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Pellet boilers: not your grandfather’s wood stove; A once-quaint technology transformed into sustainability’s cutting edge

Larry Hartpence of Hartpence Farms stands at the dais next to a stalk of miscanthus grass—which is still three or four feet short of its full height at maturity. Hartpence believes miscanthus as a fuel source shows great promise as a cash crop for beleaguered local farmers.
Contributed photo by Shirley Masuo

By Anne Willard
November 26, 2013

NARROWSBURG, NY — Once upon a time, wood and pellet stoves were essentially quaint space heaters. Cozy and romantic, maybe, but not very practical, given their limited range and the need for constant care and feeding. But things have changed, as became apparent at a forum on pellet boilers on Sunday, November 17 at the Tusten Theatre, sponsored by Damascus Citizens for Sustainability and The Solution Project, attended by about 100 people.

According to the panel of experts who spoke at the forum and a subsequent open house at a pellet-boiler-heated home in Milanville, heating units that use biomass for fuel have not only been transformed in ways that make them as versatile and practical as conventional fossil fuel-based systems, but they also have significant economic and environmental benefits.

Gains in versatility and ease of use

Perhaps the most striking feature of the lead-off presentation by Mike Palko, biomass energy specialist of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Forestry, was the size of the biomass-based systems he discussed. We’re not just talking about whole houses, but big buildings like hospitals and schools—or the Cooperage in Honesdale, PA, where a system was recently installed. That’s possible because biomass boilers can be used just like conventional furnaces to heat the water for hot-water heating systems, or even to drive hot air systems.

And the savings in both cost and greenhouse gas emissions can be considerable. Palko showed a slide with savings experienced by school districts over the past few years burning biomass versus fossil fuels; numbers ranged up to $300,000 in a single year. And one school district alone achieved a net reduction of one million pounds a year of CO2 emissions by switching from fossil fuels.

Nor does it take a crew of stokers to feed pellets into the boilers. The presentation by Patrick and Kyle Vincent of Vincent’s Heating and Fuel Service discussed advancements that have been made in delivery, storage and feeding systems—some developed by the Vincents themselves—that make a pellet system as easy to maintain as one based on oil or gas. Their solution is threefold: providing storage bins large enough to provide a supply of fuel for weeks or even a whole season; delivering pellets in bulk directly to those storage units, eliminating wasteful plastic bags; and providing automatic augur systems that deliver pellets as needed to the burners.

Find out more:
Michael T. Palko, PA Bureau of Forestry, 570/326-6020
Vincent’s Heating and Fuel Service, 315/826-3864
Larry Hartpence, Hartpence Farms, 570/842-6464
Buselli Plumbing Heating and Electric, 570/729-7791