CNN predicted a 22% increase in the cost of heating oil this year. Boston was named by Forbes.com as this year’s “Most Expensive Place to Heat a Home.” Everywhere you look, there’s just more bad news on how expensive it will be to heat your home, and frustrated homeowners are turning to alternative heating fuels to help ease the burden of their heating bills. As we look to reduce our independence on fossil fuels and save money at the same time, biomass fuel is appearing more commonly in commercial markets everywhere. Here are the top three uses, and how they have worked for our family:
Wood – We switched over to all-wood heat this year. Nothing compares to the dry, hot heat that wood produces! Using the same metal wood stove that my dad built when I was just a tot, we have been cutting lumber from our grove and filling the fires every 4-5 hours for optimal warmth. The only cost to us is the gas for our chainsaw and the electricity to run a furnace fan throughout our old farm house. Updates have been made to the chimney lining to ensure safety, but otherwise it has been a very low-cost heating solution! (For directions on how to make your own wood-burning stove for under $35, read this article from Mother Earth News, circa 1978.)
THE AMAZING $500 WOOD-BURNING STOVE ... THAT YOU CAN BUILD FOR $35 (OR LESS!)
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(Note: Since this article was published in 1978, building codes and homeowners insurance rules have changed, and federal rules governing wood stoves have been adopted. This stove plan may not comply with various federal and local regulations. Readers are advised to check with appropriate officials before installing this stove in their homes. —Mother)
Most homebuilt wood-burning stoves are scabbed together from old 55-gallon drums. And they more or less do the job they're supposed to do ... despite the fact that they're notoriously inefficient users of fuel, are difficult to regulate, rapidly burn through, and are so ugly that most people will only tolerate them out in the garage or workshop.
Perhaps the single really good thing that can be said for the majority of the 55-gallon-drum burners is that (usually) it doesn't cost very much to put one of them together or at least it didn't used to. Here lately, though, the steel barrels have become increasingly difficult to find ... and, when you do locate one of the containers, it frequently has a seven dollar price tag at fixed to it.
There must be a better way to go about assembling a homemade wood-burning stove. And there is' As MOTHER was recently shown by Wilton, Iowa's Robert Wars (who, incidentally, just happens to be the brother of MOTHER researcher Emerson Smyers).
"Forget about messing around with old 55-gallon drums," Bob told us. "What you want to build your stove out of is a discarded electric water heater tank ... for at least four good reasons:
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"In the first place, the walls of such a tank are a minimum of three to four times as thick as the metal in a 55-gallon barrel ... which means that a water heater drum will make a much tougher stove that will last a lot longer.
"Second, when you build a firebox from a junked water heater tank, it's very easy to make the stove as airtight and efficient as any $500 woodburner on the market. And I can't say that about any 55-gallon-drum stove I've ever seen.
"Third, if you construct your heater the way I tell you to, it'll be easy to load, it will have excellent fire and temperature control, and it'll look classy enough to put on display right in the living room.
"And fourth, you can build one of my 'water heater' stoves for even less than most folks now spend putting together a 55gallon-barrel wood-burner. As a matter of fact, I scrounged up everything that went into mine. Which means that the stove cost me only the laborone good long daythat I used building it."
Well, now. Those were pretty big claims. Especially since we were listening to them while looking at some photographs of a flat-out good -looking stove. So, in our best and most devious "backwoods of North Carolina" fashion, we challenged ole Bob to prove everything he'd just told us.
And thenjust to put him at as large a cost disadvantage as we couldwe spit a couple of times, looked at Smyers out of the corner of our eye, and innocently said, "Of course you know, Bob, that a lot of our readers have trouble scavenging up project materials the way you do. So, other than letting you recycle an old water heater tank, we'll just have to make you buy and pay new prices for everything else that goes into any stove you build for us."
"Oh, of course!" Bob answered. And it wasn't so much what he said as the way he said it which told us right then and there that we were the ones who'd been had. Shucks. This Iowa slicker knew from the beginning that he could build a $500 stove and never use more'n $35 worth of materials doing it.
THE SECRET OF THE SMYERS STOVE'S LOW COST
As Bob Smyers drafted his brother, Emerson, and set about the construction of one of his now-famous stoves, it was easy to see that the recycled-into-a-firebox electric water heater tank was the real secret of his wood-burner's low cost. Also its ease of assembly. Heck. Once you've found your "junked but still in good condition" water heater tank, you've already got about three-quarters of your stove "custom made" just the way you want it.
