Life Renewable Energy

This may sound a little corny…

Ah summertime. What a great time of year. There are tons of things to do, but none match the splendor and diversity of a county fair…especially in middle of nowhere Ohio. Between eating pizza subs, watching horses pull stuff and admiring the great bounty of mullets that only rural areas could give us (“Strong crop of mullets on the back 40 this year, Pa!”), I found something genuinely interesting.

In a cramped show trailer, I happened upon a nice older gentleman whom I’ll call Hank (cotton candy causes memory loss). He was selling a range of products from, which is a distributor for a range of pellet stoves. Neither the website nor the product is particularly flashy; basically there is a thermostat that controls a hopper, which can hold wood pellets, or sometimes grain. When it gets below the set temperature, the thermostat kicks on and releases a few of the tiny pellets into the already raging, but compact fire (500°F and up in those tiny piles). This method allows for only using the amount of energy needed and not much more. Depending on whether the system is a boiler or a furnace, the pile of burning pellets then heats liquid or air respectively and then goes through a heat exchanger. I immediately asked Hank if my house would smell like popcorn, but he calmly explained that the heat exchanger would not usually allow that. He was nice enough to humor me though, and told me that it might smell like popcorn outside my house. He also told me that a retrofit system for an existing 1500 sq. ft. house would cost about $5000 or so. It would tie into an existing furnace’s ducts and then kick on instead of the regular furnace (with the option to use the original furnace). I though this was a pretty interesting idea.

So why now? Well, energy prices don’t really seem to be going back down anytime soon (even if oil prices are falling temporarily). And while corn prices seem high at the moment, you can always plant more corn next year…you can’t make more oil. Also, I tend to think that farmers are over planting corn this year because of the high prices. Who wouldn’t want to get close to double what they were getting a few years ago? If corn AND oil are both high, these systems have the benefit of being versatile; they can use any range of bio-fuels, from wheat to rye to recycled paper pellets. The most commonly found feul is compressed wood pellets, which are made from sawdust at mills and elsewhere. All will have varying energy densities (which will change how much heat an individual pellet will output), but the pricing will often make up for the differences. Hank also told me that with a boiler, the cost would be about 60% less to heat a home (because heating oil will be higher this winter than natural gas). It would be about 40% cheaper with a furnace. Disclaimer: These facts are all from Hank, the salesman. Actual results may vary, but he seemed pretty genuine.

So why this solution as opposed to something else? It’s simple, stupid. Really simple, so much so that these systems have been around for a while (think wood burning stoves, but with pellets). But now there is a renewed focus on this solution. Sure there are geothermal house heating solutions and communities with steam pipes going to houses and solar thermal towers and on and on. For most people though, those things are not an option for an existing house in an existing neighborhood. Sometimes there aren’t any other resources that can be harvested naturally (wind, sun, heat from the earth, etc), so people have to buy fuel. It’s a reality we’ll all have to face. There are downsides, as in any issue: you have to clean the system weekly, it’s not carbon neutral, it’s dependent on prices of fuel sources, it burns food that could feed some people (not feed corn, but some of the other types of things). I’m not saying you should go out an buy one, that’s Hank’s job to convince you. But it’s another way to reduce dependence on foreign oil and maybe help some local farmers too.

By Chris Gammell

Chris Gammell is an engineer who talks more than most other engineers. He also writes, makes videos and a couple podcasts. While analog electronics happen to be his primary interests, he also dablles in FPGAs and system level design.

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