By SHAWN DELL JOYCE
Creators News Service
Recent hikes in the costs of fuel oil and natural gas have many of us looking to alternative sources for home heating. But what is the "greenest" alternative? That is a tough question because it depends on where you live and what fuel is abundant locally. If you live in the Midwest, corn is more abundant than wood and may have less of an environmental impact because it doesn't have to be shipped to you.
If you live in the woods, then wood is a logical heat choice for you and is carbon-neutral, meaning that burning the wood doesn't add any more carbon to the atmosphere than the tree would have sequestered during its lifetime. Most people who live in the woods can use windfall trees and standing deadwood and don't ever have to cut down a living tree. However, if we all burned wood, it quickly would deforest our country and add to climate change dramatically.
Biomass heat is gaining in popularity and can be a greener choice in some cases. Corn pellet stoves and wood pellet stoves look the same and heat equivalently. Because they are highly efficient, they don't need chimneys; instead, they can be vented outdoors by 4-inch pipes through outside walls. You also can tie a corn stove to your thermostat so that glow plug igniters automatically light it. It has a hopper capacity big enough to hold several days' worth of corn. Both stoves use blowers to create vacuums inside the stoves, keeping smoke from seeping into your home.
What you burn is also crucial. Wood smoke can contain many tars, creosote and other chemicals that degrade our air quality. Burning wood as hot as possible helps reduce contaminants in the smoke. Corn burns so cleanly that you won't see a wisp of smoke from the stovepipe. However, corn requires many chemical inputs to grow and can be environmentally devastating.
Wood pellets burn the most cleanly but are not necessarily as renewable a resource as corn. Look for corn that is grown locally and has low pesticide and fertilizer use, such as transitional corn, for a truly environmentally friendly alternative fuel.
There are also multi-fuel stoves, which burn almost anything that fits in the 2-inch hoppers. This type of stove may be a good choice if you live in an agricultural area. Farmers are discovering a new use for waste crops, such as wheat shafts and hulls, cornstalks and moldy hay. These crop wastes can be pelletized and sold as biomass heat pellets for multi-fuel stoves. This may be a local source for home heating fuel in areas where wood is expensive and corn is needed as food.
Many farmers have started growing biomass crops, such as switch grass, specifically to pelletize and burn them for home heating use. You can use grass pellets in pellet stoves, as well as in high-efficiency wood stoves. If you have enough land, you can make grass pellets out of just about any type of hay or straw. You even can use last year's moldy hay bales to make next year's pellets. Finding a pelletizer may be the hardest part of the process. Some farmers in New York pitch in together and rent one. You could make your own pellets and save substantially on home heating. This could become a popular home-based business that helps wean Americans off fossil fuels so that they can enjoy real homeland security.
Traditional open masonry fireplaces aren't effective or efficient heating devices. A traditional fireplace draws in as much as 300 cubic feet per minute of heated room air for combustion and then sends it straight up the chimney. This is the same as having a 4-foot hole in your wall that is sucking your precious heat straight outdoors. Only high-efficiency fireplace inserts have proved to be effective in increasing the heating efficiency of older fireplaces. The insert functions like a wood stove, fitting into the masonry fireplace or on its hearth and using the existing chimney.