In early January, Colin Danville read a Takoma Voice article on alternative energy that mentioned corn-burning heaters. Danville, an environmental engineer, and his wife, Jenice View, who works for a social-justice organization, were immediately interested. The couple grow their own vegetables, make paper and soap, and compost and recycle regularly at their home in D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood. The corn heater, which works by burning dried kernels of corn, costs about $30 per month and promised to cut down their heat bill significantly.
Danville immediately called Maryland Corn Stoves and purchased an Amaizablaze fireplace insert for $2,700. A few days after the stove was installed, the couple received a $408 Washington Gas bill and, according to the posting of their saga on the neighborhood e-mail discussion group, “were feeling a little smug that next month’s bill would surely be lower.”
But Danville and View were faced with disappointment when they couldn’t sustain a large enough flame. “We knew this was part of an experiment and we had to work the kinks out,” says View. Then, as temperatures continued to drop, they ran out of corn; they were unable to join the corn co-operative in Takoma Park, Md., because the president was out of town. View chronicled the couple’s desperation via the e-mail group: “As of today, the co-op manager hasn’t returned Colin’s calls and we have only a day’s worth of corn left.” Only four days after their Amaizablaze installation, Danville and View had to resort to the radiator heat they were trying to avoid. Adding insult to injury, the energy-wasting radiator seemed to provide better heat on their second floor than their starchy new eco-addition.
According to Washington Gas, consumers will pay an average of $1,000 per household over the six-month winter period for gas, 9 percent more than last year. Those with electric furnaces aren’t spared, either: Starting this week, PEPCO will raise electricity rates by $10 per month. Due to increasing prices, some consumers have been experimenting with alternative forms of heat. But like Danville and View’s Amaizablaze, systems that provide a clean environmental conscience and a lower bill can come with their own hassles.
In 2000, Sharon Villines moved to Takoma Village Co-Housing, an eco-friendly community in D.C. that uses “green architecture.” Villines was attracted to the community for several reasons, one of which was its use of geothermal wells. The wells have pumps that funnel warm underground air into homes and reduce both heat and electric bills. “It makes sense,” she says. “Why spend all that money if you don’t have to?”
But from the get-go, her own well was temperamental, forcing an electric backup system to take over. Over the course of two years, Villines and a few of her neighbors with similar problems cycled through the small handful of contractors in the D.C. area qualified to work on geothermal wells. At one point, after a contractor mistakenly disconnected some pipes, a neighbor’s pump began spouting Moby Dick– like streams of water toward Villines’ ceiling, flooding her home.
A contractor finally diagnosed a leak in Villines’ well. Since then, the system has been working fine. Although Villines didn’t have to pay for the repairs because Takoma Village was under warranty, she did have to put up with years of contractors filing in and out of her home. “It was horrible not only that I heard repair people all the time…[but] they had blowtorches in here,” Villines recalls. Still, she champions her system, which, since it’s been working, has reduced her bills to $45 per month.
Last year, Judy Kosovich, an environmental-law attorney who lives in Capitol Hill, fell in love with a Temp-Cast Masonry Stove, an energy-saving stove popular in Finland, which burns wood pellets. After spending more than $25,000 to purchase and install the stove in her home (including building flues through the floor and roof), Kosovich discovered the problem with using it in a climate warmer than say, Scandinavia’s. If it’s not cold enough outside, there isn’t enough draw from the chimney and, says Kosovich, “it gets fairly smoky.” One temperate Washington day, smoke and soot completely filled her basement. Although she still uses the stove, which burns $6 of wood pellets per day, she doesn’t recommend it to those unfamiliar with bleach. “I wouldn’t want to have white curtains,” she says, “or white carpet.”
Danville and View’s story has a happier ending. Two days after they reverted to radiator heat, they had a phone-support session with a Maryland Corn Stoves representative, who determined that the stove’s auger was blocked by corn debris. Soon after, they got their corn-co-op membership in order. With keys to the co-op’s silo and an unblocked stove, they regained their faith—and even seem a little ashamed of their previous eco-frustration. “We don’t want to discourage anyone from doing this,” says View.CP