HJ/EDEnterprise Dispatch, Feb. 27, 2006

Corn-burning furnace pays off for Dassel man

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Cal Wendlandt of Dassel expected to save money with his new corn-burning furnace. However, he didn’t expect to save so much.

“I’m coming out better than I thought I would,” Wendlandt said.

Wendlandt intended to have more than one source of energy to heat his new house five miles north of Dassel, along Highway 15. He didn’t think, however, the corn-burning furnace would heat his basement also, he said.

So much heat radiates through the glass doors on the corn burner furnace, the hot water floor heat in the basement hasn’t kicked on for the first three weeks he has had the unit, he said.

Wendlandt has always had a keen interest in the mechanics and efficiency of heating buildings. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wendlandt worked for a commercial heating and air-conditioning company in Minneapolis. The company designed and built systems that often had two sources of energy, he said.

Some of the buildings in the Twin Cities use both natural gas and methane gas from the city’s sewer lines. When the building’s monitoring equipment sensed there was enough methane built up in the sewer lines, it automatically turned off the natural gas and switched on burners for the methane gas, Wendlandt said.

The owners of these commercial buildings wanted to heat their huge warehouse buildings as cheaply as possible, he said.

The company also manufactured water-to-air-heat pumps, years before they were used in residences. “I couldn’t believe that technology took that long to get to homeowners,” he said.

Wendlandt lived in an old farmhouse in Cedar Mills during the ‘70s. It had a duct-connected wood furnace. The house had chimney fires, though. Wendlandt joked he got to know the local firefighters a little too well.

“I never wanted to burn wood again,” he said.

When Wendlandt, and his wife, Lois, moved to a home on the shore of Collinwood Lake it had two fireplaces, built in the ‘60s, he said.

“They were nice and cozy and everything but heated only the room you were in,” he said.

When he started making plans for the new house north of Dassel, he wanted to think ahead to what energy prices will be 10 years from now.

“I’m not going to put up this brand new energy efficient home and rely on one source of heat. For this house, I’m going to have some options,” Wendlandt said.

Wendlandt is retired now. He had a stroke and was in a bad car accident that left him partially disabled. Before the stroke a couple of years ago, he worked at RayDot Incorporated in Cokato. During his lunch hours he often went to a used machine dealer, who had a corn-burning space heater.

“I just watched that sucker. It was real interesting,” Wendlandt said.

The units are manufactured in Hutchinson, and are so popular orders need to be placed a year in advance, Wendlandt said.

In the meantime, he and his wife proceeded with plans for their new house. The basement, the garage and a storage room built on to the garage all had hot water floor heat, he said.

An LP gas furnace was used to heat the main floor of the house. The central air conditioning unit also has a heat pump built into it.

In addition, Wendlandt put in an “on demand” water heater. It is self-lighting so it has no pilot light and it only comes on when hot water is needed, for dish washing, showering and laundry, for example, he said.

The Wendlandts moved away from their Collinwood Lake home about 15 to 16 months ago into their almost complete new home. They finally got their corn-burning furnace, not a space heater, for $2,400.

Wendlandt buys the corn from seed dealers.

“I’d rather give my money to the corn farmer than the fuel company,” Wendlandt said.

The corn must be clean and have no weeds in it. The kernels also must not have cracks in them, he said.

“There is huge difference in price,” Wendlandt said.

For a 50-pound bag it varies between $2.70 and $3 a bag, even if the dealers are only five miles apart, he said.

“It took a week or two to get the hang of it,” Wendlandt said.

Wendlandt pours three bags of corn into the top of the furnace. He currently has a bin and duct under construction to funnel the corn directly into his basement from the garage, but it isn’t finished yet. Once the system is finished, the Wendlandts won’t have to pour from bags, he said.

The corn is automatically augered to the front of the furnace where the burner is. The furnace also automatically stirs the corn as it’s burning so it burns evenly and doesn’t form a big charcoal-like lump.

Wendlandt is astonished at how much heat the corn produces. The corn-burning furnace was supposed to be a supplement, or alternative in case the gas and electric heat get too expensive. But in the basement, it has become the main source of heat, he said.

The corn costs about 43 percent of natural gas and 25 percent of electric heat. Wendlandt said today’s energy prices should wake people up to using other options.

“It’s money well spent,” Wendlandt said of alternative fuels.

Wendlandt empties the ashes everyday. He pointed out how the furnace has a separate ash receptacle for the sparks produced by the burning corn. The ash also is less messy than ash from wood. He uses the ash on icy sidewalks.

“That stuff is neat to put on slippery hard pack,” Wendlandt said.

Wendlandt cleans the unit more often than most people because he has more time since he retired. He emphasized that a corn-burning furnace is not for everyone.

It has its disadvantages, too. It needs to be shut down for cleaning once a week, for example. It is difficult to get started once it’s cold. Wendlandt uses wood pellets and a fire starting gel to get it going.

Another owner of a corn-burning furnace told him she had a “mouse problem” because of the corn that hasn’t been burned yet. Wendlandt said they are being careful not to leave openings for mice to get in to the house.

Wendlandt is inviting those who are interested in his alternative energy systems to give him a call. He will arrange to have those interested come to his home and see them.

Wendlandt doesn’t have a formal engineering degree. He calls himself “ a jack of all trades and master of none.” He heard a man who lives across the street from his son, Eric, in Dassel has geothermal heat for his house. Wendlandt is intrigued by that too, he said.

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