Looking To Save Money, More Companies, Towns Turn To New Boilers That Heat With Wood

Nov 11, 2013

A 1950's era boiler that used heating oil at The White Mountain School was replaced by three self-feeding pellet boilers. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR

Around the state more institutions, towns and businesses are turning away from oil in favor of heating with wood, viewing it as a renewable resource that helps the region’s economy, lowers the carbon footprint and apparently saves money.

There’s a good example in the basement of the main building at The White Mountain School in Bethlehem.

The old is a huge, black, gray and rust-fringed H.B. Smith boiler that once feasted on heating oil.

A few feet away are three modern-looking, green and white pellet boilers.

Like other computer-controlled pellet boilers they burn small pieces of compressed wood automatically taken from huge storage bins.

It once cost about $72,000 a year to heat the building with oil, says Karen Foss the school’s director of finance.

Now the school uses 150 tons of pellets a year and they are much cheaper.

“So, there’s a savings of $40,000,” said Foss.

Grafton County figures its new boiler, which burns chips, will save it about $200,000 a year. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPT

There was a hefty, up-front cost. The total for the three pellet boilers was $128,000.

But Foss figures they will be paid for in a little more than three years.

Around the state, at least three dozen institutions or businesses are now relying on pellet boilers for heat, says Rick DeMark, the executive director of the North Country Resource Conservation and Development Council.

“In the last few years there has been a major expansion, especially in the pellet area,” he said.

The council is encouraging more growth. It has set up a wood energy support team.

The goal is to reduce the region’s dependence on heating oil by explaining the advantages of new, sophisticated  boilers using biomass.

Biomass relies on organic matter - usually that means wood - to generate energy.  And that can be heat or electricity.

Typically wood pellets are used for smaller operations and chips for much bigger jobs.

For example in late September Grafton County began using wood chips to heat its nursing home, court house and administration building.

At first the idea of heating with wood was worrisome, said Jim Oakes, the maintenance superintendent for the county complex.

“All I could imagine was slaving away, loading logs. Kind of like stepping back to the 1800’s,” he said.

But then he visited some places already using modern, biomass boilers.

“It just opened my eyes. These plants are pretty much automated. There really isn’t too much to keeping them going,” he said.

Wood chips are automatically fed into the new boiler being used by Grafton County. Photo by Chris Jensen

The  $2.7 million boiler is expected to use about $93,000 in chips this year, Oakes said.

That would be a savings of about $200,000 a year.

Other institutions are making similar moves.

Next February the Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin expects to start heating with wood chips, said spokesman James Patry.

The $2.8 million conversion is expected to cut the heating bill by 70 percent, saving $350,000 a year.

That means the hospital will have paid for the conversion in eight years.

Some small businesses are also benefiting

In Littleton, Franco Rossi sits in a conference room at his business, CAI Technologies, which specializes in precision mapping.

About a year ago he switched from heating oil to pellets.

He says he was paying $9,000 to $10,000 a year for oil.

“And, now with pellets I am paying $2,000 to $3,000,” he said.

Franco got help in a grant from the state’s Public Utilities Commission, which offers financial help to businesses, institutions and homeowners.

For example last year the Claremont Fire Department got a $52,000 grant to buy a wood pellet boiler. That covered 80-percent of the cost.

There are also residential versions of those automated pellet boilers available.

Ballpark, a pellet boiler for a 3,000-square foot home would range from $15,000 to $22,000. But the PUC can take some of the bite out of that.

“For homeowners there is a rebate program for whole house, wood pellet heating systems that is offered by the Public Utilities Commission and it provides a rebate of up to $6,000 per system,” said Jack Ruderman, who heads up the Public Utilities Commission’s Sustainable Energy section.

In addition to saving money there are other attractions, says Marghie Seymour, a member of the select board in Littleton, which now has pellet boilers providing heat for the fire department and town garage.

“For me one of the primary concerns was I don’t like the town being dependent on foreign oil," she said. “We’re surrounded by woods here and it just seems crazy not to be using what we have right back in our yards as a renewable resource.”

But for some the move towards wood heating raises environmental questions. 

One is the extent of the reduction in the carbon footprint, a matter still under consideration.

The other is the impact on the forests.

But Sarah Smith, a forest industry specialist the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension says her research shows the state has plenty of wood for heat.

That’s because the pellets and chips usually come from leftover parts of trees only cut for other uses. It is not profitable to cut trees solely for chips or pellets, Smith says.

Meanwhile with the winter coming, the companies and institutions that have invested in biomass heating will be checking the bills, hoping the high costs to convert will  prove to be a sound business investment.


Grafton County's new boiler is two stories high and heats the nursing home, court house and administration building. Photo by Chris Jensen

NOTE: The growing interest in biomass heating has prompted a free workshop Wednesday the 13th. The Ammonoosuc Heat Workshop will be held at starting at 1 p.m. at The White Mountain School in Bethlehem