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Alternative Fuels: A Look at Wood, Wood and Corn Pellets, and Waste Oil

By: Aldene Fredenburg

With gas and oil prices rising, consumers, particularly in cold winter climates, are looking at a variety of alternative fuels for home heating. Wood, a traditional fuel, is regaining popularity while more modern alternatives, such as wood and corn pellets and waste oil, are more routinely used.

Wood has been used since the beginning of time as a source of heat. The fuel was brought inside to heat shelters centuries ago; open fires in fireplaces were replaced in the eighteenth century by self-contained stoves, which are still in use today in a number of designs. Franklin stoves and pot-bellied stoves, popular for generations, have been augmented by efficient Scandinavian designs like Jotul stoves. In recent years wood furnaces, designed to burn longer than stoves without refeeding, have upped the efficiency of wood burning tremendously.

The type of wood burned varies in different regions based on availability, but some practices are standard: the wood burned is generally hardwood rather than softwood; wood is aged (cut and stacked) for at least a year before burning; and it is well known that the heating energy available for a particular wood (measured in BTUs, or British Thermal Units) is greater for more dense woods than for less dense woods, so the heavier the wood the more energy it will provide as it burns. The Iowa State University Forestry Extension Service lists a number of woods by weight, listing Osage Orange at 4792 pounds per cord of wood, and Basswood at 1984 pounds per cord. To find out what woods are available in your area and to estimate how many cords of wood you will need, contact your local Extension Service (sometimes listed under state or county government listings in your phone book).

Wood pellets are manufactured from recycled wood waste and are considered a very safe, clean-burning, and economical alternative to fuel oil and to traditional wood burning. Special stove designs have been created especially to burn wood pellets; inserts are also available to adapt existing fireplaces and furnaces for this fuel. The Pellet Fuels Institute offers a
{a href= http://www.pelletheat.org/3/residential/fuelAvailability.cfm"}list of manufacturers of pellet fuel in every region of the U.S., along with advice on how to buy and use wood pellets. Corn pellets are manufactured from dried corn and used the same way as wood pellets. Either or both can be found at a variety of outlets including nurseries, garden suppliers, and fireplace and stove dealerships. Shop around to compare prices and other information on wood and corn pellets.

Some homeowners are substituting Waste oil for number 2 fuel oil in specially designed furnaces; others are successfully converting their conventional furnaces for its use. Waste oil is actually used vegetable oil collected from restaurants and filtered before use. Biodiesel is a manufactured oil consisting of a mixture of fuel oil and oil manufactured from vegetable sources; B20 is 20 percent vegetable-based oil and 80 percent conventional diesel oil; B100 is all vegetable oil. B20 is more readily available and can be used in conventional oil furnaces without adaptation; B100 requires some adaptations (for instance, natural rubber in the furnace will need to be replaced with manmade substances, as the vegetable oil degrades rubber over time). One problem with using waste oil is that below certain temperatures it stops flowing; so the fuel needs to be kept warm; biodiesel contains an additive which keeps the oil liquid at low temperatures.

Any time fire is present in a home, as in a wood stove, fireplace, or furnace, the fire hazard has to be considered and prevented. Additionally, wood burning in particular builds up creosote, a sticky, flammable substance which coats stovepipes and chimneys and can cause chimney fires and even burn down a house. Wood and corn pellets and waste oil are considered relatively clean-burning, but still require attention and maintenance.

Choosing an alternative fuel can be not only safe and economical, but a good deal for the environment; many of these fuels are produced locally, cutting way down on transportation costs, and many of them burn more cleanly than fuel oil, having a more positive impact on the environment. Add to that the fact that relying on alternative fuels cuts down on reliance on foreign oil, and it becomes clear that opting for one of these fuels is a great idea.

Aldene Fredenburg is a freelance writer living in southwestern New Hampshire. She has written numerous articles for the Internet and for local and regional publications. She can be reached at amfredenburg@yahoo.com.

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