Heating with Wood Pays Dividends

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 9-8-14

By Guillermo Metz

Looking out the window, it’s 80 and sunny. But night-time temperatures all summer have periodically dipped into the 50s. Even if there’s no proven relationship between the two, I shudder to think what that means for the coming winter.

With summer, they say it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. With winter, it’s not just the cold but the cost of keeping warm. Last winter was a long, cold one that caught many people off-guard. Particularly for those heating with propane or oil, the high costs of heating put an unexpected dent in many residents’ budgets. But it’s never too late to do something about it.

A winning combination is to make your home as energy-efficient as possible and then heat it with a pellet stove. Typically thought of as a space heater, homeowners around the county have shown that you can heat most of your home most of the year (or all of it) with a pellet stove, as long as the home is energy efficient. For most homes, that means increasing the insulation and air-tightness. Having an energy audit performed is the first step to finding out how energy efficient your home is, and in making it more energy efficient. Energy audits are still free for NYS residents making less than 200% of the median area income. You can find more information at www.upgradeupstate.org.

A significant issue with any wood-burning device is making sure emissions are kept at a minimum. By design, most pellet stoves have lower emissions than wood stoves, and reaching their designed emissions and efficiencies is much easier, since you’re using a much more standardized fuel.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County was going to run a wood stove to pellet stove changeout program aimed at retiring old, inefficient wood stoves for cleaner-burning pellet stoves. Instead, working with agencies at the state level, we are supporting a state-run initiative that aims to do the same thing, with an even bigger rebate. Renewable Heat NY is now offering $1000 rebates for changing out your old wood stove for a pellet stove. You can find more information at http://www.nyserda.ny.gov/Energy-Efficiency-and-Renewable-Programs/Renewables/Renewable-Heat-NY/Residential-Wood-Pellet-Stove.aspx. In an attempt to help lower-income homeowners with their heating bills, there is also an income-eligible option for homeowners who are heating with propane or oil but who do not have an old wood stove to turn in. And you don’t even have to be the homeowner to apply: if you’re renting a home with an old wood stove, you can (with your landlord’s permission) change it in for a pellet stove and receive the rebate.

At CCETC, we’re also going after some of the worst offenders: outdoor wood boilers. We’re piloting an outdoor wood boiler to pellet boiler changeout program aimed at replacing five OWBs with pellet boilers, with a rebate of $4000 each. Renewable Heat NY will add an OWB changeout to its program in 2015, with homeowners being able to upgrade to two-stage gasification, high-efficiency wood boilers (for an estimated rebate of $3500) or to an advanced pellet boiler (for an estimated rebate of $4500).

Homeowners new to pellets often ask about where the pellets come from and if demand can be met if significantly more people turn to heating with pellets. Most pellets are made almost exclusively from waste wood from sawmills, and though there have been periodic shortages the past few years, there is plenty of local wood to support a growing industry. Last winter was cold. Really cold, much of the time. No one anticipated that, which meant shortages for all kinds of fuels, including pellets. This year, pellet mills are ready. And as the market for pellets grows, the supply side will become even more secure.

Another program we are working on is bringing bulk pellet delivery to the Southern Tier. This will provide homeowners with a scenario much like liquid heating fuels. Someone can deliver pellets to your home on a schedule and put them into a container much like an oil or propane tank. From there, you can use a pail to transfer pellets to the pellet stove. No more picking up one-ton pallets or lugging 40-pound bags.

Perhaps more importantly, bulk delivery will enable larger end-users, from homes to large commercial entities, to heat with fully automated pellet boilers. These very clean-burning, highly efficient appliances can be fed pellets automatically through pneumatic or augured systems so that the end-user doesn’t have to do more than empty the ash pan, often as little as once a month.

Properly used, wood stoves are also a good option for heating, especially if you have a ready supply of wood. But if your wood stove is more than 20 years old, it’s time to upgrade to a newer one. And no matter what vintage your stove, always make sure you don’t burn anything other than clean, dry wood, and a little bit of newspaper to start the fire.

Whether you’ve been heating with wood or wood pellets your whole life or are considering it for the first time, sign up now for our next Learn to Burn workshop, September 10, 6-8pm. We’ll cover the Renewable Heat NY program, how to best buy and dry firewood, what to burn and what not to burn, and all the latest technologies, as well as basic tree identification and woodlot management. Call 272-2292 or e-mail me at gm52@cornell.edu to register (there is a sliding-scale $10 fee but no one will be turned away and everyone will be entered for a chance to win a moisture meter).

Guillermo Metz is Green Building and Renewable Energy Program coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles