat thing, but everyone in the country could easily heat their house with the corn used to make ethanol if we would just stop doing that. And then we could keep all the winter heating dollars here in America.

At 10/21/2008 6:42 PM, Blogger JBTW said...

Good luck with the pits -- the sound & smell sounds like a plus to me. :)

At 10/22/2008 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing to do with pits, but I noticed that A. is about 1/4 way to her dog!


At 10/22/2008 12:38 PM, Blogger e4 said...

Matt - Yeah, I think corn is a better choice than a lot of other things, but still not ideal. As far as I can tell, nothing is. :)

But I wouldn't advocate for *everyone* to use corn. I think regional variations would be good.

Waste pellets, now that sounds interesting...

jbtw - Thanks. :)

MEA - Yeah, it's amazing. Everyone's been so generous... And we're hoping to cross the 1/3 mark here in a couple days when we go down to the local YMCA. :-)

At 10/22/2008 5:06 PM, Blogger Wendy said...

And how much fun would it be to grow your own cherry tree and "pit" the cherries yourself while making some cherry jam or cherry cordial :)? I know ... you'd have to have a LOT of cherry trees ;).

We have a woodstove and burn logs - most of which came from windblown trees following a "microburst" (which is similar to a tornado ... but for whatever reason, is not classifed as such up here in the northeast, where we don't have "tornadoes"). I wouldn't encourage everyone to burn wood the way we do, though, because I could see forest depletion being a real and serious issue, and that would be a sad thing. Corn, wood pellets, wood, cherry pits ... there really isn't ONE good option, and like you said, it really should be a regional thing.

Interestingly, I've seen dozens of stores selling the wood pellet stoves, places one wouldn't expect to see stoves for sale (like the unfinished furniture place :), and while we have a place up here that actually makes wood pellets, there is, apparently, a shortage. There is at least one company that's rationing.

At 10/22/2008 7:23 PM, Blogger e4 said...

Yeah, Wendy, it seems like every few years there's a surge in pellet stove sales, and a related surge in pellet sales. I've tried to make a habit of buying them in August.

Maybe I can plant rows of cherry trees with corn rows and sunflowers in between, just to hedge my bets.

At 11/20/2008 3:38 PM, Blogger mclaybaugh said...

Where in Michigan are you getting the cherry pits? My husband and I tried them last year in our pellet burner and they were very nice if they were dry. We did get a couple of more moist bags, but, overall they burned hotter and lasted longer. We haven't been able to find any this year. Thanks! Michelle

At 11/20/2008 3:43 PM, Blogger e4 said...

We got them from our local Tractor Supply store. They didn't advertise that they had them. One of the employees just mentioned that they got a load.

Here's what the bags say:
Fire-Pit Pellets
1401 Center Rd
Kingsley MI 49649

At 8/30/2009 11:24 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

I was burning corn then went to pellets, then mixed corn and pellets. I got some cherry pits and mixed in with the corn and pellets, but I found that the cherry pits mixed roughly half and half burns hot as well as very clean it's been far the best I've had. I would recommend trying it. keeps my house nice and toasty.

At 7/16/2011 12:46 AM, Anonymous AJ said...

Thinking of trying a mix of cherry pits and wood pellets this year. I have not heard any negatives yet but, most of what I can find on the web for reveiws is asking where to get them. I have a year round supply here in Green Bay at a reasonable cost so what the heck.
Thanks for the article, it was very informational.

At 12/16/2011 10:25 PM, Anonymous up north pete said...

bought a corn burner about 4 years ago. burned it one season with the negative being that it had to be so dry in order to burn. the price of corn then skyed with the advent of etdhenal, so I let it go cold for a year. Next I tryed burning wood pellets. That was ok for a couple years until it became unreliable in supply. This year I began burning cherry pits- the best move I've made. They burn clean, hot, cheeper than wood pellets and I was able to buy all I wanted in the fall. Not only that, but they are a by-product of local produce, not manufactured! I DO discourage others from getting on board, however!

At 2/03/2012 9:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really have no problem burning corn. Especially when I consider that my corn comes off a farm 6 miles from my home, roughly 2.5 acres will heat my home for the winter season. 4 months and I have a renewable resource. This is off a seed corn farm not consumable. Obviously this model doesn't work for everyone but I find it more "sustainable" than buying 18 -24 year cycle wood pellets from 175 miles away

At 2/24/2012 8:47 AM, Blogger Bruce said...

AJ can I get your contact for cherry pits in Green Bay?

At 2/25/2012 6:20 PM, Anonymous Rick said...

I am trying cherry pits for the first time today. I have a outdoor pellet boiler that is a multi-fuel burner. I have been burning pellets up untill tonight. Trying a hopper full of pure cherry pits to see how they compare to the pellets. Thanks for all the comments Rick


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