New England’s biomass-fueled home heating future, part 2

The essay I posted last winter about New England’s historic transition from oil-fired home heating to biomass-fired alternatives has been read consistently ever since. Here’s a Labor Day 2008 update.

As is typical in New England homes, my 1870-era home isn’t conducive to space heating. Which makes you wonder why open plan wasn’t fashionable back then. A railroad layout connects a series of small rooms, and the three chimneys tell you that the original space heating solution — many fireplaces — was a challenge. When coal-fired and then oil-fired central heating began to deliver hot water to radiators in every room, it must have seemed like a miracle.

Then, suddenly, oil prices more than quadrupled and the miracle became a nightmare. Supplemental heating with a pellet stove helped, but it would be crazy to put a pellet stove everywhere fireplaces used to be. The central heating system has to be reconfigured to burn an alternate fuel.

Additionally, of course, the thermal integrity of the shell has to be improved. In my case there’s adequate attic insulation, so to make a big difference you’d want to replace all the windows and rebuild the walls from the inside. That’s an investment arguably worth making at this point, but if you’re still burning oil, that might only wind the clock back to 2005, when were at two-buck-a-gallon oil, not 2000 when it was eighty-nine cents. And of course the clock keeps ticking.

So biomass-fired central heating has become imperative, and two classes of solution are emerging. Pellet boilers are the central-heating equivalent of pellet stoves. And wood gasification boilers are the central-heating equivalent of wood stoves.

It’s a back to the future scenario. Yes, it’s a return to a solid-fuel-based regime that we thought we had left behind. But both solutions burn biomass far more cleanly, efficiently, and safely than was ever possible before. Neither is as automatic or convenient — wood gasifiers even less so than pellet boilers — but that’s going to be the new reality, at least for a while to come.

So, pellet boiler or wood gasifier? I chose the latter because, while more labor-intensive, I like the idea of being closer to the fuel source, i.e. trees. Cordwood is a minimally-processed derivative. If it became necessary I could own a woodlot and make it myself. I have lots of friends who do just that.

Pellets are a downstream, more highly-processed product. They’ve been an attractive option so far because cost has been reasonable and availability hasn’t been a problem. But as I understand it, that’s largely because the pellet industry is currently harvesting waste wood products — sawdust, woood scrap. At some point it will have to go back to the source. When the pellet industry has to start harvesting trees to make pellets, I’m betting that the real cost of their convenience will become apparent.

In either case, of course, there are important unanswered questions about sustainable forestry. Can we manage our forests for sustainable production of wood-based solid fuel on the scale that will be necessary? Nobody knows, but we are about to start finding out.

It’s not necessarily all about trees, by the way. I recently had a fascinating conversation with Jock Gill, for an upcoming interview, about a different approach based on grass pellets. That’s a story for another day, but if you’re curious, read this article and think about the challenges of transporting trees to multimillion-dollar processing plants and then distributing the derivative solid fuels. Jock envisions, instead, a decentralized network of local producers whose processing operations require far less capital investment, and whose products need not travel far.

But I digress. Here’s my situation at the moment. I imported an EKO-40 wood gasifer, it’s sitting in my garage, and it’s ready to be installed. Except it can’t be. Because I’ve discovered, to my horror, that my city’s building code won’t allow it. Why not? It doesn’t have UL and/or ASME stickers. Instead, it has a TUV and CE stickers, which certify that the machine complies with the following European standards and directives:


EN 60335: Specification for safety of household and similar electrical appliances. General requirements

EN 50165: Electrical equipment of non-electric appliances for household and similar purposes. Safety requirements

EN 55014: Electromagnetic compatibility. Requirements for household appliances, electric tools and similar apparatus. Emission

EN 61000-6-3: Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC). Generic standards. Emission standard for residential, commercial and light-industrial environments

EN 45011: General requirements for bodies operating product certification systems

EN 303-5: Heating boilers. Heating boilers with forced draught burners. Heating boilers for solid fuels, hand and automatically fired, nominal heat output of up to 300 kW. Terminology, requirements, testing and marking

EN 60529: Specification for degrees of protection provided by enclosures (IP code)


97/23/EG: Directive 97/23/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 May 1997 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States concerning pressure equipment

73/23/EEC: Council Directive 73/23/EEC of 19 February 1973 on the harmonization of the laws of Member States relating to electrical equipment designed for use within certain voltage limits

89/336/EWG: EMC-directive, Electromagnetic compatibility

I have been trying to identify the relevant UL and/or ASTM standards so that I can get a qualified engineer to write a letter to the city explaining that my machine is as safe, clean, sophisticated, and effective as any of the U.S.-certified machines they would approve.

