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Industry Enhancing Image Through Various Efforts

HPBA, manufacturers promoting cleaner-burning qualities of biomass options for home heating.

By Michael Griffin
AER

The 2006-07 selling and heating season was viewed with great expectations by stove and fuel manufacturers and dealers, and early figures looked robust and promising for this year to continue the rise in interest and use of wood-, pellet- and corn-burning appliances.

While some outside factors have emerged to slow this year’s numbers -- with mild weather thus far in various regions and the leveling off of oil prices causing a bit of a drop in expected overall sales – many in the industry remain confident with the positive outlook and direction of biomass heating as a more preferred source by homeowners these days.

To build on that growth for the future, dealers, manufacturers and members of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) have focused recent efforts on addressing environmental concerns that may linger among the buying public. Touting technological developments that have made products safer, cleaner and more efficient, while working with various entities to establish codes and standards for various burners and fuels, HPBA and the industry are realizing the benefits of being a domestic, renewable alternative at a time when consumers are looking for home-grown sources.

Nowhere is that boost more evident than in the corn and pellet segments, which have each begun to flourish in recent years as cheaper, clean and more reliable options for home heating. The newest model pellet stoves were hot sellers in 2006, as the HPBA and its Pellet Fuels Institute (PFI) advised owners to stock up early on enough pellet fuel to last the season, expecting a surge in overall demand.

Stove and pellet fuel manufacturers boosted production to meet demand, with potentially more production facilities scheduled to come on line throughout the next year. “When people learn that pellet fuel is more cost effective and has a history of price stability, they are immediately interested. We keep hearing that people are tired of the home heating roller coaster,” says PFI President Bruce Lisle.

Dealers report that many of their customers took advantage of lower fuel prices in the summer and reserved fuel for the entire season. Speaking on her company’s strong start, Rona Kelley of Tri-County Hearth & Patio Center in Waldorf, Maryland estimated that “we sold more pellet fuel this past summer than ever before,” Kelley said. “Our customers really listened to us when we told them to buy early.”

Some dealers also point to the improvements in aesthetics and performance from stove manufacturers as a factor in driving demand for pellet heat. Mel Monk of Custom Hearth in Port Orchard, Wash., has been impressed with “the number of stove manufacturers looking to design new burner systems to handle higher-ash biomass coming on line.”

He is also seeing more and more customers who are interested in biomass options due to economic concerns. “Even upper-income level people are taking note of the higher propane prices here, with some turning to wood and pellet burning for heating purposes.”

Manufacturers unveiled or re-introduced wood and pellet models, with Lennox offering its EPA-approved Montecito wood-burning fireplace line that exceeds government regulations for emissions, and Jotul bringing back its CB Black Bear wood stove with modern solid fuel combustion technology as well as its new Crossflow non-catalytic secondary combustion system. Lopi continued the trend toward cleaner-burning, more efficient models with its Leyden pellet and wood stove lines, offering even higher heating efficiency than previous models and offering longer burn times with less refueling.

Dealers and manufacturers have built on the growing interest in corn burners, as well, as indicated by the number of makers introducing corn models this past year. For example, Energy King has expanded by offering its Bio-King corn and wood pellet furnaces, while LDJ Manufacturing introduced a new option for its biomass heating line, the A-maize-ing Heat units, and a Hopper Topper screen and extension for the 14-bushel hopper that feeds the biomass furnace or boiler.

Advancements related to corn burning have also come on the fuel end, with availability increasing and new blends being developed. Cabin Fever Bio-Blends is one company that has begun production on a blended fuel for burning and home heating.

“Many bio-fuel stoves require fuels that are dried, cleaned and filtered to optimize their performance,” says Ed Woods, a principal partner of the company. “With our 12% moisture content corn and API hardwood pellet products, these blended fuel products meet manufacturer specifications for moisture content and cleanliness. Our fuels are designed to be used in all known corn, pellet and multi-fuel stoves.”

“Users find that the wood pellets blended with the dry, filtered corn make the stove easier to start up, and that there is notably less clinker build up and ash than burning corn alone.”

