My Attempt At Alternative Heat – The Corn Stove

After I wrote the story below, I realized that my little predicament is nothing compared to those whose assistance has been cut back for this winter thanks to the Norquist Republicans and their refusal to make the rich pay a little more to keep the poor from starving and freezing this winter.


For the past ten years, this would be the time I would be checking the chimney, thoroughly cleaning the insides and generally getting my corn stove ready for another heating season. I would also be calling my corn supplier and purchasing corn for the coming season. Then when that first chill of the season came to pass – usually sometime around Halloween – I would pour a couple of 5 gallon buckets of corn into the hopper and get ready for another season of heating with corn.

Usually I would wait until the temperature in the house was around 50 degrees and someone was bringing up that annual threat of divorce before I moved into action. I would then pour some wood pellets into the burn pot, lace those pellets with some sort of fire-starting stuff and give it a light. Every year I had a fear it would not start; every year it did. As the fire started, I would close the door and turn on the fan motor that sucked in fresh air to burn while removing smoke. Usually within a few minutes corn started dropping down the chute from the hopper. The fire started with pellets and fanned with outside air was now hot enough to burn the corn. At first the kernels would drop into fire slowly. I would gradually increase the speed until the desired heat was reached. Then we would turn the ceiling fan in the room on a low setting and VOILA – we had corn heat circulating throughout our house.

We were able to keep the temp around 65 most of the winter with the corn stove. Only in times of extreme cold did we need to resort to our natural gas furnace. The heat was very,very comfortable. Since it was constant, we stayed at a level temperature unlike the gas furnace that would turn on and off run by the thermostat.

We took a flyer on corn heat at an I-RENEW expo. The previous winter we had had a blip with our supply line coming into town while we were out on Christmas Eve. We were gone for 8 hours and so was our heat since the blip happened about 2 minutes after we left. It was extremely cold that night, so when we returned the house was hovering around 35 degrees.

Well, I have always been one to try to have a Plan B. We had been looking at alternatives for a while. The very first thing we did was to replace our very old furnace with a new self-lighting unit. We needed that anyway. And we stepped up our search for a reasonably priced alternative. Another issue in the back of my mind was to get away from burning fossil fuels.

So we bought the corn stove, plus a large container to hold corn. The container would hold about 35 bushels of corn. We had no idea how long that would last. I really thought that would last most of the winter. I only missed by about 3 months. At that time corn was $2 a bushel. The vendor told me “it was $2 when I was born, it is $2 today and it’ll be $2 the day I die.” Boy was he wrong.

We found out through trial and error that we would use around 250 bushels a year. At $2 a bushel we were saving huge dollars over our gas bills. The stove paid for itself in just 3 years. But my vendor lost his business trying to keep his price at $2 a bushel as he had promised. I tried to get him to accept more and he refused.

The reason the price was going up was that another use for corn had grown dramatically. Ethanol was being used as an oxygenater around the country and demand skyrocketed. Couple that with world food shortages and some small harvests elsewhere and corn as a commodity was a hot property. Soon we were up to $4 a bushel.

At $4 a bushel we were nearing the break even point. We also had to seek a new supplier and I had to become my own service man. We wanted to stay with corn because of the very comfortable heat and because we had really cut back on burning fossil fuels. But the end was coming soon. The price of corn and other commodities spiked again. Last year we still had some $5/ bushel corn left, but the price was over $7 a bushel and headed up.

So we decided to burn what was left over. Wood pellets were expensive also and did not give out near the heat. So as March rolled around last year, we prepared to return to natural gas. We were literally burning the last of the corn when, as if in a cosmic moment, the fan went out. A few minutes later the auger that moved corn from the hopper to the burn pot, also quit. So now we were looking at a broken mache and high costs for fuel. Plus it made no sense to burn food when there is so much hunger in the world.

Now we are back to gas heat. It is sure as heck easier – just flick a switch. But I am really concerned about burning fossil fuels especially when the gas companies are fracking to mine the gas. Fracking is causing huge problems and I hate to be a part of that. So we are back to searching for Plan B once more.

Geo-Thermal? Maybe if I had lots of money. Solar? Maybe in a year or two. Is there anything else? Someone in Italy claims they can create cold fusion ……..

About Dave Bradley

retired in West Liberty
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4 Responses to My Attempt At Alternative Heat – The Corn Stove

  1. ed woolsey says:

    Good blog Dave. You paint a pretty common picture of corn stove usage in Iowa. Thank you for your efforts to move away from fossils and Thank you for your taking the interest to attend an I-RENEW fair. Corn stoves have gotten their fair share of negative press lately and I think much is warrented. That said, please do not lose sighted of our current situation with CO2 levels, and the emergency need to take action…both individually and collectively. I suggest you look at solar thermal as an option. This technology is one of the oldest and one with the best return on investment. We have several capable installers here in Iowa…look up Jeff Benz in Des Moines. The technology is not GeeWiz levels but it works…


  2. Dave Bradley says:

    Thanks for the comment, Ed.
    We have barely looked at another alternative mostly because of the up front outlay. Like many we took a haircut from Bushco and large purchases are approached warily.
    I do note that prices for solar have come down dramatically just recently, so in a year or two it may be feasible.


  3. Pingback: My Attempt At Alternative Heat – The Corn Stove – Blog for Iowa (blog) | Carbonificator

  4. Based over in the UK I have no direct experience of corn stoves but I assume they ar fed by some sort of hopper.

    Sustainability of fuel supply is a major problem- think coal, wood or in your case corn. I suspect your issues with price rises was also broight on by the global rise in corn/wheat etc prices.

    I think a lot of these fuels are sustainable- its just our population thats not..!!


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