23 November 2012

Benefits & Challenges of Heating with Wood Pellets vs. Wood

It's quite a treat to be living in this remote location, with the chance to experience remote living in a unique way ... I am also learning heaps about the differences between heating your home with wood pellets and heating your home with firewood.

Bannockland - Wood stove scenario #1
Back in Ft. Simpson (~60 km up Hwy. #1), Pam & I are living in an 800 square foot home (no basement) where we have a small wood stove to heat the house.  

So far this Winter, our little wood stove has been able to keep the house quite comfortable through the night & into the morning, eventhough it burns down to ashes by morning time.  Ironically, it actually keeps us too warm during the times after we get it burning strong, but that gives us the opportunity to shed a layer & even walk about with short sleeves & shorts on various occasions :)  We've perhaps only had to burn one load of wood so far which cost $160 and some propane would have been used to operate the "in-floor" heating but it is difficult to separate that out from the other hot water heating for showers, dishes, and warm water for some laundry and the operation of the propane-powered stove.

Antoine Drive - Wood stove scenario #2

Conversely, the house we were renting last Winter had a much larger wood stove located in the full basement and there was a second story.  One might have thought that such a large wood stove would have meant a warm house but location of the wood stove and the design of the house had major impacts on the warmth of the house from this wood heating system.  

All in all, the work involved in maintaining that wood stove was quite significant and the effort you put in was NOT directly experienced since the main living space, did not readily receive the heat generated by the wood stove.  Heat did not disperse to the rest of the house very effectively from the basement even with the help of the ventilation system kicking in every now & then to move air through the house.  

Unfortunately, that air movement then relied upon the diesel fuel-fired furnace, so the benefits that some folks realize by using their wood stoves to offset  fuel use/cost were not as fully experienced with the set-up at this larger house last year.  The cost of relying upon the furnace to maintain the house temperature at 16 degrees Celsius while operating the wood stove as continuously as possible (feeding the stove morning, NOON, after work, & before bed) still worked out to be ~$320 every 2 weeks + $140 every 2 weeks for firewood delivered by a local fellow, for a total of ~$920/month just to heat the house.

Check Point - Wood pellet stove & boiler scenario
The operations here at Check Point are on a larger scale than for a single home and the daily chores are a little more involved than if you were maintaining a single wood stove heating system.  Since there are a few buildings combined as one complete building, the heating system is larger and more complex.  In addition to the main wood pellet stove in the commercial accommodations area (plus a couple of fans moving the hot air through the space) & the wood pellet boiler out back that provides heat to the main building, there are also propane powered furnaces that need to be maintained so that they are available as needed, when the rooms are more fully occupied and the temperature outside requires the additional heat that these furnaces can provide.

Ultimately, since the building arrangement that Wayne & Lynn are operating with here at Check Point was in place when they bought it, they are working with the structures that were here. They have been modifying or replacing the inner workings of the buildings as they've determined what the useful improvements could be to reduce operating costs and decrease the amount of energy required to heat the buildings here.  All of the improvements they have made here are due in no small part to Wayne's
keen-ness & aptitude for electrical/mechanical systems, & his ability to creatively work with old systems to retro-fit them in innovative ways so that they can operate more efficiently using newer technologies.

Teresa's Comparison of Wood Stoves & Wood Pellet Stoves 
There are a number of similarities when dealing with both wood & wood pellet stove heating systems.  As with any heating system, you need a reliable source of energy/fuel and in the case of both firewood and wood pellets, both require a significant amount of physical handling.  Wood pellets seem to offer a somewhat cleaner experience given the packaging of pellets in sturdy bags.  Although, these bags are made of plastic and if not reused, become a petroleum-based waste product that accumulates quickly even over the space of a month.  Ultimately though, a wood stove system is more forgiving, since you don't have micro-computer monitoring systems beeping ERROR messages at you if pellet hopper doors are left open too long, or you run out of pellets in the hopper.  

The thermostat control settings on wood pellet stoves offer a level of convenience that is handy but that does come with the "trade-off" of the need for familiarity with high tech. control systems and the ability to handle 40 lb bags or 20 litre pails.  Whereas, wood stove operations involve more basic & forgiving maintenance systems (although too often overlooked & disregarded by some folks).  The handling of firewood in smaller individual pieces of firewood along with the regular chopping & gathering of your firewood supply are two key differences between wood & wood pellets.  

Most importantly, the reliance on a third party for the production & delivery of wood pellets is another consideration when comparing these two wood heating options.  In addition, electricity is critical in order to start a wood pellet stove and to maintain the functions of the micro-computer controls, whereas, a wood stove requires a regularly cleaned chimney with ashes removed frequently from the stove, plus kindling that is properly laid out with stove dampers opened to allow important air flow up the chimney/flue to occur so that the fire can be successfully lit. 

The main activity here at Check Point is the daily "topping up" of wood pellets in the two wood pellet heating systems ... when Pam & I went out this afternoon to do this, we had to carefully fill up six, 5 gallon (20 litre) pails so that the light snow falling overhead did not get into the wood pellet supply, the pail, or the wood pellet hopper that feed into the larger pellet boiler system.  Of course, the research/purchase/delivery of the large supply of wood pellets was taken care of well in advance of this Winter heating season and that required a great deal of planning & cash to cover the bulk purchase of the season's supply of wood pellets from a sawmill operation in northern Alberta.

For more information about wood pellets & the stoves you can burn them in plus wood stoves, feel free to check out the AEA's "Heating & Cooling Tips" website at: http://aea.nt.ca/saving-energy/heating-and-cooling#pellet_stoves  

AEA has also created a little brochure about wood pellet heating, I'll add the link when I relocate the item, in the meantime, AEA also did a "Wood Pellet - Community Study"  in 2009, click on the title to go to the pdf of this study. 

For anyone who relies upon a wood stove to heat your home, you may find the following resources to be quite helpful ...

The folks with CMHC have created an excellent "Guide to Residential Wood Heating" to share important safety and efficient wood burning practices with homeowners.  You can find this booklet through the bolded link I've attached to the title & through the following site:  http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/co/maho/enefcosa/upload/wood_heating_EN_W.pdf 

There's also a great summary  of these wood heating tips, titled "Efficient Wood Heating," by clicking on the title that I've typed in this sentence.

That's all for today, time for me to go sit near the wood pellet stove while we watch a movie ...


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