Burning Straw Saves Heating Costs

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A Peace River area farmer is using fescue for fuel in an inventive on-farm heating system he estimates is saving him more than $2,000 a month. Louis Stickney grows fescue and canola on 14 quarters of land just outside of the small town of Hythe. He describes himself as semi-retired, but there’s no end to his enterprising ideas.

Stickney operated the White/New Holland dealership in Hythe for 22 years, and sold out five years ago. At one time, Stickney was a pedigreed seed grower but eventually got out of cereal grains.

“It was hard to get good help,” he said. “It made sense to shift into something less labour-intensive so that I could farm on my own.” Fescue crops spread out the workload, allowing him to seed what he could handle himself.

A few years ago, he began to wonder about better uses for his hard fescue straw. “It isn’t good for cattle because it’s hard on the hooves, so there wasn’t much use for it anywhere,” said Stickney. “There was an advantage to me in baling the straw and getting it off the field, but then what?”

It sparked an idea that led to an on-farm heating system using recycled parts and a lot of ingenuity. “My only parameters were that it had to be low cost as well as low maintenance,” he said.

First, he acquired two large tanks that were formerly underground fuel tanks for $250 each. Stickney picked up a third tank for free. “It was an old oilfield vessel; they said I could have it if I moved it.”

One of tanks he uses as a bale burner is a 7×20 foot combustion chamber that holds a maximum of three large bales and sits inside a second tank, a 9×30 foot water jacket. The 10-ft. difference in length of the two tanks accommodates a piping system.

“The water jacket holds about 6,000 gallons of water,” said Stickney. “That stores a whole lot of heat.”

To prevent the water from boiling, he installed a swimming pool pump to keep the water circulating. The most expensive component was tank insulation materials that cost $3,000.

The outside tank is warm to the touch – but only just. “The snow stays on it all winter,” says Stickney. He figured out that using a natural gas flame, which generates very high temperatures, and a three-horsepower blower used to aerate grain bins would burn

off the smell out of the flue. Now, the stack is clean and odourless. “By capturing the smoke, we’ve increased heat retention by three,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of energy in smoke.”

The system uses a heat exchanger to capture the heat in the flue gas. “We had to keep the condensation to a minimum and had to tweak the heat exchanger here and there but now we’re capturing 95 per cent of the energy out of the fescue straw,” said Stickney.

He’s using his system to heat a 6,000 sq. ft. shop via an in-floor heating system as well as two floors of an 1,800 sq. ft. farm home via a water-to-air heat exchanger furnace.

The third water tank was installed inside his shop. It uses a 150-watt pump, as does a second pump in the house. Throw in another $800 for the heat exchanger and Stickney figures the entire system cost him less than $5,000.

“I’m guessing that just the shop alone would be costing about $2,000 for heat,” said Stickney. He estimates he uses about 50 bales every winter. Now in its sixth winter, he says three bales will maintain an interior temperature of 70 F in his shop for two weeks during the coldest parts of winter. “Fescue burns so well, I only have to clean out the burner once a year,” he said.

Now, that’s low maintenance.

Deep roots in the area

Louis Stickney has deep roots in the Hythe area. His father settled here in 1927, and he still lives on the original family farm. An old grain elevator that was built on site in 1939 is a local landmark, and serves as a sentinel for the long-time family operation. Louis and his wife raised six children here, who have gone on to careers in veterinary medicine, education, engineering and instrumentation. That suits Stickney just fine, he says. “We encouraged our children to get an education before deciding to just take over the family farm, it’s a very high-stress job, the farming business.”

It may seem like odd advice but not when you consider Stickney’s background. He holds a bachelor of science degree in biology and a degree in physiology.

He taught school before he started farming at his father’s urging, and subsequently bought the White farm equipment dealership in Hythe. “What I’ve done here, with the fescue heating system, suits me. It’s something that works for me,” said Stickney. “I don’t think I’m finished yet,” he said, adding that he has a keen interest in the viability of a system that could be used to generate electricity in an economical way. Meanwhile, he’s keeping his ears open as well as his mind.

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