Alternative Home Heating – A Comparison of Wood, Pellet, and Corn Burning Stoves
With steadily rising fuel costs many people are turning to alternative home heating methods. Heating by propane, electricity, or fuel oil is not cheap, as anyone who uses those methods knows. Now may be the time to take a serious look at different heating methods. In this article I will review the basics of wood, pellet, and corn burning stoves and some of the pros and cons of each.
First, let's answer some very basic questions. Most of us know what a wood burning stove is. Most people have probably also heard of pellet and corn stoves. But if you haven't checked into them, you may not know exactly what they are.
So, what is a pellet? A pellet is a 6-8mm pill or cylinder shaped piece of wood that is used as fuel in a pellet stove. They are typically made from sawdust, scraps, and other waste wood from the lumber and logging industries, wood product manufacturers, and other industries that generate wood waste. Pellet manufacturers will make pellets in different grades, depending on their intended use, such as home, commercial, etc. The higher grades produce less ash.
OK, what about corn? Corn is usually burnt as dried whole kernel shelled corn. A corn burning stove refers to these kernels, not the burning of stalks or corn cobs.
One more thing we should also understand is BTU (British Thermal Unit), which is the unit of measure most commonly used for heating. The BTU rating you will need can vary depending on your location, but a simple calculation is to use 25-30 BTU per square foot of area you want to heat. Use the lower end for warmer climates and the higher end for colder climates.
Please note that I will be referring to US Department of Energy (DOE) efficiency ratings. These ratings are minimum efficiency standards and actual efficiency may be as much as 20 points higher.
Let's look at the different stove types now.
Wood stoves burn cut and split logs, or “cord wood”. This is the same thing you would burn in a wood fireplace, just in smaller sizes depending on what your stove will take. Cord wood is readily available in most places. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has listed a cord of wood as costing $200 on average, but that obviously varies depending on where you live. Many people live where they can cut and split their own wood, which significantly reduces the cost. The heat value for a cord of wood also varies significantly depending on the species of wood. Some burn hotter than others.
One important plus is that most wood stoves does not require electricity. This is an important consideration if you are looking for something that will provide heat even if the power goes out.
Wood stoves are not as efficient as other methods of heating, having a US Department of Energy (DOE) efficiency rating of 55. You will also need a large, reasonably dry area to store a sufficient supply of wood for the winter. Wood stoves generate a lot of ash which must be cleaned out and disposed of, and the chimney should be cleaned each year to remove soot which creates a fire hazard. Wood stoves do require a chimney, and a chimney fire is no laughing matter.
Pellet stoves burn the wood pellets described above. They have become widely available and usually come in either 20 or 40 pound bags. They are also available in much larger quantities as well, such as by the ton, if you should want to stock up all at once for the winter. As with cord wood you will need a place to store it. The EIA lists the average cost for a ton of wood pellets as $250. As with cord wood the price may vary greatly depending on where you live. Pellet stoves are very efficient and have a DOE efficiency rating of 68. Pellet stoves can usually be vented directly out a wall, making them useable even if your home does not have a chimney. Pellet stoves produce less ash than a wood stove, but they do need cleaning.
A pellet stove requires electricity to operate the auger and fan. The auger feeds the pellets into a combustion chamber, while the fans pull air into the chamber and blow out heated air. These parts also need maintenance. If the power goes out, so does your pellet stove. Some stoves are available with a battery backup, so if a power outage is a concern consider a stove with that option.
Corn for use in a corn stove is also widely available. Often it is grown locally and available at local feed stores or through local farmers. It is typically purchased in bags and should be available by the ton, which again has to be stored in a dry place. Corn is one of the best fuels for heating, with a DOE efficiency rating of 68 and an EIA average cost of $200 per ton. Note that corn availability and price can be affected by annual crop output. Corn stoves also produce ash or a block of “clinker”and need to be cleaned out. Corn stoves can usually be vented through a wall and do not normally require a chimney.
The corn needs to be dry and corn with a higher moisture content will produce less heat. As with other stoves a corn stove must be cleaned and the moving parts maintained. Most corn stoves are electric, having an auger and fans like a pellet stove, but non-electric corn stoves are available. There are also stoves available that will burn both wood pellets or corn, usually called multi-fuel stoves.
Points to consider
I've given you the basics for each fuel and stove type. Here are some things to consider if you are looking at buying a wood, pellet, or corn stove.
What are your BTU requirements?
Is a power outage a major concern in your area? If so, choose your model of stove accordingly.
Is there a local supply for the source of fuel that you plan to use? Is it readily available or is it a “short supply” item?
Have you considered a multi-fuel stove, if you are looking at pellet or corn stoves?
Wood, pellet, and corn stoves are widely available, both online and at stores. They may be cost saving alternative home heating methods that are worth your consideration.
Just looking for something to take the chill off at home or work? Check out my article on Portable Electric Heaters for Home or Office. The article has a complete guide to portable heaters with some recommended models!