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Alternative Heating Solutions – Is it time you got Wood?

Wednesday, 3rd August 2011 | by: Peter Barry

When thinking of heating and hot water in a domestic situation, generally speaking two options tend to spring to mind, electric and gas. However, despite not being familiar to most consumers there are alternatives on the market. These alternatives not only offer value for money, but in many cases can actually be beneficial to the environment, can reduce your home’s carbon footprint and can even save you money in the long run.

One of these ‘alternative’ methods to heating your home is a wood fuelled heating system. What is interesting is this is a variation of the earliest form of heating, which was essentially burning wood to heat the home. However, the modern form doesn’t use logs, but instead uses refined wooden pellets or chips. The benefit of this form of heating is that the fuel itself is essentially a by-product of the timber industry; by adapting a waste product a fuel is provided that will heat the home and is a fully sustainable and recyclable solution.

The pellets themselves are created through the collection of the sawdust which is compressed and processed, thereby giving it a solid form. During this process the sawdust is heated which causes it to naturally release lignin, this substance acts to bind the particles together, and give the pellets their solid form.  The pellets can then be directly fed into the Wood burning system providing the user with an economical form of heating.

When we analyse this type of heating system, the sustainable credentials are huge. The wooden pellets are totally carbon neutral, CO2 is absorbed from the atmosphere by trees and plants, therefore when the trees are logged and the sawdust is collected and re-used via the heating system, the same amount of CO2 is then released back into the atmosphere, therefore one offsets the other, making it Carbon neutral.

On average one tonne of wood pellets or chips will replace over 400 litres of conventional fuel, thereby creating a saving in the region of 1072 kg of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

In order to burn the pellets or chips the consumer must purchase a specialist wood fuelled heater, now these don’t come cheap and on average cost in the range of £600 for a mid price option. A conventional heating system could be modified to use the chips or pellets, however this is generally not advised as the conventional heaters weren’t designed or built for that purpose.

Wood fuelled boilers are very much similar to conventional boilers in their appearance, build and size, however, rather than using electricity or gas to power the heating, they obviously use wooden pellets or chips as their fuel. The design of the boilers means that they can be installed very much in the same way as a conventional boiler, and will include all of the conventional ‘mod-cons’ of a gas/electricity boiler, a timer can be set, the parts are easy to replace and source and finally servicing can be completed by anyone with a good knowledge of boiler systems, it is not just fixed to those that have an understanding of the product.

The disadvantages of the system is that when the boiler burns the chips or pellets, the by product is ash. It can be a messy task removing the ash from the boiler; however most companies that sell the pellets or chips will generally dispose of the collected ash therefore in many cases there aren’t any removal costs involved.

The pellets or chips themselves will cost in the region of £200 per tonne, they will burn at a slightly faster rate than conventional wood logs, however through the installation of a modern wood pellet burning stove there will be a maximum likelihood of increasing their ‘burn time’.

Estimates for the yearly amount of fuel are generally 1.5 tonnes per annum, giving a total fuel cost of £350 per annum. The fuel can also be ordered in small amounts so the consumer doesn’t have to store bulk products at their home.

Wood burning heating systems are an excellent option for those that wish to replace their boiler, or install a new one; the benefits far outweigh that of a conventional gas boiler, when comparing them on a sustainable level. However for those that want to switch to a money saving option, it’s likely the high capital costs of the boiler itself could be an issue.

In terms of practicality, the only real constraint would be the storage of the fuel and the removal of the ash, however most suppliers will set up a by weekly or monthly delivery, limiting the mass build up.

As with any fuel reliant ‘non mains’ system there may be a worry that customers may find themselves without chips or pellets and therefore stuck with no form of heating, my answer to this would be that through an effective and well managed demand and supply order system, this could easily be avoided.

Although I haven’t seen a wood fuelled boiler or heating system in one of the properties that we have undertaken a survey on, with the Government’s aim to reduce carbon emission by 80% by 2050, I imagine it will only be a matter of time before these ‘non-conventional’ solutions soon become conventional.