As the Wood Burns: The Top 3 BioMass Heating Sources Revealed

By Linsey Knerl on 15 December 2007 (Updated 18 December 2007) 9 comments
Photo: Wood Stove

CNN predicted a 22% increase in the cost of heating oil this year. Boston was named by Forbes.com as this year’s “Most Expensive Place to Heat a Home. Everywhere you look, there’s just more bad news on how expensive it will be to heat your home, and frustrated homeowners are turning to alternative heating fuels to help ease the burden of their heating bills. As we look to reduce our independence on fossil fuels and save money at the same time, biomass fuel is appearing more commonly in commercial markets everywhere. Here are the top three uses, and how they have worked for our family:

Wood – We switched over to all-wood heat this year. Nothing compares to the dry, hot heat that wood produces! Using the same metal wood stove that my dad built when I was just a tot, we have been cutting lumber from our grove and filling the fires every 4-5 hours for optimal warmth. The only cost to us is the gas for our chainsaw and the electricity to run a furnace fan throughout our old farm house. Updates have been made to the chimney lining to ensure safety, but otherwise it has been a very low-cost heating solution! (For directions on how to make your own wood-burning stove for under $35, read this article from Mother Earth News, circa 1978.)

Wood Pellets – These tiny pellets are made from leftover wood residue and saw dust from manufacturing sites. They burn hotter and cleaner than traditional wood logs, due to their compressed size. They can be burned in a traditional wood stove, fireplace, or a specially-made pellet stove. We burned wood pellets for the previous three years in our pellet/corn stove, and had great results. They can be purchased from a local fireplace supply or farm and feed store in bulk for lower prices than if purchased one bag at a time. (For updates on the availability of wood pellets nationally, check here.)

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Corn – This was a great heating alternative in year’s past, due to the location of where we lived and the fact that our family farms. This year, however, the price of corn has risen considerably, making it a poor choice for saving money. Assuming that the price of corn may drop again in the future, a corn stove still may be a good way to heat a home. Corn heat compares well with other fuels; One Bushel of corn has as many BTU's as 5 therms of natural gas, 5 gallons of LP, 3.2 gallons of fuel oil, or 131 kilowatt hours of electricity. Many corn stoves also burn wood pellets, so they can be used with the cheapest fuel for the year. For the best information on burning corn, see I Burn Corn’s website. (Note: We use a stove very similar to this American Harvest model, which burns soybeans, cherry and olive pits, processed silage, and biomass fuel grains.)

As technology advances, other forms of biomass fuels will become readily available in the U.S. market. Garbage, animal waste, grasses and leaves may all someday be available in an easy-to-burn form for all kinds of residential heating systems. Accepting biomass into our daily lives may take a little more work and preparation, but the rewards are great -- both in savings and freedom!

(Note: For a comparison of the cost of biomass fuels with other traditional fuels, see this chart.)

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Myscha Theriault's picture

My husband and I both grew up with wood heat, too. This year, we are burning pellets, as picking up an insert for the oh-so-ancient and dangerous fireplace at the lake house was the only way we could think of to have safe heat this winter, and still be able to easily pop out the apparatus and put it to use in the new place when we build. It's working out well, and we have finally settled on a small propane heater for electrical outage back-up heat. One thing that was cool for us was that with the purchase of the stove this summer, they were giving away a full winter's supply of pellets for free if you purchased it at a certain time. So we basically recooped a large portion of the cost of the stove for this year. While we still have wood in the shed, it's more for the outdoor fireplace now due to the conversion of the heat source inside.

I am so with you on the cleaner burning thing. These pellets hardly produce any ash or smoke at all, compared to my growing up days of dealing with the wood furnace. Although sadly, as you said, nothing really compares to the way wood heat feels . . .

Guest's picture
Y

Craigslist often has free wood from people clearing dead trees from their property. If you have a chainsaw your opportunities triple. Six months later you have seasoned firewood!

Guest's picture
Yvonne

Thanks Linsey for doing such a good job researching the pellet stoves. We have had one now for 7 years. I absolutely love it. I've heard the talk at work in the past of high gas bills for heating the home. I picked up some information for these people and told them to check into it. I also told them how much it was costing me to heat my home. They couldn't believe it. I'm so thankful that someone came up with this idea!
Try it if you can, you'll love it!

Guest's picture
Guest

Linsey, this comment is not about content, as I agree with everything you said. However, you make homeschoolers look like idiots when you write, "the price of corn has rose considerably."

Homeschoolers are still considered a fringe element of society, and we can't afford bad representation. It should be "the price of corn has risen considerably."

Linsey Knerl's picture

Craigslist is an awesome resource for free firewood.  Many people have it, you just need to cut it yourself!  With already cut wood going for $90-120 a cord in my area, it definitely pays to invest in a good chainsaw and get chopping!

Guest's picture
Guest

Hm. I can kind of see how the typo happened.

You wrote "the price of corn rose considerably" and then went to change it to "the price of corn has risen considerably" and got distracted halfway through? It happens.

Will Chen's picture

All writers make mistakes.  It is a bit harsh to throw words like "idiot" around just based on one mistake.  We prefer crusty-brained or half-baked.

We do appreciate corrections.  Thanks for pointing it out.  But a little TLC goes a long way.  =)

 

Guest's picture
Guest

We are losing huge amounts of top soil every year due to lack of good management. It takes around 100 years to make 1" of soil. This soil makes our food and our biomass, and gets depleted quickly. That's why compost is so important. To think we should burn corn or grasses (biomass) to meet our energy needs is short-sighted. We are moving towards more importing of our food. Great farmland is turning into suburbia. Food made elsewhere, like China does not meet our health standards. Look up soil depletion issues at SARE or the EPA. And read a simple explanation of our food crisis that is coming from either Michael Pollan or Jane Goodall's book. We should not be choosing biomass (beyond wood) as fuel. Food or fuel? Our fuel demands are so high we cannot wisely choose both.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I agree that we have a topsoil concern in this country.  However, I think that many of the issues you have brought up have little to do with the wise decision to use a variety of biomass choices as heating sources.  No-till practices, windbreaks, and composting are common practices of farming communities that help to keep the topsoil in place.  Many farmers are also participating in wetlands restoration programs designed to retain topsoil, encourage the habitat of native wildlife, and provide an investment in our natural resources.

Often it is the government's decision to exercise eminent domain to obtain the farmland for city expansion.  Small farms are finding it difficult to compete with larger subsidized farming corporations.  Since most farms are simply practicing a rotation of corn/beans or other crops, the need for biofuel doesn't influence their production practices much anyway.  If farmers produce a surplus of one grain one year, they are able to sell it to companies such as Cargill to be used for ethanol, sweeteners, animal feed, and plastics.

While we continue to export agricultural product to countries like China, we also continue to import finished product.  This is a cycle independent of decisions to use remaining resources (such as unsold grain, silage unfit for livestock consumption, cull lumber, and animal waste) as fuel options.

It is also very simplistic to make the assumption that we would have a food shortage because we choose to burn it instead of eat it. We are already wasteful with our food as an industrialized world.  If anything, utilizing biomass allows us to use organic product that would have been wasted anyway and to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

I appreciate your comments.  Thanks for the thought-provoking topic!