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Archive for November 12, 2011

My Attempt At Alternative Heat – The Corn Stove

After I wrote the story below, I realized that my little predicament is nothing compared to those whose assistance has been cut back for this winter thanks to the Norquist Republicans and their refusal to make the rich pay a little more to keep the poor from starving and freezing this winter.


For the past ten years, this would be the time I would be checking the chimney, thoroughly cleaning the insides and generally getting my corn stove ready for another heating season. I would also be calling my corn supplier and purchasing corn for the coming season. Then when that first chill of the season came to pass – usually sometime around Halloween – I would pour a couple of 5 gallon buckets of corn into the hopper and get ready for another season of heating with corn.

Usually I would wait until the temperature in the house was around 50 degrees and someone was bringing up that annual threat of divorce before I moved into action. I would then pour some wood pellets into the burn pot, lace those pellets with some sort of fire-starting stuff and give it a light. Every year I had a fear it would not start; every year it did. As the fire started, I would close the door and turn on the fan motor that sucked in fresh air to burn while removing smoke. Usually within a few minutes corn started dropping down the chute from the hopper. The fire started with pellets and fanned with outside air was now hot enough to burn the corn. At first the kernels would drop into fire slowly. I would gradually increase the speed until the desired heat was reached. Then we would turn the ceiling fan in the room on a low setting and VOILA – we had corn heat circulating throughout our house.

We were able to keep the temp around 65 most of the winter with the corn stove. Only in times of extreme cold did we need to resort to our natural gas furnace. The heat was very,very comfortable. Since it was constant, we stayed at a level temperature unlike the gas furnace that would turn on and off run by the thermostat.

We took a flyer on corn heat at an I-RENEW expo. The previous winter we had had a blip with our supply line coming into town while we were out on Christmas Eve. We were gone for 8 hours and so was our heat since the blip happened about 2 minutes after we left. It was extremely cold that night, so when we returned the house was hovering around 35 degrees.

Well, I have always been one to try to have a Plan B. We had been looking at alternatives for a while. The very first thing we did was to replace our very old furnace with a new self-lighting unit. We needed that anyway. And we stepped up our search for a reasonably priced alternative. Another issue in the back of my mind was to get away from burning fossil fuels.

So we bought the corn stove, plus a large container to hold corn. The container would hold about 35 bushels of corn. We had no idea how long that would last. I really thought that would last most of the winter. I only missed by about 3 months. At that time corn was $2 a bushel. The vendor told me “it was $2 when I was born, it is $2 today and it’ll be $2 the day I die.” Boy was he wrong.

We found out through trial and error that we would use around 250 bushels a year. At $2 a bushel we were saving huge dollars over our gas bills. The stove paid for itself in just 3 years. But my vendor lost his business trying to keep his price at $2 a bushel as he had promised. I tried to get him to accept more and he refused.

The reason the price was going up was that another use for corn had grown dramatically. Ethanol was being used as an oxygenater around the country and demand skyrocketed. Couple that with world food shortages and some small harvests elsewhere and corn as a commodity was a hot property. Soon we were up to $4 a bushel.

At $4 a bushel we were nearing the break even point. We also had to seek a new supplier and I had to become my own service man. We wanted to stay with corn because of the very comfortable heat and because we had really cut back on burning fossil fuels. But the end was coming soon. The price of corn and other commodities spiked again. Last year we still had some $5/ bushel corn left, but the price was over $7 a bushel and headed up.

So we decided to burn what was left over. Wood pellets were expensive also and did not give out near the heat. So as March rolled around last year, we prepared to return to natural gas. We were literally burning the last of the corn when, as if in a cosmic moment, the fan went out. A few minutes later the auger that moved corn from the hopper to the burn pot, also quit. So now we were looking at a broken mache and high costs for fuel. Plus it made no sense to burn food when there is so much hunger in the world.

Now we are back to gas heat. It is sure as heck easier – just flick a switch. But I am really concerned about burning fossil fuels especially when the gas companies are fracking to mine the gas. Fracking is causing huge problems and I hate to be a part of that. So we are back to searching for Plan B once more.

Geo-Thermal? Maybe if I had lots of money. Solar? Maybe in a year or two. Is there anything else? Someone in Italy claims they can create cold fusion ……..

Will Your Town’s Library Soon Be Privatized?

One of the things we need to do from time to time is to step back and try to get a fix on what direction we are headed. Often we allow others to come in and take control without realizing what has happened. It happens in our private lives and it certainly happens in the public domain.

So over the past 30 years beginning with Ronald Reagan, we have watched our government be dismantled as pieces are sold off or leased to the highest bidder. We also see government services be passed out to private businesses never realizing that if the private company does not perform up to expectations or keep prices in line they will probably not be able to bring the service back in house.

We have seen this happen to everything from garbage pick up to public utilities and now to schools. Whether the privatized business performs or not, governmental bodies for the most part are not willing to put up with the fuss that would ensue were they to try to bring the service back in house.

I bring this up because last evening I had a conversation with one of our local librarians. They are taking an annual survey to see how they can better serve the community. I asked if this was to stave off privatizing libraries. Another person who was listening in said, “What do you mean “privatized” libraries?” I explained that, yes indeed, cities and towns around the country are closing their libraries and letting private companies operate them.

Forced to make tough choices due to the incredibly bad fiscal management of the past decade, cities and towns are looking for ways to at least ostensibly cut budgets. So in many cases some of the less necessary services are the first to go. In many towns libraries are the hub for the elderly and the local school kids and for other groups. They often add that ambiance that makes a town more attractive to new citizens and a reason that old citizens do not move. Yet when faced with budget crises ambiance is at the bottom of the totem pole when looking at reasons to save a service.

I explained this to my friend and mentioned that library privatization is a below-the-radar movement that is really gaining ground. Replacing the taxes are fees and subscriptions and of course a charge to the town itself. And instead of a library that works to be a true service to the town you get a business hustling for a buck. As such the selections are often narrowed (you could say censored) and costs to the user goes up dramatically.

The city of Ventura, California is in the process of considering going down this road at this moment. The Ventura County Star has a great article on what to expect. Here is an excerpt:

“As a private company, LSSI (Library Systems and Services Inc.) can choose to censor library materials. It can do with citizens’ loan records anything not specifically prohibited by a city’s contract.

Most importantly, LSSI is in the library business (an astonishing turn of phrase) to make a profit. It does this by reducing the quality and quantity of library services while charging high costs to host cities, banking the difference to dole out to its shareholders and spread virus-like to other unsuspecting towns.”

The reason this is important in Iowa is because a Republican legislature in Iowa was avoided the other night in Senate District 18. Had the Republican won, the Senate would be split with Republicans effectively in charge with the tie-breaking vote being held by Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Last legislative session, one of the Republicans’ major objectives was to pass a bill reducing commercial property taxes. Inside that bill were some poison pills that would dry up revenues for cities and towns throughout Iowa.

With revenues cut way back, most towns would be hard pressed providing police and fire protection, let alone a library, swimming pool or even cemetary maintenance. I asked our city manager what would happen if that bill passed. He said we would probably lose the library in about 5 years and probably lose the pool at about the same time. In ten years we would probably be looking at police cutbacks.

All this is being done quietly, very quietly. And you know why. This is yet another *perk* of the ALEC legislative agenda.

Next target: municipal water systems!

Note: Michael Moore’s newest book as an example of what you would probably NOT find in a privatized library of the future.