Should you consider burning corn for heat?
Burning Corn to Heat Your Home
by Pat Veretto
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There are reasons, and good reasons, to bypass fossil fuels like natural gas, oil, coal and propane for heating in favor of renewable energy or alternative energy systems. Solar is still quite expensive to install, so if you're cost-conscious, that leaves burning wood and burning corn.
There are pros and cons to wood and corn both, but I've addressed wood heat before, so let's look at corn. Is it really worth considering? Like most frugally minded answers, it depends. Here is more specific information to help you make up your mind or to consider corn when you might not have otherwise.
How Well Does Corn Heat?
You can plan on getting somewhere in the range of 6,800 to 8,500 BTUs for each pound of corn. Different corn stoves are made differently, so ask about the output of each model. They will produce anywhere from between 13,000 to 60,000 BTUs or more.
It's impossible to get a more specific answer than that because of the variance in corn as well as corn burning stove efficiency. The heating value of corn varies, depending on the type used, how dry it is, how well your stove burns it, and how clean a particular batch of corn is. While cobs and stalks burn well, they have a much lower heating value than corn kernels.
How Does the Cost of Burning Corn Compare with Other Fuels?
Fuel costs as well as corn costs fluctuate a lot, so it would be foolish to make a dollars and cents comparison. Generally speaking, corn is less expensive than propane, natural gas or coal. Since corn and wood don't require specialized mining, refining or transportation (big business operations), costs can be quite low in comparison. You can even provide some of your own if you have just a small a plot of land.
Some of the variables of the cost of burning corn are:
- Location - If you live near corn growing country, you'll save transportation costs.
- Local laws - Some cities require more than other cities in terms of licenses and inspections. You may have to do major remodeling to satisfy their requirements or you may not have to do anything.
- Your home - Do you have good air flow through your home? Some homes are built so that forced air furnaces are almost necessary. "T" shaped floor plans do not allow for air to flow from one room to another easily. Fans may help, but convoluted walkways will hamper even that so that you may find yourself spending more money than ever, trying to get the warmth where you want it.
- Of course, you may have to build storage for the corn, find suitable transportation yourself, remodel cosmetically at the least to allow for the stove, etc.
Can I Grow My Own Fuel?
Yes, if you own a large enough piece of land, you can. Depending on your climate, it could take a lot of pounds of dry corn to get you through the winter, but it's not an impossible thing to do.
A bushel of shelled corn weighs about 56 pounds, so you'd need to multiply that by how many bushels you could produce (about 150 plus bushels per acre) and then estimate how many pounds you'd need to burn through the winter. As an approximation, an average house, during a moderately cold winter, will need about 50 pounds of corn to keep it warm for 24 hours. You can do your own calculations based on the chart Corn Energy Equivalents at http://energy.cas.psu.edu/EnergySelector/cornequiv.html.
As a frugal person, you might want to grow however much you could, even if you only have a backyard garden. If you've ever grown popcorn, you probably know how long it takes for the corn to get dry enough to use. It takes a long time. The drier the corn is, the better it burns and the more heat you get from it, so don't plan on using home grown corn until at least two months after harvest. Commercially prepared corn is commercially dried and you can take a tip from that, if you're so inclined. Home dehydrators, slow ovens and cars setting in the sun will all help to remove moisture from corn. If you want the numbers, moisture in corn should be at 15.5% or lower. Some corn burning stoves require no more than 13%.
Things to ask yourself before buying a corn stove:
- What are the local laws and regulations? Check this out first, as it could make all the difference in your decision. If you live in a rural area, you're much more likely to be able to install a corn stove with fewer requirements from the local government.
- Where can I buy corn to burn? Ask at feed and seed stores, or county extension agents and local farmers. The most expensive place to buy corn is from a stove retail store.
- What will I do with the ashes or clinker? Burning corn doesn't produce nearly as much residue as wood does, but there will be some to deal with. It is generally safe for application to lawns and gardens as a mild fertilizer, or you can bury it.
- Where will I put the stove? For the best heat distribution, put the stove in as central a position as you can, while making sure you have a good vent. Corn stoves don't need chimneys like wood stoves do, but they do need to be carefully vented.
- Where will I store the corn? Corn must be kept dry and it should be kept up off of dirt or cement. Store where pests (mice, squirrels, rats and insects) can't easily get at it. A closed bin with a raised floor (like a pallet) will be best, but you can improvise. Inspect the corn from time to time to be sure your storage is working. If the corn develops a musty smell, take it out of storage (or open the covering wide). Too much moisture can allow fungi or other problems to develop.
By the numbers:
- Each pound of dry corn will produce 6,800 to 8,500 BTUs.
- A bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds.
- 2.2 bushels of corn will produce about one million BTUs.
- Corn stoves will produce anywhere from 13,000 to 60,000 BTUs or more.
How Do Corn Stoves Compare to Wood Stoves?
Corn stoves, as well as wood pellet stoves, can keep an even temperature, unlike traditional wood stoves that fluctuate. You can fill the hopper, set the temperature, light the fire and pretty much forget about it for 24 hours. Wood requires much more maintenance throughout the day to keep the fire going.
Corn (and wood pellet) stoves take electricity to keep the flow of fuel going. If your electricity goes off, so does the fire. With a wood stove, you keep the fire going, electricity or not.
You can't cook on a corn or wood pellet stove because they don't get hot enough. You can't burn yourself on them, either. Wood stoves get very hot. They get hot enough to cook a pot of beans or fry bacon and eggs.
Corn stoves don't require a chimney, so they're easy to install in an existing house. A small vent in the wall is all it takes. Wood stoves do require a chimney or insulated pipe venting that reaches above the roof and any other nearby high rising structures. Without that, smoke will draw into the room instead of out of the house.
Corn is renewable in a few months instead of a few years like wood.
Still want one? Go for it. It can cut your expenses, keep you comfortable and it's good for the environment.
Pat Veretto is a work at home grandmother who has homesteaded, homeschooled and happily lived frugally most of her life. She currently freelances.
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