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Biomass Pellet Stoves

»Friday, November 13,2009

Like most things within Sky Flair it started off as an ‘I was just thinking about’ conversation.

You have no idea just how much that sentence can put you off your tuna and mayo sandwich. ‘What do you know about bio-mass?’ asked Andy. Well not a lot really we are not Catholic I replied.

Will you be serious, bio-mass it is something we need to think about. Why do we need to know? What is bio-mass anyway some sort of energy? Well that is what you are going to find out, lets face it you are good at research. Oh Andy, what a Pandora’s Box to open.

The technical and dictionary description of bio-mass is “a biological material derived from living or recently living organisms”. But Susan, that means oil, coal and gas are bio-mass then. No, its all in the fine print – it states ‘recently living’, several million years old is certainly not recent. OK well what is classed as ‘recently living’ then? The obvious one is wood, whether as dried logs or as wood pellets but also includes things such as alcohol fuels, animal waste and plants grown specifically for fuel such as miscanthus, switchgrass or hemp.

So are we going to look at this and which is right for our customers? Umm….well Susan it is like this…I’m one step ahead of you. How do you fancy a sexy red hot Italian as your Christmas present, I will even have a bow put on it.

Well that is an offer that even I couldn’t turn down however the disappointment was short lived when rather than a hunk of an Italian man I had imagined I received a hunk of Italian engineering in the form of a beautiful pellet stove. The new pellet stove was unloaded from the van, it’s a big beast with a back boiler for heating water as well as the room. It seems Andy really was one step ahead of me and had found Cola, the Italian maker of contemporary and sexy looking, well engineered stoves.

Well getting it into the house was a challenge. You see the pallet the stove arrived on was wider than the door frame so now to work out how to get the stove through a new front door that I insist stays scratch free. The stove itself is 677mm x 677mm and due to the large amounts of cast iron in its construction (door, combustion chamber, brazier and boiler) it weighs in at 245kg so a quick lift through the door is out of the question. So we have to man handle the biggest and most powerful (26kW) boiler stove Cola make carefully through the door opening. We also have a new staircase and that cant be damaged either, sometimes principles get in the way when trying things out in your own home but if we can do it here then our customers are certain we can also do it in their homes as well.

In it comes down the hall, there are wheels on the bottom of the stove so manoeuvring it on a flat surface is quite easy, and into the back room. It slides into position and is secured in place. It looks grand, a proper looking piece of kit and is now the focal point of the room.

Now on to challenge number two – the flue. Pellet stoves need one and the back room is missing one so a suitable flue is purchased and installed. This is a job for the professionals and an additional cost but it is required to ensure that no fumes are capable of leaking into the building. Finally the boiler is connected up to the hot water tank and the system filled so we are nearly ready for the big switch on. The modern pellet stoves are not only very efficient (between 80% and 95% depending on model) but all singing and dancing with automatic start/stop, 7 day timers, automatic brazier cleaning for reduced maintenance, room thermostats, remote control and even control functions via mobile phone!

It even impressed my mum who remembers the old wood burning stoves, the ones that take an age to start, are a nightmare to clean…not it is one press of the button, stand back and job done. The thing that impressed the ‘unimpressible one’ was that it was quick and clean.

That just leaves challenge 3 – the pellets. What kind and where from…you see not all pellets are equal. Yes they are all carbon neutral in that they only give out as much CO2 when burnt as they took in when living however the source is very important. We believe that it also has to be sustainable and local. You can get perfectly acceptable pellets from Brazil and India however when you realize it is a product of deforestation which is not being replanted and then add in the cost (both economic and emissions) of transporting it to the UK you can see that it is not a sustainable source. All is not lost though as we found Bowland Bioenergy in the Forest of Bowland so we had a field trip ‘up North’ to pick up a tonne of pellets. It came as a surprise that a tonne of pellets is such a large mass – it is about 1.5m3. Luckily the pellets were pre bagged in 15kg bags so we could load them into the van easily. The upside is that if you have the space a tonne lasts an age, dependent upon the size of the stove and usage patterns.

So back home the first bag of pellets was loaded into the integral hopper and the start button pressed and we stood back. The stove fan starts, sucking air into the combustion chamber, the heating element is activated and pellets are fed into the brazier. All three requirements for fire are now present (oxygen, heat & fuel) and soon there is a trace of smoke quickly followed by a burst of flame. The stoves electronics now turns off the heating element and starts to monitor and adjust the amount of air and/or pellets in the combustion chamber to provide an efficient and complete burning of the pellets. Very little ash is produced and there is no discernable smoke coming out of the flue confirming the efficiency of these stoves.

At the end of the firing (either the room or water is up to temperature or the stove is turned off manually) no more pellets are fed into the combustion chamber and the rest of the pellets are allowed to burn out. The fan is left running for a time to allow the brazier to clean itself (the ash is blown out into an ash tray) ready for the next start-up. Even the ash can be used, just add it to your compost heap or just sprinkle it over your borders for a free soil conditioning.

So there we have it our hot water system is now complete with solar panels to provide virtually all our hot water from Easter to October with the pellet stove for backup and for the winter months use the pellet stove as the main source supplemented by the solar when available. Perfect.

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