For many of us living in New England during the first winter of oil prices above three dollars a gallon, discussions of information technology have given way to discussions of home heating technology. We’re at the beginning of an adoption curve here that will rival earlier waves of adoption — first of iron woodburning stoves, then central heating systems fueled by coal and now mostly oil.
Our future fuel is biomass, in the form of sawdust and other recycled wood waste compressed into pellets that look like rabbit food. They burn cleanly and efficiently in airtight stoves that use augurs to feed the pellets slowly and steadily from hoppers into surprisingly small combustion pots.
Like several of our friends, we jumped on the bandwagon last year. Ours is an insert that converts an otherwise useless fireplace into a heat source that’s displacing a sizable chunk of our oil usage. Another friend uses a standalone unit which, because pellet stoves produce so little exhaust heat, is vented through a wall without requiring a tall flue. Two other friends have pellet stoves in their basements, one heating a small house passively and another heating a larger house through its pre-existing forced hot air ducts.
We’re all new to this game, so when we get together we compare notes on stove designs, pellet prices and quality, heat distribution strategies, cleaning and maintenance, and of course effectiveness. Everyone’s story is different. My friends who are leveraging their pre-existing forced hot air system have just about kissed the oil truck goodbye and are saving a lot of money. But they’re not quite as comfortable upstairs in really cold weather as they used to be. Others with hot water radiator systems, including us, aren’t doing nearly that well. We’re using Rube Goldberg arrangements of fans to distribute the hot air that the stoves blow, but that only gets you so far in an old New England house with lots of small rooms. For us, it’s a supplement that’ll pay for itself in a few years, but not a replacement. And we’re way less comfortable in parts of the house than we used to be.
Still, this technology represents a path to a sustainable future in which we use a locally-produced commodity to heat our homes much more cleanly and efficiently than wood ever did before, at a cost that’s already way below oil and will only look better as oil continues to skyrocket.
For most of us, though, it’s not yet a perfect replacement. And for all of us, it’s not automatic. A truck doesn’t show up at the house to pump pellets into a giant tank. We buy them by the ton, and they’re delivered on pallets bearing fifty forty-pound bags that we haul inside, stack, and then dump one at a time into our hoppers. The reload interval varies from less than a day in our case, to up to a week in other cases. Although these stoves produce very little ash — a few ounces per 40-pound bag — the ash removal chore also varies from days to months depending on the design of your stove. In terms of convenience, heating with pellets is more like heating with wood than heating with oil or gas. There’s hauling, there’s loading, and there’s maintenance.
But things will change. A home like mine, with an oil burner and hot water circulating through radiators, will use a boiler that heats the water with pellets instead of oil. These are emerging in Europe, but only starting to come onto the market here. I don’t know anyone who uses one to heat a private residence. But the Harris Center — a nature conservancy in the nearby town of Hancock — is heating 10,000 square feet for $1700/year using a pellet boiler. I was driving by Hancock today and stopped to take a look. The place was closed, but I saw the silo that stores and automatically delivers pellets. For the oil tanks in basements like mine, that’s the handwriting on the wall.