I heat my house by
by Judith W. Monroe
As I write this, it is fall in New England. If
you burn wood, you are probably well along with the annual chores of
chopping, splitting, and stacking. Back in the spring, you had your
chimney cleaned of creosote buildup (or if you have no fear of heights,
you climbed up on the roof to do the job yourself). Around that time, you
might have walked the woodlot picking the right trees to drop for your
next year’s winter wood supply, and then the song of the chain saw was
heard in the land. In the absence of a woodlot, you consulted the
newspaper or a wood-burning neighbor to find seasoned firewood for sale at
the best price. Any woodstove owner knows this routine well. It seems a
fair exchange for the fire that warms your home during the coldest,
darkest months of winter.
Or is it? Even you, who secretly believe your stove is the best
woodburner of them all, have occasional misgivings. There was that October
two years ago when an early sleet storm froze the uncovered woodpile into
one great ice cube. How long was it before you could get to that wood? Or
the cold night in February when the green logs bubbled and steamed inside
the firebox, giving off the meager warmth of a lighted match. The farmer
who delivered your wood swore that it had been drying at least two years.
It seems he meant two months. And what about the worst scenario: that time
when black ooze spilled down along the chimney, a warning of an impending
fire. You’ve only had that kind of creosote buildup once, but it gave
you chills no fire can warm.
With all your reservations, you have remained loyal to wood heat. After
all, the other options do not stand up in comparison. Electric heat is
incredibly expensive, and oil is not far behind. Natural gas would be
nice, but it is not piped in to where you live, and bottled gas is more
expensive than wood. A kerosene space heater that warms only its immediate
area is not a consideration. You continue to stoke up the fire.
Still, thoughts rankle. There is the interminable nuisance of cleaning
out the ashes. For every bucket that is carried outside, a fine dust
remains in the air and on surfaces inside the house. Spiders build
slovenly webs that capture this dust, giving certain corners in the living
room an Addams Family look. Far more unsettling is the fact that any
friend or relative who has emphysema, allergies, or asthma does not feel
totally comfortable visiting in your home for any length of time.
Less vital, yet still annoying, are the problems of dry air and static
electricity. No amount of boiling water on top of the stove brings the
humidity up to a healthy 30-40%. Your skin is constantly dry. Some of your
furniture shows signs of coming unglued. The dining room table wobbles
dangerously. If you own a computer, you must remind yourself to touch the
anti-static pad before you put your hands on the keyboard. To forget could
mean wiping out the memory.
Heating with corn
For all of these grievances, big and small, there is apparently no
ready answer. Until now. In the past ten years, there has been a revival
of a heating method so obviously efficient that it is remarkable how few
people know of it: using corn for fuel. A corn stove does not burn stalks
or left-over cobs. It burns kernels, less than a handful at a time. No,
the corn doesn’t snap, crackle, or pop. (One of the things people ask is
whether the corn pops as it burns.) Corn contains oil and ethanol, which
burn cleaner than other fuels, and more cheaply, too. Once you learn how
valuable this reasonably priced source of fuel is, you have to wonder why
someone in the government has not caught on to the idea of using corn for
more of America’s energy needs. Given the current political climate in
DC, maybe you don’t wonder at all (but more about that later).
Corn stoves have been used in the South and Southwest since 1969, when
the stove was invented by Carroll Buckner of Arden, NC. The most famous
demonstration of the stove was in the Oval Office, installed during the
administration of President Jimmy Carter. Even that, as grand a promotion
as one could ask for, was evidently not enough to create a rush of orders
Here in New England where people are likely to mistrust ideas that come
“from away,” the corn stove might look to some like a southerner’s
gimmick to use up waste corn. Northerners might also think that any stove
used in the South will not really do the job in their cold climate. They
would be wrong about that.
In the last few years, corn stoves have been showing up for
demonstration at county fairs all over New England. You might have seen
one and passed on by, thinking it was just one more wood stove. The only
difference, at first glance, is that the fire burning in the glass window
is tiny compared to a wood fire. Small as it is, it is capable of
producing 60,000 BTUs or more. A lot of heat.
Living with a corn stove
Pour a 50-pound bag of corn into the hopper, light the fire, and go
about your business. Unlike the wood stove, after the initial lighting,
you do not have to keep an eye on it, poke it, or refill it every hour or
so. It burns for at least 24 hours. After filling the hopper of your corn
stove, you can go away overnight in the winter without fear of the pipes
freezing. To a person who is accustomed to burning wood, that is a luxury.
No more chopping or splitting. No more stacking. No messy ashes. There
is no danger of fire, no smoke, no poisonous effluent released into the
air, and a minimal amount of dust settles inside the house. For every bag
of corn you burn there is a small “clinker” left in the stove to poke
out to the side of the fire box. Later, when it is cool, you crumble the
clinker and add it to your compost or save it to sprinkle it on your lawn
in the spring. The corn stove is safe to touch on its exterior surfaces.
Only the door and its window would cause a burn if touched.
The corn stove does not have to use air from inside the house for
combustion, although frequently it is hooked up to an available chimney.
Instead, it can draw air for combustion from outside, thus alleviating the
usual dryness that afflicts homes heated with wood.
There is no need to clean the chimney each year. In fact, you do not
need a chimney. A corn stove can be situated free standing and without a
hearth next to an outside wall. A dryer-like vent is all that is required.
