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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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  1. 9 Responses  to “Beyond Fossil Fuels: Using Biomass to Heat Your Home”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    Really enjoyed reading your blog post. I will have to bookmark your site for later.
  3. revjv
    Aug 29, 2011
    I think the most important point is the one that Brett points out: corn *is* renewable. Sure it's not perfect and sure this option has economic and political implication (farmer subsidies, the price of tortillas in Mexico, etc. etc.). However, I think it is really encouraging that there are options for heather other than fossil fuels and that people are keen on discussing it. Makes the cockles of my heart warm (and that, too, is renewable).
  4. BAFreeman
    Aug 29, 2011
    To Brian's comment--biomass pellets can be made from lots of different types of industrial/construction/demolition waste and byproducts, so they are usually (relatively) locally produced. Biomass is low-pollution--it's not a raw material--but it does involve combustion, so carbon dioxide is released. Lucy, true about the tax credit, but the $1500 is the max total credit you can claim for a bunch of different efficiency improvements over a two-year period. Nutmaster (nutmaster???), thermal efficiency for most biomass stoves is 75% or higher, which is the minimum level required to earn an EnergyStar rating. I agree with all of you that corn-based stoves make about as much sense as corn-based gasoline.
  5. Lucy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Yeah, I agree corn is not a perfect solution. For one it'll gobble up land (if biomass fuels are produced large scale), and I've heard that a third or more of the energy is lost in most biomass conversion processes.
  6. Edward Batavia
    Aug 29, 2011
    Although Nutmaster is correct in that nuts are delicious (I prefer cashews), Brian brings up a good point about the true costs of biomass fuels. While it is true that most sources of modern heating are energy inefficient and use fossil fuels as their source, let's not forget the massive amounts of nitrogen and chemical fertilizers used in large-scale corn growing operations. Encouraging the growing of *more* corn for use in other applications is not the solution; however, I do agree that unsold or leftover corn products is more energy responsible. Just my thoughts...
  7. Nutmaster
    Aug 29, 2011
    Nuts are delicious. Any idea on the thermal efficiency of a biomass stove?
  8. Antonio
    Aug 29, 2011
    That's a good point, Brian. It's probably best to burn whatever's close at hand, I've heard of people burning nutshells. Hazelnut, walnut or peanut shells. Maybe plant a couple nut trees in the backyard, then sleep with a clear conscience.
  9. Brian
    Aug 29, 2011
    While I can't weigh in very heavily on the argument, I feel that any consideration of one energy source versus another on purely environmental terms should take into account how energy is transported. For instance, natural gas pipelines would seem to require less energy altogether, since to they feed directly into people's homes. Otherwise, you still need diesel trucks to bring that biomass from agricultural producers into urban and suburban ares, which are subsequently brought to the individual consumer's home by automobile. Use of biomass fuels would probably be most efficient when there is a ready source of biomass in proximity to where it is consumed. I am also going to assume that burning raw materials dumps more pollution into the atmosphere. Go to any place where they still allow trash-burning and you'll see what I mean.
  10. Lucy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Great post. And although as you indicated installation is generally more expensive than with electric furnaces, I believe that the new tax cuts offer rebates... let me check. yeah, check out this link about Federal Tax Credits for Energy Efficiency: http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=products.pr_tax_credits#c5 It says the federal tax credits will cover 30% of installation costs on biomass stoves, up to $1,500.