The most popular alternatives for whole house or supplemental heating are corn and wood pellet fueled stoves. These appliances are easy to operate and the initial capital outlay is significantly less than solar, wind or geothermal systems.
A vital question to ask before you start evaluating the merits of pellet vs corn stoves should be: "Which fuel, corn or wood pellets, is the most readily available in my locale and therefore the cheapest to burn?"
For instance, in Massachusetts corn for fuel is virtually non-existent. The closest Agway store I contacted (3/2/06) had only eleven, 50 pound bags in stock at a price of $9 each or $360 a ton.
Over the course of a New England heating season, a stove will consume 3 tons of fuel. If you compare this to $260 a ton for wood pellets from a well stocked Connecticut supplier, the wood pellet stove becomes your only choice.
Likewise, if you live in Iowa, why would you buy a wood pellet stove?
In some regions of the country, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, there is usually an abundance of wood pellets and corn. The obvious benefit is the ability to switch between fuels when one of them becomes scarce.
A perfect example is this year's wood pellet shortage. Do you think Wisconsin pellet stove owners had to think real hard about where to get corn when the supply of wood pellets ran low?
However, Nancy Koval, owner of Woodburning Warehouse in Watervliet, New York, warns that when burning corn in a wood pellet stove it is best to use a 50/50 mixture of wood pellets and corn.
The problem is clinkers. When corn is burned it leaves behind a substance from the sugars it contains that when cooled is very hard and stays in the burner. The clinkers must be regularly cleaned out of the stove. Some special corn stoves are designed to automatically clear clinkers, Koval said.
Wood pellet and corn stoves have many common traits. They are comparably priced at around $2000 for a unit large enough to heat 1200-1500 square feet, and share an efficiency rating of approximately 80%. Corn and wood pellets also produce an equal amount of heat per pound of fuel.
Please note: Since most house layouts do not allow the free movement of air through the house, a centrally located stove will not heat the whole house. If your home doesn't have an open floor plan, size the stove to heat the room where the stove is located.
Both types of stoves require electricity to run fans, controls, and the auger that feeds corn or wood pellets into the stove's firebox. Under normal usage, they consume about 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) or about $9 worth of electricity per month. Unless the stove has a back-up power supply, the loss of electric power results in no heat and possibly some smoke in the house.
In addition to periodic ash disposal, both corn and wood pellet stoves have an annual maintenance regimen that must be followed to ensure your stove continues to operate as efficiently as the day you bought it.
The storage of corn, as opposed to wood pellets, can be problematic. Owners of corn burning systems who store corn inside their homes need to use tight storage containers, clean up corn spills immediately, and avoid storing corn for long periods of time to prevent problems with rodents and stored grain insects.
A third option to consider is a multi-fuel stove. Typically they are advertised as corn stoves that also burn wood pellets or vice versa.
The #1 selling multi-fuel stove is the Dansons Group Cheap Charlie Model HCCC2GD corn stove that also burns wood pellets.