And it really isn't difficult to find one of these tanks, either. Most of the landfills scattered around the country, in fact, are so filled with the containers that we've- developed a sneaking suspicion the old water heaters breed out there. Maybe not ... but there sure are a lot of 'em "out there" for the taking.
Any discarded electric (forget the gas ones for this project) water heater from 30- to 50-gallon capacity will convert nicely into a stove. We've come to think, however, that one of the 30-gallon tanks (with a diameter of 20 inches and a length of 32 inches) makes the best-looking wood-burner of all.
Pick and choose a little from your friendly local landfills, dumps, or the alleyways behind appliance stores until you find just the tank or tanks you want. Then (if you're doing your "shopping" in a landfill or dump) strip off the lightweight sheet metal "wrapper" and insulation right in the field and make sure that the main tank inside isn't rusted out or filled with corrosion. Or, if circumstances dictate, you can do this stripping back home in your shop and then haul the castoff sheet metal and insulation back to the dump when you're ready to discard them.
THE REST IS EASY
Anyone with a cutting torch and welder will find the rest easy. And if you don't own or operate such equipment, scout around until you find a competent welding shop that'll convert your tank at a reasonable price.
Lay the container on its side and add legs and the "loading hopper box with hinged lid" as illustrated in the accompanying drawing. Then weld in the "exhaust stack" or "smoke boot" as shown. Make sure that all seams are airtight and that the hoqper box lid fits snugly (airtight) too. he draft control is, perhaps, the most critical part of all. If it's well made and doesn't leak, you'll have good and positive control of your finished stove's blaze and temperature at all times. Conversely, if it isn't well made and it does leak, you won't. Work carefully and do the job right.
Once the stove is completely assembled, paint all its outside surfaces with Rustoleum Bar-B-Q black paint or "high temperature engine paint". You've just built yourself one mighty fine wood-burner! Andeven if you bought everything (approximately 65 pounds of steel) except the recycled water heater tank, you shouldn't have spent more than $35 on the project. (Bob and Emerson built MOTHER's demonstration model in one short daysix hoursfor a total cost of $31.54.)
MOTHER researcher Dennis Burk-holder has been using our original "water heater wood stove" to warm his entire 1,100square-foot house since last fall and he's constantly amazed at the large amount of heat and small amount of ashes the unit produces. He's also been pleasantly surprised by the way the heater holds a fire overnight. "All I do in the morning," says Dennis, "is jar the stove a couple of times, open the draft a bit ... and the ole log-burner snaps right to life."
Wood Pellets – These tiny pellets are made from leftover wood residue and saw dust from manufacturing sites. They burn hotter and cleaner than traditional wood logs, due to their compressed size. They can be burned in a traditional wood stove, fireplace, or a specially-made pellet stove. We burned wood pellets for the previous three years in our pellet/corn stove, and had great results. They can be purchased from a local fireplace supply or farm and feed store in bulk for lower prices than if purchased one bag at a time. (For updates on the availability of wood pellets nationally, check here.)
Orscheln Farm & Home Moberly, MO (660)269-4580 John Jorgensen
Ozark Hardwood Products, LLC Seymour, MO 417-935-9663 Scott Jacobs
Pennington Seed Inc. Greenfield, MO 417/637-5978 Keith Hankins
Corn – This was a great heating alternative in year’s past, due to the location of where we lived and the fact that our family farms. This year, however, the price of corn has risen considerably, making it a poor choice for saving money. Assuming that the price of corn may drop again in the future, a corn stove still may be a good way to heat a home. Corn heat compares well with other fuels; One Bushel of corn has as many BTU's as 5 therms of natural gas, 5 gallons of LP, 3.2 gallons of fuel oil, or 131 kilowatt hours of electricity. Many corn stoves also burn wood pellets, so they can be used with the cheapest fuel for the year. For the best information on burning corn, see I Burn Corn’s website. (Note: We use a stove very similar to this American Harvest model, which burns soybeans, cherry and olive pits, processed silage, and biomass fuel grains.)
The Corn Burning Wiki
As technology advances, other forms of biomass fuels will become readily available in the U.S. market. Garbage, animal waste, grasses and leaves may all someday be available in an easy-to-burn form for all kinds of residential heating systems. Accepting biomass into our daily lives may take a little more work and preparation, but the rewards are great -- both in savings and freedom!
(Note: For a comparison of the cost of biomass fuels with other traditional fuels, see this chart.)