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!