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Living Green: Wood options let Vermonters ‘heat local’

Vermont Wood Pellet Company's premium wood pellets are made using pulp-grade pine logs that might otherwise go to waste.
Vermont Wood Pellet Company’s premium wood pellets are made using pulp-grade pine logs that might otherwise go to waste.

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

To Vermonters gearing up for the big fat bills that come with heating their homes in the winter, it comes as no surprise that heating accounts for 50 percent of a Vermont home’s energy use.

Wood-powered heat can help defray heating costs, add coziness to the long winters and keep heating dollars in state.

“Everyone’s heard of the eat local movement,” said Adam Sherman, manager at the Biomass Energy Resource Center at Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. “We’re starting the heat local movement.”

With wood heat options, you get a local fuel. Along with Vermont grown, harvested and sold cordwood, the state has one wood pellet mill, Vermont Wood Pellet Company in North Clarendon.

Vermont Wood Pellet Company has “Heat Local” printed on every one of its bags, said President and CEO Chris Brooks.

The company employs 24 Vermonters at its mill. It works with more than 50 local loggers and truckers, and gets all its wood from a 30-mile radius. Altogether, that 30-mile radius generates about $3.5 million a year, and that money stays in the state, Brooks said.

“Those are funds that go to the local community, they’re not going out of the community,” Brooks said. “It’s a really cool local model that works.”

More than that, heat is critical during Vermont’s bitter winters.

“We’re in this to keep people warm. That’s important and it’s a visceral thing…if you don’t have heat you don’t survive here,” said Brooks, adding that when many Vermonters experienced a shortfall of pellets last year, the employees in his mill put in extra hours to churn out more pellets.

“It’s local taking care of local.”

Not so with oil.

“Every dollar you spend on oil, you’re sending 80 cents out of the state economy,” Sherman said.

In addition to being local, wood heat is cost-effective.

“It’s about half the expense of oil or gas prices,” said Center Merrill, president of The Stove Depot, a stove dealer with four locations in Vermont.

When comparing fuel prices, the unit of measurement is the cost per million BTU of combustion.

Since prices—especially that of oil—is constantly in flux, it can be difficult to determine heating costs. But working from an estimate of $4 per gallon for fuel oil and $2.75 per gallon for propane, the fuel costs an average of $40 per million BTU of delivered heat.

A woodstove or pellet stove provides heat at $20-$22 per million BTU.

Steve Hedges, manager at Stove & Flag Works in Williston, has a simple reason to invest in a stove.

“If you want to be warmer,” he said. “A lot of people on propane are always turning the thermostat down, and they’re always cold. It’s really tough for some people.”

“You get a warmth you don’t with gas and oil,” Merrill said. “It’s instant spot heat right there.”

WOODSTOVES

Woodstoves are by far the most common option in Vermont.

“Woodstoves will always be the king in Vermont, I believe,” Hedges said.

Combustion conditions are variable in a woodstove—it depends on how much wood you stuff into it and how dry that wood is—but the woodstove industry has seen vast improvements in the past 20 or 30 years, Sherman said.

Vermonters can make their woodstoves more efficient by keeping them burning hot enough to completely burn the wood and combustion gases.

Efficiency Vermont recommends consulting your stove manufacturer for the recommended temperature. You can purchase a woodstove temperature gauge that shows when your stove has reached that recommended temperature.

Hedges said the woodstoves his store carries cost between $1,000 and $3,000. Depending on what equipment you already have in your home, installation costs could climb to $600 or more.

Firewood costs can vary widely, depending on the supply available and type of wood. Last year’s long, frigid winter means that wood is more scarce this year—and inevitably costlier. High demand has driven prices north of $300 a cord, and many purveyors can’t keep up with requests. Hedges said he’s seeing wood prices climb each year, reaching about $350.

Green wood is the cheapest at $250-$300 a cord, but requires some planning ahead, since it should be stored in a dry place for two years before it is burned. Seasoned wood will run $275-$375 per cord, while premium kiln-dried wood will set you back $375 to $410 a cord.

Even with the price of wood climbing, a woodstove will offset the cost of propane or oil heat, as well as provide an electricity-free source of heat if a storm knocks out power in the winter, Hedges said.

As a rough estimate, a woodstove could save the average Vermont homeowner $1,500 or more a winter, Sherman said.

“That’s a two-year simple payback,” Sherman said, assuming a woodstove cost $3,000 to install.

Not to mention the payback on the cozy nights spent around a cheerily burning woodstove.

PELLET STOVES

Pellets stoves are taking great leaps in popularity, and proponents point to efficiency, savings and ease of use.