Along the way, I’ve discovered that it’s not clear there are any devices that they would approve. If a UL sticker is required, which UL standard should it certify? UL 391? That’s an umbrella standard governing older electromechanical systems but, I’m told, may not be relevant to the latest technology with its more sophisticated electronic controls? UL 2523, entitled Solid fuel-fired water heaters and boilers, which isn’t yet supported by any system I’ve found?

Likewise if an ASTM sticker, which ASTM standard, and why? And oh by the way, although the city’s codes don’t yet say anything about emissions, my EKO is tested to the strict EN 303-5 standard because Europe, unlike the U.S., takes emissions seriously. My understanding is that the EKO isn’t just way cleaner than the wood stoves and outdoor wood boilers that people are frantically installing these days, it’s cleaner in most respects than an oil burner! Shouldn’t I be rewarded, not punished, for investing in a solution that respects the city’s air quality and the planet’s carbon burden?

On Tuesday I’ll meet with the city’s chief code officer to try to answer these questions, and see if there’s a way we can move forward. Based on what they’ve told me so far, though, it seems possible that none of the best pellet boilers and wood gasifiers, from both domestic and foreign manufacturers, would meet my city’s code requirements as currently written. And that’s because this class of machine, long used in Europe, has only recently started to become interesting to American homeowners. There hasn’t been time to adjust to a technology landscape that’s now undergoing major and rapid upheaval.

If I weren’t stuck in the middle of it, this would just be a case study of the perpetual tug of war between standards and innovation, at an unusual moment in history when time is of the essence. But I am stuck in the middle, and I have no idea how the story’s going to turn out. I’m writing it anyway because I went into this with two goals. First, I wanted to solve a pressing problem for me and my family. But second, I wanted to be able to document and openly discuss a solution that will work for many others who will want to follow. I don’t think that my EKO boiler, if it were to be permitted, would be the first to be installed in Keene, NH. But I do think it would be the first to be legally permitted. So, wish me luck!

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22 thoughts on “New England’s biomass-fueled home heating future, part 2

  1. Many EN standards and EU directives have US equivalents, as determined by the “Agreements on Mutual Recognition of Conformity Assessment” between the countries involved.

    My own personal experience with getting existing certification recognized is limited to EMC, which is a rather easy-to-quantify and limited issue. This was pretty much a nightmare anyway, involving many lawyers and tons of research: I can’t imagine how bad (and costly) the process required for boilers (which can burn, explode, and do many other amusing things…) must be.

    Anyway: even if you manage to convince your local officials of the safety of your imported device, that doesn’t really matter. Operating a device that is not UL listed, will cause your (US) insurance policies to be null and void.

    Unless the manufacturer obtains UL listing for your boiler (and you affix the updated type label as supplied by them to your device), you’ll be exposed to unacceptable risks, just for having the boiler present on an insured property…

  2. I disagree with your entire approach of wood or wood pellet fired stoves and boilers as a long term solution suitable for many homes. However larger numbers of such stoves and boilers will lead to significant deforestation. Also at some point cheap wood is going to get scarce locally.

    I’d far sooner see geothermal solutions with solar panels and wind turbines augmenting the power grid. Although wind turbines aren’t that practical in a suburban environment they’d be fine in a rural or acreage setting.

    P.S. after reading your posting about Googling Jon I occasionally Google my first name. Turns out my Microaoft Access website is consistently near the top Googles second page and occasionally on Googles first page. Once it was even second after Tony Blair. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Good Luck! :)

    (And thanks for the consistently interesting and insightful expert commentary on technology from a grateful reader.)

  4. > you’ll be exposed to unacceptable risks,
    > just for having the boiler present on an
    > insured property…

    It may be that I’ll have to unwind this deal and wait a year or more for the regulatory environment to catch up.

    But, insurance companies should be delighted to see people moving in this direction, and away from conventional wood stoves. These devices produce vastly less creosote and operate at much lower stack temperatures, thus they eliminate the major risk associated with wood stoves which, having been phased out by many people in favor of oil, are now being phased in again in a major way.

