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Keeping the home fires burning

With skyrocketing oil and gas prices, many homeowners are looking for cheaper ways to heat their homes without relying on fossil fuels. Woodstoves and propane and electric heaters are the old standbys, but there is another alternative that's gaining in popularity.

Pellet and corn stoves are a new kind of heat source that are proving to be good for the environment and consumers' pocketbooks. These alternative fuel stoves run for just a few dollars per day on renewable biomass fuel and produce virtually no nasty air emissions. Owners are also sold on easy clean-up and minimal maintenance requirements.

The high-efficiency bio-fuel appliances have been around since the 1980s. Although the stoves are primarily used in homes and cottages, larger institutions like schools and prisons are also turning to the alternative heat source.

"A lot of people love the dry heat of wood stoves but don't want the hassle of wood -- stacking, drying, chopping and hauling wood -- so they move to a pellet stoves," says Jeff Thiessen, president of Dansons, an Alberta-based pellet stove manufacturer. "And if your main fuel is propane, natural gas or heating oil, you're probably looking for alternatives right now."

How they work
The models vary from basic to decorative, but most corn and pellet stoves look much like traditional woodstoves or fireplace inserts. However, instead of wood, they burn compressed wood pellets, corn or a raft of regionally available biofuels.

Pellets are stored in a hidden auger behind the stove and feed automatically into the burn pot. An electric ignition button lights up the stove, so there's no messing around with matches, and a thermostat turns the feed device on and off automatically. Exhaust gases vent through a small pipe that goes out a side wall or upward through the roof. Spent ash sifts down into a pan that occasionally needs to be emptied as it fills up.

Burning questions
The stoves are high efficiency, which means that little of the energy created by the burning fuel is lost in the incineration process. Of the home heating options, corn and pellet stoves burn brightest, achieving 75 to 80 percent efficiency. By comparison, newer EPA-rated woodstoves smolder at 60 to 78 percent efficiency, older pre-1992 wood stoves puff at 35 to 60 percent and traditional fireplaces sputter at just 10 to 25 percent.

It's easy to feel virtuous about the renewable fuel source, too. Corn stoves burn dried feed corn (not seed corn, which is toxic), while pellets are made from recycled sawdust and other forest industry wood waste which would otherwise go to the landfill.

The US Environmental Protection Agency concluded that pellets are one of the cleanest burning renewable energy sources. The higher combustion temperature of corn and pellet stoves also means that very little smoke is produced and little ash remains afterward, making them the cleanest burning solid fuel option. Corn produces less than two percent ash (or two pounds of ash per 100 pounds of fuel). Wood pellets are even better, creating 0.5 percent ash.

But it's the economic advantages that make the stoves most attractive. "When natural gas starts to go for $15 per gigajoule delivered (including delivery charges), heating with pellets and corn becomes a more economical alternative," Thiessen says.

While traditional wood-burning stoves cost one-half to one-third the price of a corn or pellet stove, Thiessen says that the long-term savings of alternative stoves make the alternative fuel burners a good option.

One ton of pellets produces the same heat as 1.5 cords of firewood. Compare a winter's worth of wood at $200 per cord (about $1,050) to a winter's worth of pellet fuel at $225 per ton (about $675) -- a considerable savings. Supplementing an existing oil furnace with a pellet stove could save as much as $1,200 annually.

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-- Posted: May 30, 2008
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