Brian Herzfeld of manufacturer American Energy Systems (AES) believes that these new bio-blends and switchgrass fuels, along with wood pellets made from different types of raw materials, will be coming on the market in the next couple of years, which could lower fuel prices and make pelletized fuel more available.

“Some of these fuels will have lower BTUs per pound and higher ash contents, but can be burned in many, but not all, multi-fuel stoves on the market,” says Herzfeld. “More pellet fuel manufacturers are coming on line and many are expanding the capacity of their plants.”

Despite the price of corn going up in October and November and traditional fuel prices going down slightly late in the summer, “burning with corn can still save homeowners a lot of money on their heating bills,” states Herzfeld. “They can still save over $1,000 per year over other types of heating and have a new heating system that burns renewable fuels (especially if you are a farmer raising your own corn for fuel).”

He estimates that “we do not have the extremely high demand for corn/biomass burning stoves as seen in the fall of 2005, but the industry needs to get the message out to homeowners and the media about the advantages of stoves that burn corn, wheat, barley, wood pellets and a variety of biomass -and the savings for homeowners on their heat bill,” adds Herzfeld, who notes that the demand for corn-burning furnaces and inserts as built-in fireplaces in AES’ Magnum line continued to grow in 2006 along with the demand for stoves.

The Hutchinson, Minn., manufacturer expects a growing demand to produce stoves with more automatic features for consumers, and for them to burn corn better and be able to burn a wide range of fuels. There is new technology emerging and existing technology that can be put into these products, as evidenced by AES’ plans to launch several new products to add to its Magnum line in 2007.

“Corn/biomass burning products should have the proper design to burn corn and not be converted wood pellet-burning products that do not burn corn with optimum performance,” states Herzfeld. “It is best for homeowners and dealers to have products that have been in the field at least two years or with proven cornburning technology. Corn and many other fuels are harder to ignite and burn than wood pellets and the right technology is needed for proper performance.”

Industry experts predict farmers in the United States will grow close to 12 billion bushels of corn in 2007 to meet the demand for corn and ethanol - which is about 1.5 billion bushels more than in 2005. Expecting to see more farmers taking corn out of storage to put it on the market, Herzfeld says “we will export less corn in order to meet domestic needs, and other factors will come into play to meet the demand for corn long term and keep prices down, hopefully by the fall of 2007."

Tying into that growth in interest, industry groups as well as several universities are researching corn and pellet burning to determine how clean these alternatives are. PFI and HPBA are funding a project to look at the true clean burning capability of pellet stoves. This project will look into how clean the emissions are when the heavy particulate (which typically falls to the ground anyway) is removed from the sampling train.

HPBA and its Bio-mass Manufacturers Caucus, chaired by AES’ Mike Haefner, will also facilitate the investigation of corn stove emissions, funding a report based on third party test data which addresses the basic assumption within the industry that corn burning stoves are at least as clean as pellet stoves.

“There are low levels of trace minerals in the emissions from burning corn kernels that come from minerals being absorbed from the soil via the roots of the corn stalks. The emissions of particulates and trace minerals appear to be low, but more research and data is needed in the event the government attempts to regulate corn burning stoves in the future,” says Herzfeld.

Wood Burning Focus

With wood heat in demand, the HPBA is involved in a number of efforts to promote clean and responsible woodburning and the use of more efficient and certified heaters. Working with the EPA and other agencies, the industry association and its members have again started up its “Woodstove Changeout” program, aimed at replacing older models with more modern units that meet updated emissions standards and provide economical advantages for users.

The wood stove changeout campaign is a voluntary program initiated at the local or regional level that provides eligible communities with a mechanism to reduce air pollution caused by wood smoke. Residents of participating communities often receive incentives such as rebates, low- or no-interest loans and discounts to replace their old, conventional wood stoves and fireplace inserts with cleaner-burning, more efficient EPA-certified gas, pellet, electric or wood stoves and fireplaces. Households that participate in changeouts must surrender their old wood stoves to be recycled.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of cleaner-burning, more energy-efficient hearth products that emit significantly lower levels of particulate matter. To help differentiate these newer, more environmentally-friendly appliances from older ones, EPA has initiated a program to certify freestanding stoves, fireplace inserts and built-in fireplaces that meet stringent air quality and energy efficiency requirements.

