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Home Heating Thoughts
Article #275 July 2018
By Bill Cook

Home heating may not be on everyone’s mind during the summer months, unless getting through the last winter was a nail-biter.  For many residences and small businesses, wood pellets are the cheapest alternative. 

     Discussions about wood pellet heating require some definition.  The fully-automated, advanced pellet furnaces and boilers are unfamiliar to most people, including HVAC companies.  Many tend to think about pellet stoves, which can be nice, but they are not usually sufficient to heat an entire house or building.
     Rather, think of the furnace that’s currently in your house.  Now, think of that furnace burning wood pellets that are automatically fed into the furnace, just like whatever fuel that you’re currently using.  All you do is adjust the thermostat. 
     Wood pellet heating is cost-competitive with both propane and fuel oil, not so much with natural gas.  However, the environmental benefits of using wood products are substantial.  And, wood pellets can fit well into the “use local” markets. 
     There are about 700,000 Michigan households that heat with fuels more expensive than wood pellets.  Opportunity is knocking. 
      Wood pellet networks, with the associated installers and suppliers, are commonplace in New England.  The better appliances are European design and very efficient.  They’re also fully-automatic if bulk pellet delivery is available.  Pellet delivery is done using pneumatic trucks to fill a basement storage hopper.  It’s similar to deliveries of propane and fuel oil. 
      For the Lake States, bulk wood pellet delivery remains one of the challenges to building a network with significant contributions to a local economy.  The nine southwestern counties of Michigan have excellent resources and demographics to develop such a bulk wood pellet delivery network
      Another challenge is the higher initial cost for these systems.  However, when comparing lifecycle costs with those of propane or fuel oil, wood pellets are significantly cheaper.  For those looking to make cost-saving investments for the longer term, wood pellet systems provide a good option.  It’s also important to understand that a quality system will cost more than a knock-off design.  With these technologies, you get what you pay for. 
     When talking to heating and cooling companies, most will not be aware of these modern appliances.  Some are familiar only with wood stoves or pellet stoves, not recognizing that the advanced appliances are completely different systems.  So, it can be difficult to obtain information from local HVAC installers. 
     The environmental benefits may not, at first, appear obvious.  One of the major concerns is carbon emissions.  For all wood-fired systems, all the emitted carbon was recently in the carbon cycle, in the form of wood, and soon returns to wood (as long as forests remain as forests).  Unlike fossil fuels, burning wood adds no additional carbon to the natural systems. 
     Another environmental concern is particulates; those small bits that can contribute to reduced air quality.  The advanced, high-tech appliances have very low levels of particulates in the emissions.  It’s much different than the more commonly recognized emission issues from fireplaces, wood stoves, and older backyard boilers. 
     Using local resources will be attractive to some consumers.  This trend is popular and growing in the food supply chain.  Using a local heat energy source has all the economic benefits of local food, and then some.  In New England, wood pellet networks have grown to be important economic drivers and have kept millions of dollars working in their economies. 
     Along these lines, a market for lower quality trees and residual materials leads to better forest management.  A well-managed forest provides more than just better wood products.  Other goals include water quality, habitat improvement, forest health, and forest restoration. 
     Installing a fully-automated, advance wood pellet furnace has many advantages.  It may become a standard heating option for the future.  For now, however, it’s a budding industry attractive to early-adopters and the environmentally conscientious.  More information can be found on the Michigan Wood Energy website.

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