Biomass Heating

Biomass heating is very much a buzz-word of our times.  I've done a lot of research into Biomass, and wanted to know how it all works.  Biomass is all about using natural, renewable fuels like wood and straw to create heat. To do this you need a boiler that can burn them, and a source of biomass material like logs, pellets or chip.   We've had a lot of enquiries from clients working with their houses and looking at how they can become self sufficient, or lower their heating and hot water costs. Ultimately it comes down to heat sources - biomass is one of them. Other heat sources we've frequently considered are ground source and air source - both these use heat pumps that work a bit like a fridge in reverse - extracting excess heat from the air or from water in the ground. Heat pumps are fine, if you don't need a lot of heat, instantly. They are brilliant for underfloor heating, low temperature, constant heat that is ideal for old houses. There is still a lot of argument as to which is best, but I think ground source is winning the argument. 

Biomass works for me.  I've got a typical old house, with acres of floors, and I'm not digging them up and putting heat coils into them. It would cost a fortune. As would the heat pumps. And it would destroy historic building fabric into the bargain. There are two main biomass sources - logs, or pellets.  I dont like pellets for two reasons:  One, you need a massive storage space - and it needs to be dry. Damp pellets dont burn well - so you need a large agricultural shed to put them in.  Secondly, they are supposed to be carbon neutral - really?  Most are imported.  They come from Canadian forests, trees are felled and chipped, dried, pelleted, and shipped to a port.  All of this takes gas guzzling machinery which is never counted in the true carbon cost. Then its put on a ship - which is a huge gas guzzler and carbon cost - and taken to a UK port, where it is offloaded, dried, and shipped to where its going to be sotred and burned.  More gas guzzling cost that is never taken into account. Essentially we are told that it is OK to fell a forest in Canada, chip it, ship the lot to the UK in a vast container ship, then rail or road transport it within the UK, and that process is carbon neutral.  We all know that's total rubbish. 

So what is the system, and how does it work? Mine is a big boiler, fired by logs, which heats up a dirty great storage tank of hot water. The boiler is Austrian - it's computer controlled. It's modern - and VERY efficient. On a cold day, 2 wheelbarrow loads of logs will run the central heating to heat 15 rooms and all the domestic hot water you need.  The biomass boiler runs off logs - we have woodland near the house, and manage it for firewood. This has two advantages for us - outdoor time, we get fit, we get active cutting logs. We also get to be involved in a conservation and re-wilding project where we gradually turn modern, dark pine forest into more open cover traditional managed broadleaf woodland, with the inevitable wildlife benefits. The sections of this category are set out almost as a blog - you can follow progress of the woodland, and learn how we approach the firewood production process. It looks simple - and it is - BUT - there is a huge learning curve. We've adopted the Scandinavian way of handling wood - from felling it, to stacking, splitting and storing it until ready for burning.  You don't need woodland - it is possible to grow fuel if you have a few acres. The rule here is that 4 or 5 acres will grow enough willow to fuel a decent sized house. We have willow on our property, which is used to grow 'whips' that are used in the woodland - and to create more willow trees on the property. We'll do a section on this so you can see how they grow - a 5 or 6 year rotation seems to be the norm - and once you have enough trees growing, it certainly seems to start looking like a very sustainable thing to do. 

There ARE grants for the biomass heating systems - mine is eligible for the RHI, and we probably won't get all of the cost back, but we will certainly get some money back, that helps to make it worthwhile doing. I'll break down some of the finances on a separate blog page here, so you can get a feel for the savings. After taking into consideration the capital cost, less RHI payments, you then need to look at what it used to cost to heat the place - that's now zero, so a significant advantage. There's still a labour cost of course, to cut wood, stack and split - but I put a positive health spin on this. 

The ETA SH biomass log boiler
The Woodland - managing the log source
Growing willow for biomass at home
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