Resources from a model program typically include a combination of government funding and incentives (i.e. rebates or discounts) from manufacturers and retailers. In some cases, participating communities develop supporting regulatory mandates designed to maximize the number of households and businesses that get involved.

Among the woodstove changeout efforts in 2006 were successful events in Dayton, Ohio and Libby, Montana. Dayton, Ohio’s changeout kicked off last July with the local air agency offering vouchers worth $300 to $400 towards the purchase of clean-burning wood, pellet, corn, or gas stoves to replace old, uncertified wood stoves.

The Libby (Lincoln County, Mont.) changeout program has shifted into high gear before a January 1 deadline that would make it illegal to use anything but EPA-certified wood stoves in homes in the region.

Over 500 new units have been installed in the last year and new appliances are going in
now at the rate of nearly 100 a month, according to HPBA figures.

EPA accepted applications for grants worth over $100,000 each for similar changeout programs for 2007, and a major state-wide program in California is set to kick off in February. Organized by Steve Pulone and Pat Rosengren of the Pacific affiliate along with HPBA’s John Crouch, the program has $500,000 in financial support including a first-ever contribution from the Western Propane Gas Association.

The increase in woodburning as an economical solution for homeowners has meant a rise in the use of outdoor furnaces and boilers, which can provide a great savings for consumers these days when linked into a home’s system. These types of units do not have to meet the EPA standards set up for indoor burners, yet are seen by various environmental groups as potential polluters of air quality.

A number of states do pose some restrictions on these outdoor models, with local ordinances and even legal action prompting larger agencies to take note and EPA announcing it will soon issue guidelines for states to follow in regulating the use of wood boilers.

Lower burn temperatures and shorter stack heights are among the reasons for air-quality problems with these products. According to a 2006 report from NESCAUM (Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management), “the increased use of outdoor wood boilers (OWBs), also known as outdoor wood-fired hydronic heaters or outdoor wood-fired furnaces, in populated areas represents a potential public health problem in the Northeast because of the severity of health effects associated with residential wood smoke inhalation.

HPBA and the manufacturers of these products have vowed to work with the EPA and others on the matter. Due to the immediate need for state regulators to have a standard that they can work with and the desire by the association’s Outdoor Furnace Manufacturers Caucus to be able to test their products, at a joint meeting last July to begin creating a model rule based on the “ASTM Fueling Protocol for Outdoor Wood-fired Hydronic Heaters.”

State regulators and outdoor wood furnace manufacturers have met with the EPA more recently to decide on an emissions measurement for testing, with an original number from EPA set at 0.44 pounds/million BTUs (lb./mmBTUs), which is approximately 3.7 g/kg. Talks at the latest meeting this fall resulted in an emissions number of .60 lb./mm Btu, which equals approximately 5.13 g/kg, as a goal for these products.

This limit will be used for acceptance as a low-emission product for the EPA Incentivized Voluntary Program (IVP), which will be similar to the agency’s NSPS (new source performance standards) certification program.

With the group expecting to reconvene in 2007 to review progress and test results, dealers and installers can soon expect an EPA directive on the outdoor units, which should continue to attract buyers looking for savings on their heating costs from more traditional sources.

As industry professionals have noted, we can probably expect fossil fuel prices to rise significantly the next five years despite the ups and downs of seasonal adjustments in prices. Natural disasters and international crises could lead to even higher energy prices and they could rise rapidly in a short period of time.

“Consumers are tired of the continued reliance on foreign energy and higher prices, and will continue to turn to renewable fuels for home heating,” concludes AES’ Herzfeld. “Consumers would much rather support North American Farmers rather than energy companies and the Middle East.”

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