Unless you have a woodlot, corn costs less to burn than all of the
other fuels except for natural gas. A renewable resource, corn can be
replaced in three months’ time. Compare that to 30 years replacement
time for trees, and 3000 years for oil, and you have one of America’s
largest and least expensive resources. Yet corn is actually stockpiled by
our government, while it struggles endlessly with the politics and the
cost of importing oil from other countries. The search for more sources of
coal, oil, and other fuels here in our own land is conducted at great
expense to taxpayers, while corn and ethanol are, for the most part,
There may be other, more personal reasons why Americans have not yet
begun to use corn for heat. New Englanders, for instance, are loyal to
what warms their nest. They discuss wood stoves with the same fervor they
ordinarily save for their cars and trucks. Models are important. Form and
function are fascinating. Economy in terms of cords burned is as important
as gas burned in miles per gallon. Although we New Englanders are not
pioneers when it comes to trying new-fangled gadgets, we reverted to wood
burning quickly enough when oil prices skyrocketed a few years ago. Wood
after all is a time-honored fuel.
Will corn catch on?
So when will we catch on to corn? Soon. At least 500 stoves have been
purchased each year over the past three winters in Maine and another 700
in New Hampshire. Vermont is the slowest to acknowledge the advantages of
corn heat. As the yarn goes, a Vermonter will not buy an item unless it is
recommended by a Vermont native, preferably a neighbor or friend who
already has one. That makes it a challenging market to break into.
Changing from one source of fuel to another can be expensive. Not
everyone can afford to abandon a current source of fuel, even if corn is
cheaper and cleaner. (I paid about $2000 for my corn stove. I’ve heard
there will soon be a model available for half that.) Still, those who are
tired of paying high fuel bills owe it to themselves to check on prices
and do some figuring:
1. Research into actual heating costs in four northeastern U.S. cities
found shelled corn fuel to have the lowest cost-per-unit of effective heat
over nine other “traditional” heating fuels, from oil to wood pellets.
(I got this information from the distributor who sold me my corn stove.)
2. It takes 2.2 bushels of corn to produce one million BTUs of heat, at
an average cost of $8.79. Producing that much heat by burning wood costs,
on average, $22.07. (You can use other oil-bearing grains, too.)
3. Heat from wood stoves can’t be controlled as well, so there is
some waste of heat. Corn stoves are designed to feed the burn unit
automatically with the exact amount of fuel required to produce heat at a
pre-set temperature. There’s no waste. And corn stoves are much more
efficient than wood stoves, so you get more heat from the fuel.
For those heating with wood, there are two advantages that corn cannot
offer. One is radiant heat. I have heated with both wood and corn for
years. Members of our family often stand near the woodstove for the
comfort it offers (a habit so ingrained that they are apt to do it even in
summer, when the fire is not burning). A corn stove, however, does not
raditate that kind of immediate warmth. You can’t cook on it, either.
Although it can be every bit as attractive to look at as a wood stove, it
is not hot to the touch, so the heat from within must be forced out by an
The second advantage of wood heat is for emergency power outages. A
corn stove needs electricity to operate the auger and to blow the heat
into the room. When people purchase a corn stove, they often save their
old wood stove as a standby for those occasions when the power fails and
for the incredible sub-zero nights when extra heat is needed. Corn stove
distributors also offer a 24-hour battery backup in case of outages, but
that costs an extra $300 or more to install, and the battery, of course,
has to be re-charged.
A corn stove doesn’t need a chimney:
it’s vented through the wall.
If you cherish silence in your home, the hum of the corn stove’s
motor may be a temporary annoyance. I live in rural Maine, and I had
always heated with wood. The mechanical sounds of the corn stove, like the
fan on my computer, seemed an intrusion at first. I had forgotten how
quickly I became deaf to the sound of furnaces in other houses, as well as
the refrigerator and the water heater in my own home.
In addition, like any other appliance or piece of equipment, corn
stoves have little idiosyncrasies you learn to live with. You will need to
experiment for a few weeks (or longer) to feel comfortable running the
stove. Starting up the fire is not that much different from starting a
wood stove. You can use paraffin blocks, twigs, or wood chips. Once
started, the stove regulates itself. At first, you will need to watch for
signs that the corn has actually caught and that the auger is dropping the
right amount of corn into the fire box.
With wood, it is a given that there is some dirt and other residue
attached to the bark. Corn, on the other hand, should not be dirty. If a
piece of stalk, for instance, gets twisted and caught inside the auger,
that slows down the fire and can cause the fire to go out. Sometimes there
is a buildup of corn in the fire box, and then when more corn drops down,
the fire is smothered. There are similar inconveniences with a wood fire,
but on a different scale.
Use a good grade of corn
Buying corn from a farmer or a feed supply store means insisting on
clean, dry fuel. Ask about the grade of corn for sale. The higher the
quality of the corn, the hotter it will burn. Any grade corn can be
burned, but the corn that supplies the most energy as animal feed also
burns the hottest. Most suppliers are beginning to understand that there
is a growing market for fuel corn. Those who do are glad to supply clean,
high quality corn at a good price.
When thinking of storage for corn, think small. You can store two tons
of corn in 50-pound bags in one corner of your garage (about six feet
high, six feet wide, and two feet deep). That is the usual amount
delivered at one time and is enough to heat your house for two or three
The corn stoves of today are much more efficient than the one invented
in 1969. Even five years ago there were no thermostats for them. Today,
thermostats are an option. Five years ago there were probably only two
stove models available. There are at least six now. One early model, the
one owned by the author, could be mistaken for a clothes dryer.
Occasionally, because our stove is attached to the chimney, on a day
when we turn the corn stove down low, we notice the faint but sweet
perfume of cooking corn in the air outside. This is in conspicuous
contrast to the smoke billowing from a neighbor’s chimney. Our corn
stove, homely as it is, has won our allegiance hands down.
(Judith Monroe lives on a Maine mountain at the edge of
a 600 acre wood. She buys her corn from a farmer in a nearby town and
burns wood from her own land. She writes poetry and fiction, and is the
author of two books about life on a Maine island where she lives in the