Cast Your Ballot for Biomass Solutions

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Tompkins Weekly 10/15/2012

By Guillermo Metz

As you may have heard, it’s an election year. If you’re following the debates and what the pundits are saying, the two presidential candidates don’t agree on much. But they do agree about one thing: the need for energy independence. How we get there, of course, they don’t agree on.

But you can do your part by making the switch to one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy: wood. For little more than a thousand dollars, you can start heating your house with your very own biomass-fired heating plant, in the form of a wood stove or pellet stove. And, in many cases, you will earn back the thousand dollars within one heating season, while helping support the local economy.

Many people only consider these units to be space heaters, and that’s how they are usually used. But in a sufficiently energy-efficient home, they can become the primary source of heat. In fact, once a drafty home is air-sealed and the insulation upgraded, the old boiler or furnace is almost always over-sized for the new heating demands, making a stove a great choice. No matter what you’re heating with, cutting down on the amount of heat you need is always the first step; it is where you will see your biggest savings, while making your home more comfortable.

We have a program that tracks energy use of participants who have made energy upgrades to their homes and made the switch from oil or propane to a pellet stove. Their savings have been significant. You can read all about the pro- gram and hear some of the early participants speaking honestly and passionately about it by visiting We’re now enrolling participants for this heating season.

Besides the monetary savings, there’s something about a fire that affects us on a deep, primordial level. We are comforted and mesmerized by the warm glow. But that warm glow brings with it harmful combustion products: fine particulates that can harm the lungs and cardiovascular system, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are carcinogenic.

Wood and pellet stoves have come a long way toward minimizing those harmful emissions in the past 20 years. Around 1990, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started certifying wood stoves and set emissions levels that all stoves sold in the U.S. must meet: 7.5 g/hr for a noncatalytic wood stove and 4.1 g/hr for one with a catalyst (which helps more fully break down the emission products at relatively low temperatures). Some of today’s models have lowered those numbers to as little as 1 g/hr—significantly less than many pellet stoves.

Pellet stoves, which are not regulated by the EPA, have many advantages over wood stoves. For starters, you don’t have to make your own pellets and stack them to dry. Also, their emissions tend to be much less than those of wood stoves. And emissions ratings for pellet stoves actually mean something.

The emissions and efficiency ratings for wood stoves are tested in a controlled lab environment, with uniform chunks of perfectly dry wood. That allows comparisons between different models, but it isn’t much like the real world, where even the most conscientious among us are working with woods of all sizes and species, with bark and other impurities. And the less conscientious are burning freshly cut wood and even the occasional piece of garbage (tissues, bills, and so on), greatly increasing emissions, wasting energy and endangering them- selves and their community in the process.

Wood pellets are a uniform product, although most pellet stove users will tell you that there are differences between brands of pellets. All premium hardwood pellets are fully dry, pure hardwood (with the possible addition of a slight amount of oil to help them form). If they absorb moisture after manufacture, they will clog your pellet stove; rather than producing high emissions, it just won’t work. The good pellet stoves also have oxygen sensors and high-tech controls to carefully monitor and adjust the burn for maximum efficiency and minimal emissions.

In effect, pellet stoves take the operator out of the equation, and that’s a good thing. The downsides are that nearly all require electricity, and to varying degrees, the fans that blow the hot air out and the augurs that move the pellets around make some noise (there is at least one non-electric, gravity-fed model currently available).

If you still think you need a larger boiler or furnace, you can get a high-efficiency, clean-burning cordwood or pellet boiler. These units have little in common with their inefficient, polluting cousins: the outdoor wood boiler, which, by design, is almost always very inefficient and the cause of battles between neighbors over their high emissions.

Two-stage gasification wood or pellet boilers have all the controls of pellet stoves, and more, to ensure a clean, efficient burn. Add secondary water storage, and you have an excellent whole-home heating system for about the same price as a traditional boiler or furnace.

So, this fall, cast your vote for biomass and start saving money while helping create local jobs and helping the planet.

To learn more, come to Learn to Burn: the Heating with Wood Workshop, on Thursday, Oct. 25, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Cooperative Extension, 615 Willow Ave., Ithaca. The cost is $10 (scholarships available), and everyone receives a 16-page booklet and a chance to win a moisture meter. To register, call 272-2292.

Guillermo Metz is the Green Building and Renewable Energy Program coordinator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. He can be reached at or 272-2292.

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