Beyond Fossil Fuels: Using Biomass to Heat Your Home

By: Brett Freeman , Contributing Writer
In: Green Renovations

Scott Gibson recently posted about Pellet Stoves and a commenter named Randall suggested corn stoves and corn feed for those who live in rural areas. This is a great suggestion, and there are some other good options along these lines.

With the surge in energy prices over the past several years, energy conservation is no longer just a personal virtue. For many, it’s also a financial necessity. While much has been written about biofuels like ethanol and alternative energy sources like solar and wind, too little attention has been paid to the latest generation of biomass stoves and furnaces, which are carbon-neutral and efficient. Best of all, the fuel they use is domestically produced, sustainable, and independent of the price of oil or other fossil fuels.

It used to be that the fuel oil furnaces found in so many older homes were just dirty, smelly, and inefficient. But with the surge in energy prices over the past several years, fuel oil systems have also become expensive to operate, and their high carbon emissions and other pollutants make homeowners even more eager to switch to a different home heating fuel. But what? Natural gas? Electricity?

As Randall advised: How about corn kernels?

In general, “biomass fuel” refers to sustainable, renewable matter that can be used for fuel. It’s not known who created the first biomass furnace. That’s because when the early cavemen were enjoying that very first bonfire, there was no one around who could write down the name of the ingenious follow who started it. Probably they just anointed him a god instead. Since then, though, there have been many advances. While wood can still technically be considered a biomass fuel, it’s no longer cutting edge. Modern biomass stoves and furnaces instead use corn kernels or pellets that are made from wood, but burn much cleaner and more efficiently than cordwood.

Here are some of the advantages of Biomass Fuels:

  • Energy cost: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating with biomass fuels costs 30 to 50 percent less than with fuel oil. From a cost perspective, biomass outperforms or is competitive with electric, propane, and natural gas furnaces.
  • Sustainability: Fossil fuels (and don’t forget that most electricity is generated in coal-fired plants) are a finite resource. But biomass fuel made of wood or corn is renewable. As an added bonus, it’s domestically, and usually, locally produced.
  • Environmentally friendly: Cordwood can contain as much as 50 percent moisture, which makes it burn inefficiently. By contrast, pellets and corn kernels contain very little moisture, so they burn clean and produce very little ash. Biomass fuels do release carbon as they burn, but they are produced from sources that absorb carbon as they grow, so there is no net increase in carbon in the atmosphere from burning biomass fuels.

On the Other Hand…

  • Installation cost: You do have to spend more on equipment to heat with a biomass stove(s) or furnace versus a gas or electric furnace. An HVAC professional should be able to do a cost-benefit analysis to determine when and if the lower operating costs offset the higher up front expense.
  • Maintenance: Most biomass stoves and furnaces have pellet feeders that only need to be refilled every few days or so, but they do need to be refilled. You also need to remove the spent ash every week or so. It’s not a ton of work, but most furnaces require no work at all, so be sure you’re up for it.

So weigh the pros and cons to decide whether biomass is the way you want to go.

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