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Tech made easy: let’s talk about biomass boilers

What we’re talking about: Biomass boilers.

Why? They provide a sustainable form of heat with much lower carbon emissions than fossil fuel-based systems. And if you’re keen to go off-grid they can be used in combo with a renewable electricity system.

Wood’s been around forever, not exactly ground breaking. Well, humans have used wood as a fuel for around 1.5 million years, but we’ve come a long way from using fire to cook up sabre-tooth tiger. Wood is more likely to be used nowadays in modern stoves and boilers for heating buildings and hot water. It lost favour for a while in the heyday of cheap fossil fuels but started to become popular again in the last decade or so.

Are biomass boilers suitable for all types of business? They can be good if your business has a large heat load, or if you’re not on the gas network. You don’t need to be in a rural location but you will need a bit of space to store the pellets if you go for a larger system. And it’s good if you have access to a local fuel supply so you’re not adding to the carbon footprint you’re trying to reduce. Biomass boilers are a perfect choice for businesses that can supply and use the biomass – for example, farms and estates or rural hotels with woodland or the space to grow trees.

So we can grow the trees and then burn them? Exactly. It takes a bit of work to manage woodland as a fuel source but it can be done.

I’ve always wanted a cosy wood burning stove Well, the front-loading log stoves that are quite popular now in houses and cottages aren’t so suitable for large heat requirements – unless you want to employ someone to load it all day. But they’re good for the public spaces of pubs, restaurants and hotels. And while these types of stoves can be hooked up to a back boiler, they’re unlikely to meet all your heat and hot water demands.

We have a large multi-roomed building to heat so we probably need something a little more powerful… Then you want to look at chip or pellet automatic-loading boilers. Chips can be better for larger buildings or groups of buildings.

Automatic-loading, now we’re talking. These type of boilers are much like gas or oil ones, although larger, and can be left to do their thing. The chips or pellets are fed in automatically at regular intervals. These boilers produce less ash than logs but chips and pellets can be a little more expensive. But if you have a large fuel store that will accept several tonnes of pellets at a time you can keep the cost down.

So other than going off-grid, what are the other advantages? The price of wood is likely to be more stable over time than fossil fuel alternatives. They also help to generate a market for wood, which if managed well could help promote sustainable forestry in the UK.

And the cons? There’s always a con. Well, biomass boilers are not completely emission free so air quality can be affected. But as long as the fuel has been adequately dried, and you choose a high-quality boiler, wood fuel emissions will comply with air quality standards. They’re also not fully carbon neutral – there’s some carbon used in the transport, harvesting and processing of wood. And they can be a little noisy, which is important to bear in mind if you have neighbours in close proximity.

Is there a way I can ensure the wood fuel I buy is sustainable? Most importantly, make sure it’s local. And look out for the UKFS (UK Forestry Standard), FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) stamps.

What’s the lifetime of biomass boilers, and are they easy to maintain? It depends on the boiler, some can last upwards of twenty years. The ash needs to be cleaned out fairly regularly – maybe once a week, sometimes more. And the chimney and flue pipe must be swept regularly to remove soot deposits and prevent blockage. HETAS (the organisation that approves biomass appliances) recommends twice a year –at the start and end of the heating season.

And is it going to save me money? You may not see a huge amount of cost savings. The fuel is cheaper but the cost of the system and installation is more. However, the price of wood is likely to be more stable over the long term. Biomass boilers and pellet stoves with integrated boilers are eligible for the Scottish Government SME Loan and RHI payments.

Anything else I should know? You’ll need a flue. This could be an existing chimney with a lining or a new insulated stainless steel flue pipe.

I imagine there’s a lot of businesses who have installed one. Correct, there are loads of examples. Ardroy Outdoor Centre who cut their energy bills by 25%, Highland Farm Cottages and many more online at the Green Network for Businesses.  You’ll find a range of hotels, golf clubs, farms, distilleries and more who have taken the plunge. Take a look and if you still have questions, call us on 0808 808 22682268. We can help you figure out the best option.


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