    If there is any concern about boiler integrity, by the way, a wood gasifier can be operated as an open unpressurized system through a heat exchanger.

  5. > I’d far sooner see geothermal solutions
    > with solar panels and wind turbines
    > augmenting the power grid. Although
    > wind turbines aren’t that practical in
    > a suburban environment they’d be fine
    > in a rural or acreage setting.

    And so would I rather see those solutions, believe me. Had we heeded the warning bell back in 1970, and had we been ramping up toward those and other solutions ever since, we might be within shouting distance now.

    But we didn’t, and we’re not, and we need a bridge solution. Home heating isn’t a comfort issue in New England, it’s a survival issue.
    Wood and wood products are a big part of that bridge solution for now. Drive around Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine and you will see impressive piles of stacked cordwood and rows of plastic-wrapped one-ton pallets of wood pellets.

    You’re absolutely right about deforestation. We did it before to New England, and we might again. Or, if we’re careful to use the biomass resource efficiently, and manage it for sustainability, things might turn out differently.

    Whatever the outcome, it’s happening, and technologies for clean/safe/efficient/effective use of the resource have to be part of the equation.

    The other part, by the way, needs to be a WPA-like ( program to retrofit New England’s ill-adapted housing stock. Helping homeowners defray the high cost of those retrofits, and creating non-outsourceable jobs in the bargain, would be a better use of tax dollars than further adventuring in the Persia Gulf, and a great way to advance the triple goals of energy independence, economic growth, and geopolitical stability.

  6. It’s really interesting to see your experience navigating the digital standards space being applied to energy. Best of luck, and keep us posted.

  7. My neighbor runs They have a
    discussion forum over there called the
    Boiler Room where people discuss issues like
    yours. We talked today and he said there are
    probably several solutions to your problem.

  8. Hi Jon – I would like to talk with you about your experience. I live in Vermont and want to import a wood chip boiler but am worried about UL Listing and ASME and how that might affect insurance. Would you mind telling me more ?? 802-345-5616 – thanks Terry McDonnell

  9. > am worried about UL Listing and ASME

    I’m in the midst of resolving this, hope to have answers soon. It has turned into a complicated story that really needs to be told.

  10. Terry, can you keep me informed as to how you are doing with your wood chip boiler efforts? I have found both a German and a Austrian companies but both do not have plans for North America as of yet.

  11. Did you ever give any thought to retro-fitting your oil boiler to turn it into a wood chip boiler? I understand there is a company in either Vermont or NH that has developed this system. I am told it costs about $1700 as opposed to putting in a new boiler which costs several thousand dollars. I was given the name of this company a few months ago but have misplaced it and now I am trying to find out the contact details once again.

    1. Hello Sara, i live here in New Hampshire and i’m in the lumber business so i have plenty of wood chip but i cant seem to find any companies in America that build residential wood chip boilers so i saw your blog and wanted to know if you ever found the company that converts oil to wood or that sells chip boilers here in america ? thanks Tom ~

  12. > Did you ever give any thought to
    > retro-fitting your oil boiler to turn
    > it into a wood chip boiler?

    Dunno about wood chips, but Pellergy ( will mate a pellet burner to your existing oil-fired boiler.

    The one caveat is that, although you can convert back and forth, you don’t have simultaneous use of oil and pellets.

    This solution wasn’t yet available when I made my purchase last year.

  13. Jon I figured out I am long winded :), but I have done so much research into these aspects that I have to get all this out.