“It has been and continues to be the lowest cost method of heating,” Brooks said of wood pellets. “It’s the same price right now as pipeline natural gas, but we always supply the last mile.”

A pellet stove stores 40 to 50 pounds of wood pellets in a hopper below the stove, which an augur brings up into a combustion chamber. Fans blow air into the chamber, then blow the hot air into the room. Gases are vented outside through a direct vent, no chimney is required.

While the stoves can be lit manually, they often only require the push of a button to start up, or can be fully automated and controlled by thermostat.

“(Pellet stoves) have just increased in popularity so much over the last especially five years,” Hedges said. “You don’t have to build a chimney, there’s automatic ignition, you’re still burning a wood product instead of petroleum products… the appliance may cost you more, but the benefits are quite rewarding.”

Both Sherman and Hedges have pellet stoves in their homes. Hedges said the pellet stove is easier to use than a woodstove—he used to cut, haul and split his own wood—and he has seen his heating bills plummet.

Sherman installed his when he bought a home in Richmond nine years ago.

“With one little stove we heat our entire house,” he said, adding that the family only uses its propane central boiler for domestic hot water.

“Many people say stoves are just for supplemental heating, but it depends on the house. We like the fact that it’s a little warmer in the living room and a little colder upstairs where we sleep,” he said.

A typical pellet stove costs between $1,500 and $4,000 to purchase and install, depending on the model.

“With my home, with a $2,500 investment and the fuel savings, the payback was less than three years,” Sherman said.

While slightly more expensive to install, pellet stoves are more efficient than woodstoves.

“Pellet systems are quite efficient,” Sherman said. “It’s a controlled fuel, regulated, all sensor-based and automatic.”

The quality of wood pellets is variable, but Brooks said a ton of his pellets packs the same heating punch as 125 gallons of fuel oil or 1.5 cords of wood. The average household would need between three and four tons of pellets to heat its home for the winter. At $270-$290 a ton, that’s $810 to $1,160 for the year.

As of late October, Energy Co-op of Vermont was charging between $249 and $274 per ton for pickup, and $289-$314 for delivery.

Pellets are also sustainable, using wood chips, sawdust or pulp-grade wood that might otherwise go to waste.

Many Vermonters seem to be catching on to the benefits of pellets—Vermont Pellet Company’s 2014 supply is sold out, and they’ve sold out each year for the past four years.

“The challenge is in matching the demand for the product, which from my perspective is a bad thing,” he said. “I would love to see other mills open up.”

The company’s permit is to produce 18,000 tons a year—about what its wood recharge area can sustain.

“At this point, if we are to provide more pellets, our job is to build another mill, which we are looking at,” he said.

Hedges said he tells his customers to get in the habit of buying pellets in the spring or summer to make sure they have a supply.

BOILERS

“There have been a lot of really exciting advancements in centralized wood heating for homes, and more and more people are using high efficiency, clean-burning boilers,” Sherman said.

Like an oil-powered boiler, a cordwood or pellet boiler heats a water tank that stores thermal energy, distributing it to the home via baseboard heating or radiators.

A pellet boiler works exactly like an oil-powered boiler—you can get a bulk delivery in a tanker truck, filling a container attached to the system that automatically fills the boiler.

“Pellets have become exactly like heating oil or propane,” Sherman said. “A truck drives around and makes deliveries and the homeowner never touches the fuel.”

Like a propane or oil-powered boiler system, the temperature is controlled through a thermostat.

“The entire system is completely automated,” Sherman said. “It works exactly the same, it just uses a different fuel source.”

A wood-powered system also provides a homeowner’s hot water.

“I would love to no longer be burning fuel to do showers,” Sherman said. “If back then I had the option, I would have put in a pellet boiler system. It can cover the heating and hot water.”

A pellet boiler system will set you back between $10,000 and $25,000.

“It’s very expensive, but they’re extremely efficient and clean burning,” Sherman said.

The more expensive models also come with an extra water storage tank, providing more thermal storage and an even more efficient process, since the system has to start up and burn pellets less frequently.

A cordwood boiler works similarly, but must be manually operated.

They are also less expensive to install, costing between $5,000 and $12,000.

Cordwood boilers should have a thermal buffer tank, which stores thermal energy—meaning you don’t need to keep a fire going at an inefficient and less clean constant smolder. Instead, you burn a fire hot and fast every couple days, and store that heat.

“It’s less labor intensive and dramatically more efficient and cleaner burning,” Sherman said.

Of course, saving money on heat won’t do too much good unless you make sure the hot air isn’t leaking out of your home. Efficiency Vermont recommends completing a Home Performance with ENERGY STAR project.