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2017-10-11 / Columnists

Forestry Notes

Home Heating Devices
Bill Cook
MSU Extension Forester & Biologist

Heating with wood is an ancient practice; however, advanced, modern heating appliances have come a long way over the past decade, let alone over the millennia. Choosing the correct appliance depends upon each site and situation.

Modern appliance choices include outdoor boilers, indoor boilers, furnaces, stoves, fireplaces, fireplace inserts and larger heating plants.

Most people are familiar with outdoor boilers, stoves and fireplaces. They’re common appliances for residences and small businesses. Older versions of these technologies are often smokier and less efficient than the modern versions. A homeowner can find a wide range of manufacturers of these appliances, and a range in quality and performance.

Less familiar, and potentially more important, are the advanced boilers and furnaces to heat homes and small businesses.

Wood pellet boilers and furnaces work similarly to those that consume fossil fuels. A boiler provides hot water to a distribution system of pipes, often called a hydronic system. A furnace provides hot air to a distribution system of air ducts.

Wood pellets are the best fuel option for people who only want to deal with the thermostat and prefer to avoid the use of fossil fuels. Advanced pellet boilers and furnaces are as “hands-off” as those that use natural gas, propane or fuel oil. Wood pellets can be delivered using trucks, just like propane or fuel oil. The truck comes two or three times per year.

Michigan has yet to see a bulk wood pellet delivery service. The Michigan Statewide Wood Energy Team and its partners are working to create such a delivery service in the southwestern counties. New England has several of these services, and wood pellet heating is becoming a significant economic driver in those areas.

Larger facilities and district heating systems use larger boilers that are best fueled by wood chips, rather than pellets or cordwood. There are a number of successful installations like this across Michigan with room for many more.

A district energy system is a central power plant that heats (and sometimes cools) multiple buildings. Steam and hot water produced by burning natural gas or wood can be distributed though pipes to nearby buildings. Wood is the preferred fuel to reduce environmental impacts. These systems are very efficient, clean and reliable.

In the world of woodbased thermal energy (heating and cooling), there are three groups of fuels: cordwood, pellets and wood chips.

Appliances that use cordwood (firewood) are well known. Many of these appliances require frequent attention and are not particularly efficient; however, some of the advanced outdoor cordwood gasification boilers are quite efficient and clean-burning when dry wood is used.

Wood pellets often are associated with only indoor stoves, a freestanding appliance usually used to enhance an individual room. Using wood pellets to supply a whole-house boiler or furnace are not as well known, but are emerging as an environmentally friendly alternative.

Wood chip boilers and district energy systems are less well known but offer the greatest amount of benefit to communities and surrounding forests. These are larger systems, but are quite efficient, clean and reliable. Schools and medical facilities are currently the most common applications, other than those used by forest industries.

The idea of “heating with wood” can lead to many technology choices. It’s no longer just grampa’s old woodstove or the fireplace in the den. Woodbased heating and cooling using advanced technologies offers many economic, environmental and social benefits.

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