RINGTOWN, Pa. - Farmers seeking an alternative fuel to heat their homes might save a few dollars by burning feed corn, according to Ronald C. Fetterman, Union Township.
In November, he shelled out $4,800 to buy a new corn-burning furnace for his home at 123 Aristes Road.
"I figured with what I'll save on fuel in two years, it will be paid for. This winter, I think I'd be spending more than $2,000 if I were burning oil heat. We're saving money because we're raising our own fuel," Fetterman, 76, who grows more than 60 acres of field corn on his farm, said Tuesday.
His secret is he's using field corn from his crops as fuel, and he only needed "about two acres" of field corn to heat his home this winter.
"This isn't the kind of corn that pops. This is the kind they feed to the livestock. Two acres of field corn cost about $300," Fetterman said. He shells it with his own machinery and uses roughly 100 pounds of kernels per day to heat his home.
"On a spring or summer day, you'll only use about 50 pounds," Fetterman said.
However, Fetterman wasn't sure if the average person would save money by hooking up a corn-burning furnace in his home. Neither was H. Grant Troop, Oxford, Chester County, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers Association.
"I haven't used one, but I know people who have. My experience is most people who do have them are farmers who burn some of their farm-raised grain to save on expenses," Troop said.
"These furnaces were more popular a few years back when corn was cheap. Last year, we had a shortage on corn because of the drought, so corn prices went crazy and people went to wood pellets," Fetterman said.
Fetterman has an oil burner in his basement but hasn't turned it on in years. While he heats his water with electricity, he heats his home with hot air from a furnace which burns both feed corn kernels and wood pellets. It's an America's Heat LMF Manufacturing brand furnace, which can generate 100,000 BTUs, Fetterman said.
"I think a lot of those furnaces are designed that way. Kernels of corn aren't much different in size, so you can pick and choose depending on the market price of the commodity," Troop said.
It's a fully automatic hot air furnace regulated by a thermostat. It's fed corn kernels which are kept in a bin that sits next to it.
Corn heating furnaces date back to the beginning of the 20th century, according to the website for Michigan State University.
"During hard economic times, farmers burned corn as a way to heat their homes. It became highly prevalent during the Great Depression because the market price of corn was very low and farmers did not have the money needed to buy fuel," according to www.msu.edu.
"They seem pretty efficient. I don't know if we can recommend them or not recommend them," Troop said, speaking for the Pennsylvania Corn Growers Association.
A property owner looking for an alternative fuel source has to consider the market for the fuel they're interested in, Troop said.
"It's a matter of finding the lowest cost fuel to heat with. I know when corn prices got fairly high a few years ago, wood pellets were more economical," Troop said.
According to the website for the U.S. Energy Information Administration at www.eia.gov, wood pellets cost $250 per ton in February and can generate up to 16.5 million BTUs per ton. Field corn kernels cost $200 per ton in February and can generate up to 14 million BTUs per ton.
"So it's a matter of finding the lowest cost fuel to heat with. We don't have a position, you just have to follow the market prices and try to choose the ones that are more affordable," Troop said.
Fetterman said he bought his first corn-burning furnace for his home nine years ago.
"In the summer, when we'd use the air conditioning, the oil burner would kick on. That's one of the reasons why we considered alternatives," Fetterman said.
It could burn 70,000 BTUs. He replaced that model in November, when he bought the new furnace. The unit is connected to pipes that carry hot air to his kitchen, living room and his second-floor bedroom. A by-product of the corn-burning process is a collection of ashes.
"We throw it out on the field as fertilizer," Fetterman said.
Fetterman's family includes his wife, Sandi, and their son, Tim, who also uses a corn-burner in his home.