Biomass heating: 9 things I wish I knew before

Updated: Nov 16

It is a warm pleasure to see you again in this 3rd part of my blog post on biomass heating, dear reader!


In the 1st article of this series on biomass heating, we learned more about biomass, mainly forest biomass and saw some factors to consider when planning such a project.

In the 2nd article of this series, we had Jaymie's (Rutabaga Ranch) testimony on his experience with a biomass log boiler as a heating system.


Today, we focus on Frédéric Tremblay's experience (of Les Jardins d'Élisabeth) He has a wood chip biomass boiler.

Frédéric shares with us all the details of his experience with this system. How did he manage to finance 40% of his project? What does he recommend for the installation? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the system for him? That's what we're waiting for! Like Jaymie, Frederic asked me to tell you not to hesitate to contact him if you want more information or to visit his installation in person!







1. Type of system and its operation



Frederic has a wood chip boiler heating a single 32x110 foot greenhouse with a height of about 9 feet below the stiffener.


The boiler has an output of 70 kilowatts or 240,000 BTU/hr. The water heated by the combustion of the chips is pumped into the greenhouse.


Frédéric explains that it is important to make sure that all the elements of the system (circulators, piping, heat transfer fluid, etc.) are sized according to:


  • The power of the boiler

  • The amount of energy to be transferred between the production site and the place where the heat is used.


He already had a biomass log boiler to heat his house. As a backup, Frédéric connected his log boiler in series with his new wood chip boiler. Very practical for cold days, it is enough to light both at the same time.


In the case of Frederic's current heating system, the temperature in the greenhouse can be up to twenty degrees above the outside temperature without the use of the backup.


To estimate your power requirements and the amount of biomass fuel needed for your biomass heating project, you can use the calculation tool right here.






2. Cost of the system and its installation



Frédéric estimates that the entire installation cost $120,000 plus the chipper, which is worth about $40,000, all before grants.


He had a grant from Transition Énergétique Québec (TEQ) that offered 3 options:


  • Up to 50% coverage for residual forest biomass projects

  • An amount based on the tonne of GHGs saved

  • A minimum return on investment, depending on the scenario. He received approximately $60,000.


There is also a study component that can be subsidized to consult a qualified engineer who will propose a system that meets your needs while taking into account specific issues.

Leaving the old system in place allows you to address the power shortage on very cold nights without having to run a monster for the rest of the year. Biomass equipment running at maximum capacity is always more likely to work well and be less polluting than large equipment that runs at low capacity for most of the year.


For plumbing/electricity, the cost varies depending on the installation.


For Frederic, it was about $15,000, included in the $120,000.


For additional equipment, a regular chipper is worth between $5,000 and $12,000, while a biomass chipper is worth about $35,000 or more.







3. Installation process



It went well for Frédéric since he did not do it himself, although he is manual and resourceful. In his opinion, it is better to do it with someone who has the technical knowledge to avoid problems in the short, medium and long term.


He considers that it is a mistake to always want to do everything by oneself. So, before the installation, Frederic consulted an engineer to help him in the process and optimize the process.


In such a large and expensive project, it is not uncommon for a small design or construction error to make a big difference in the efficiency of the system and thus make the investment much less attractive.

He is fortunate to have a friend who is an engineer specializing in energy efficiency who has worked in biomass.


"An engineer will ask technical questions that you wouldn't naturally think of, will do feasibility studies of the project and will have technical knowledge or objective advice that a manufacturer couldn't necessarily provide. In short, it can help clean up options and ideas on many levels!"



4. Why biomass heating?



For Frédéric, it was for the more ecological aspect of this type of heating and the possibility of extending the season.


It was also because he had unused wood resources on his land and his neighbours' land.


5. Type of maintenance



For Frederic, there was not so much major maintenance to do for the first 3 years. No repairs have been required to date. At a minimum, annual maintenance is required, including chimney sweeping, an inspection of the combustion chamber and heat exchangers, etc.


Daily maintenance is facilitated by the fact that the boiler sends a signal by text or email in case of interruption. Among these interruptions, there can be a full ash pan, a chip stuck in a screw, bad combustion because of the poor quality of fuel, etc.


He uses the ashes as a soil amendment to waste as few resources as possible.




6. Annual cost of heating and maintenance



Frédéric uses some of the wood he harvests himself on his land and some that is given to him. He invests his time and machinery.


Therefore, we cannot say that fuel is completely free, but we can say that it is less expensive than buying fossil fuel. Since the equipment is still new, there have been no maintenance expenses yet.







7. Fuel source



Frédéric logs his wood and makes his chips with a machine.


He uses logs that have been dried by storing them in the open air, ideally for 2-3 years, and stores them in airy stacks so that they dry in the wind instead of rotting.

He also gets wood from other sources: from homebuilders who give him their "crusts," from neighbours, and even from people in the village.


"The annual amount of fuel I use varies greatly depending on the quality of the wood. We can estimate about two van loads of softwood per year to heat the greenhouse or about 16 cords of 8' total."



8. Advantages and disadvantages of the system



For Frederic, the disadvantages are certainly the high acquisition cost of the installation and secondary equipment as well as depending on a supplier of quality chips if they are not made by oneself. This kind of machine can be temperamental when it comes to fuel quality.


On the plus side, biomass energy costs very little compared to other options such as propane, allowing you to start the season sooner to take advantage of higher prices at the beginning of the season without having to incur a higher fuel bill for the peak heating season.


Dehumidification by heating in the summer is also much less expensive, which allows us to respect the agronomists' recommendations to the letter and thus hope for better yields in the greenhouse without a significant increase in production costs.


Finally, there are no real concerns in terms of operating costs and he finds this type of system much simpler than a wood log boiler.





9. Tips for new users



For Frederic, it is imperative to find quality, compliant chips to maximize the use of the boiler. It is necessary to have a supplier of quality chips or to buy/rent a machine to make them yourself.


One idea would be to buy a chipper to make chips in small gangs of several producers to split the price and share it.


Another would be to buy one and rent it to others or offer a wood chip service to other producers.

He recommends being forward-thinking in your project plans and not getting into them if you are not manual. It requires more attention than, say, electric heating.


When he was looking for equipment, two manufacturers and retailers with expertise in greenhouse heating made serious proposals: Hargassner, the Austrian company he ended up with for his boiler, and Heizomat.


He also found Saatotuli and Portage & Main, a Canadian manufacturer of wood chip and log boilers, as options. He suggests doing your research to help you find the right choice for your needs.

 

Simply put, Frederic suggests that you keep the following things in mind when planning your biomass heating project: