About Modern Wood Heat: Biomass Boilers and Pellet Stoves

About Modern Wood Heat: Biomass Boilers and Pellet Stoves

Biomass boilers (wood gasification and bulk pellet systems) and EPA-certified Pellet Stoves are an economic way to heat your home using a renewable, local resource.  Learn more here about how they work and get your questions answered.

Don't see your question answered below? Reach out to us and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

Questions? Contact the Heat Smart Otsego Campaign Director, Bennett Sandler (campaigndirector@occainfo.org).

The Heat Smart Otsego Clean Heating and Cooling Community Campaign is a project of the Otsego County Conservation Association (OCCA) with financial support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

What is modern wood heating and how is it different from traditional wood heating?

Many New Englanders are familiar with heating with wood—whether wood stoves or fireplaces. While stoves and fireplaces are popular with many homeowners, they can require a bit of work to operate and keep clean.

Modern wood heating describes a variety of technologies that use either wood pellets or cordwood in either automated, high-efficiency central boilers and furnaces or in manually-operated appliances. These versatile systems replace oil and propane boilers and furnaces. Regionally-sourced wood pellets are stored much like oil or propane in a bulk container, which unlike cordwood or pellet stoves, allow the system to automatically operate without daily human interaction. Wood pellet fuel is delivered by a truck similar to an oil delivery truck and pneumatically fed into the pellet container. Moreover, the modern wood heating systems installed through Heat Smart Otsego have very simple cleaning requirements, typically an ash container that needs to be emptied at some regular interval.

What are the benefits of using modern wood heating?

There are several benefits to using modern wood heating:

  • Energy savings. If you heat with oil, propane, or electric resistance heat, you could save hundreds of dollars a year on your heating bill by installing a modern wood heating system. No need to pay thousands of dollars to get a gas connection to your home: a cleaner alternative is already available.
  • Reduced carbon footprint. Using high-efficiency modern wood heating systems fueled by sustainably-harvested local wood will reduce your carbon emissions from heating by 50% or more compared to fossil fuel heating.
  • Buy local heat. New York homeowners send approximately 90 cents of every dollar spent on fossil fuels out of state. By purchasing wood pellets and cord wood sourced from New England, you can keep more of your heating dollars in the local and regional economy.
  • Automated, low-hassle wood heating. Enjoy the benefits of heating with wood without the hassle: modern pellet systems are fully automated to run without human interaction for weeks at a time and only need to be cleaned and emptied of ash once or twice a month. No need to load in bags of pellets or logs: a pellet fuel delivery truck will keep your home stocked just like with heating oil delivery.
  • Fuel price stability. While oil prices have spiked from nearly $4/gallon in 2013 to $2.20/gallon in 2016 to around $3/gallon this winter, wood pellet prices have been remarkably stable during that entire period, as the pellet fuel economy is local and not nearly as dependent on global market factors. In fact, wood pellets have remained the equivalent cost of oil at $2.00 per gallon over the past 8 years. Reduce your vulnerability to price spikes while supporting the regional economy by heating with wood pellets.
Doesn’t burning wood or pellets emit a lot of carcinogenic particulates?

Wood smoke contains particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, which can be hazardous to your health. Traditional wood heating systems, like fireplaces and older wood stoves, could emit sufficient air pollutants over decades to cause health issues. Modern wood heating systems emit a fraction of the amount of air pollutants released by traditional systems and must be certified by either the EPA or NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to be installed through the Renewable Heat NY rebate program. While a traditional wood stove might emit over 2.5 lbs of particulate matter emissions for every million Btus of heat provided, modern wood heating systems emit less than 0.02 lbs of PM emissions for every million Btus of heat--over 100 times less.

I don’t want to haul pellets. Is modern wood heating right for me?

Yes! Modern pellet boiler systems are completely automated: no pellet hauling, no system loading, no buying pellets from the store. Your pellet storage bin will be filled by a bulk delivery truck a few times a year (just like filling your oil tank), and your system will automatically load itself from the storage bin. Of course, if hauling wood is part of your daily workout, there is no cheaper way to heat your home than with a wood gasification boiler or furnace.

Do I have to clean and empty ashes? If so, how often?

Depending on what type of modern wood appliance you choose, ash cleanup can range from weekly in pellet stoves to once a month for automated systems. 

Why is modern wood heating considered a “clean heating” technology?

Modern wood heating uses plant matter that can be harvested for usage and sustainably grown back. Over time, sustainable forestry management practices enables carbon released from burning wood pellets to be sequestered as new trees are grown back, providing a net emissions benefit relative to burning fossil fuels.

2010 study commissioned by the Department of Energy Resources and conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences concluded that replacing heating oil with wood pellet heating is among the most effective uses of wood for energy, providing a net emissions reduction relative to fossil fuels in five years.

Are there different types of modern wood heating systems?

Absolutely. Modern pellet stoves are not only more efficient and cleaner burning than older units, but they are highly incentivized by NY State through the Renewable Heat NY rebate program. Low and Moderate income families may be eligible for up to $2500 in incentives for a new pellet stove. Cord wood gasification boilers with thermal storage not only burn cleaner and more efficiently, thermal storage means no more fires in the middle of the night to keep from freezing in the morning. For a completely hands off system, central wood pellet boilers have been used in Europe and over the past 8 years have been made available in the USA. These systems have very little in common with simple pellet stoves aside from the fuel.

Will it be difficult to source bulk pellets throughout the winter?

No! Bulk pellet delivery is currently available from three sources within delivery range of Otsego County. Also, bulk pellets have not experienced some of the late season shortages bagged pellets have experienced over the last few heating seasons.

How can I be sure that the pellets I use are sustainable?

Wood pellets are typically sourced from wastewood (e.g. from sawmills) and from residues related to the wood harvesting process. Speak with our installer about the pellet sourcing options available to you for bulk delivery.

What is thermal storage?

Thermal storage is a hot water tank installed in parallel with your modern wood heating system.

The reason for this is that wood heating systems have more difficulty quickly turning on and off compared to fossil fuel systems: a pellet that is burning will keep on burning even if your home has reached the desired temperature. A thermal storage tank enables you to not waste that heat and stores the hot water until it’s ready to be used again.

The use of thermal storage and associated controls enables higher-efficiency operation and lower air pollutant emissions from modern wood heating systems by reducing the frequency that your system will need to “cycle” (or turn on and off repeatedly). In addition to improving efficiency, it will also reduce wear and tear on your boiler.

As such thermal storage is a requirement of the Renewable Heat NY modern wood heating rebate program. While this will add costs to your system, NYSERDA provides up to $7,000 to offset this added cost.

Can modern wood heating provide domestic hot water?

Yes! One of the benefits of installing a hot water tank for thermal storage is that it can also be used for your home's hot water. During the summer, when you're no longer heating your home, you can continue to use pellets to heat your hot water or use a backup electric resistance coil.

How do the annual maintenance costs of modern wood heating systems compare to other heating systems?

Modern wood heating systems require similar maintenance to fossil fuel boilers and furnaces. Annual servicing is recommended.

To minimize maintenance, modern wood heating systems include self-cleaning heat exchangers and empty ash into separate containers that can be easily removed without mess and without having to turn the system off.

How long do modern wood heating systems last?

Modern wood heating systems are expected to last for over 30 years, longer than other boilers and furnaces. This is due in part to system designs using a single steel welded vessel and not sectional cast iron. These systems also have only three designed wear items that in themselves are designed to last 5-10 years and which are inexpensive to replace. This planned design allows the system as a whole to last many decades.

How complicated is installing a modern wood heating system and how long will it take?

Pellet stoves typically can be installed in less than a day. Modern wood heating system installations can take 2-3 days to complete, depending on the site.