    In regards to the deforestation concern, outdoor wood boilers, wood stoves, fireplaces and even indoor wood boilers that aren’t gasifiers could cause deforestation if EVERYONE had them. This just highlights the lack of knowledge about the wood gasifiers. They burn about half as much wood as a regular indoor wood boiler, and probably, from what I have read, about a third as much as an outdoor wood boiler. They are carbon neutral as long as forests are forested responsibly, meaning that the carbon taken out is replaced by the oxygen recieved from new tree growth. It is certainly sustainable, especially in more wooded areas like Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. I think everyone in Maine could have a gasifier and we would still have no issue with deforestation. Local wood supply could even come from shipments from Canada on trucks. Right now they ship to papermills at rock bottom prices. In fact when I ask around for wood prices they often quote what they can get for it from the papermill. I would guess as paper becomes less and less used as electronic devices replace it you will actually see wood prices stay at or with the rate of inflation. Geothermal uses lots of electricity, where do you see electricity prices in say 10 years? Solar panels are not cost effective at this point and will be a long time before they are, especially in the north where I live where sunlight days are limited. Battery technology has a long way to go in the storage of that energy. The best batteries are still the same 1000 pound batteries found on forklifs. Wind turbines really are only effective when the blade is about 20 feet in diameter and above the treeline and get constant winds. The energy generated goes up exponentially after about 20 feet. The average electricity generated they quote for those home turbines assumes ridiculous wind speeds on average. The government could certainly step in and create wind farms and solar arrays, but I guarentee you your electric bill would go up considerably if those sources were used instead of the cheaper coal or natural gas. I say lets use the cheap sources until they are no longer cheap and let the private sector look for ways to make money and do the research into effective uses of solar and wind. They already are. Jon your right, we are responsible for the in between ourselves. My payback period I estimate at about 10 years with the wood boiler. Probably a lot less if oil goes where I think it will. The government is trying to get consumers and businesses to go green, but inevitably it is up to us. I shied away from geothermal for a few reasons, (1) large electricity demand(which I had no control over) (2) domestic hot water which geothermal systems lack an ability to provide (causing more electricity use), (3) the forced transition to forced hot air, which sucks in comparison to forced hot water, (4) greater cost (about $10,000 more), (5) lack of understanding and ability to fix it if it were to break. I love the articles on geothermal that state how easy it is to maintain and then state if something goes wrong with it to call a geothermal technician. :) If something goes wrong with my boiler, I am sure I can fix it or at the very least diagnose it. Most of the time it is a circulator pump, ($70), which is an easy fix. Everything is right in the open and simple. and finally (6) easy addition of an extra zone in the case of an addition to the house. We were planning on adding a garage with room above at some point, and with the wood boiler, you just add a zone circulator and some pipe. With a geothermal, they size them to the house. You could size it bigger than you need, but that means more $ up front for an addition that may take many years.

    Geothermal does have its advantages, I can only think of three. (1) less space in my basement, (2) not having to worry about cutting and splitting and (3) AC in the summer, but here in Maine, that is like maybe 20 days if we are lucky.

  14. > I have done so much research into these
    > aspects that I have to get all this out.

    I’m so glad you did. Thanks!

    > Local wood supply could even come from
    > shipments from Canada on trucks.

    Or, if push comes to shove, we can supply it ourselves. We can’t manufacture our own pellets, and this was a deciding factor for me.

    > I think everyone in Maine could have a
    > gasifier and we would still have no issue
    > with deforestation.

    Maybe yes, maybe no. I would like to see more analysis. And I would /really/ like to see that analysis include not just numbers of homes and acres of forest, but also methods of sustainable forestry.

    > with the wood boiler, you just add a zone
    > circulator and some pipe.

    Good point. My wife’s studio is in an attached barn, currently heated by propane. When the $$$ permit, we’d like to extend a zone there.

    > If something goes wrong with my boiler, I
    > am sure I can fix it or at the very least
    > diagnose it.

    The good news is that the tech is admirably uncomplicated. The bad news is that, while they are still unfamiliar, we early adopters are somewhat vulnerable on this front.

  15. I came to the same conclusion on the pellets. They are a manufactured product and as such will be more susceptible to supply demand fluctuations. In fact in the last few years the pellets have doubled in price. That is some serious fluctuation. It really doesn’t get much simpler than cutting tree down, cutting tree up and splitting it. In fact I cut it up and split it myself by getting tree length. In an emergency, we have two acres of woods, so that would probably be about 10 to 20 years of wood before the land is cleared. It is nice to know it is there for free if we need it.

    Well, look at it this way, how many people in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont use wood stoves or fireplace inserts for a lot of their heat? They are already burning about twice as much wood as they would with a gasifier. Obviously these things are more money than a wood stove etc…, but you see my point in sustainability.

    Seriously simple when you understand how hydronic heat works, just a different fuel. We are someday planning on adding a garage with a room above. We bought the EKO 60 instead of the EKO 40 for that reason. But with storage, the 60 should be fine and not too big. Not too big in the BTU sense, bt this thing is a beast.

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