May 24, 2018
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Weigh cost, cleaning for heating systems

By Tom Gocze, BDN Staff

It is inconceivable to think that winter is coming again, but the reality is that after the summer equinox, the days are getting shorter and we are heading down that slippery slope to winter.

The good news is that autumn is also coming and we get to revel in all its glory without, I hope, too many tourists.

The other thing that alerts me to autumn coming is that my business phone starts ringing. For years, it was people looking for foam insulation. Since I am no longer doing that, but rather working on heat storage systems for solar and wood heating, the calls come in for that aspect of keeping warm. This week has been extraordinary in that the calls have been coming in fast and furious while my head is still in summer, such as it has been.

Since I have been talking about heating all week, it seemed reasonable to write about it, too.

A great number of us are changing from oil and gas heating to wood heat. I spoke with someone yesterday who is dealing with a company in Vermont that is manufacturing a retrofit wood pellet burner for oil devices. These burners have been available in Europe for a while but have not yet made too much of an impact here.

There are some limitations when converting an existing boiler to use a pellet burner. First on my page would be whether the old boiler is going to be compatible with a pellet burner. I expect that not all boilers will fit the particular dimensions of a pellet burner.

A bigger concern would be for easy cleaning. Pellets do burn cleanly, but they also yield some fly ash, which can coat the heat exchanger surfaces. This ash coating can hinder the heat transfer from the fire to the water jacket that is being heated. This probably means more frequent cleaning of the boiler than one would require when using oil or gas.

Gas devices can go for quite a while without cleaning the heat exchanger. Oil systems require at least an annual cleaning. And I would have to guess that a boiler retrofitted with a pellet burner would require cleaning at least once a month during the heating season.

This pellet burner would cost about $6,000 installed.

Given that kind of cost and given the limitations, I think $6,000 could buy me a really sweet, overly expensive, pellet stove or two, and a couple of years’ worth of pellets.

As much as a pellet stove can work well for many homes, there are reasons to consider central pellet heating systems that are built for this purpose.

A pellet boiler built from the ground up should be designed to deal with the peculiar needs of wood pellet fuel. I am referring to the ash that might coat the heat exchanger. Some boilers can be self-cleaning, while some others are designed to minimize ash buildup. As a consumer, you need to find out how frequently a pellet central heating system might need to be cleaned. You also need to ask yourself if this is a lifestyle that you want to deal with.

You can buy your way out of this issue with a higher-end pellet heating system that might require only annual cleaning, but you will pay for that convenience.

Last year, with the heating cost scare, a fair number of central pellet heating systems were installed. There were a lot of learning curve issues that required tweaking and patience. This is true with any new technology. Although the technology was imported from Europe, where it has been around for a while, it is new here and those people who installed them were “pioneers.”

The pioneers get to be the first one on the block with a new technology, but they also get to struggle with the annoying (but, I hope, small) problems that the inexperienced technicians have to sort through.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at


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