Firewood or Wood Pellets?

As one of the few companies in the United States that sells both firewood boilers and wood pellet boilers, we at Tarm Biomass face this question almost daily. Here is how we respond:

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Fuel availability and cost are often the first considerations.
Firewood availability:
If you own a woodlot with ample wood stocks then cutting your own firewood makes a great deal of sense.  When harvesting wood is part of managing the woodlot for forest health, firewood is a free byproduct.  We hear often from customers who have friends with wood or get wood from workplaces or other sources like community wood dumps for free.  Free or nearly free fuel is hard to beat even when labor is involved.  Firewood that is cut ,split, and delivered or delivered in log lengths is priced very differently in different regions.  Check your local classified advertisements to get a sense for firewood prices.  Many towns have electronic forums where information about local services is shared.  These electronic, public “bulletin boards” are a great way to learn about local firewood supplies.  Often even purchased firewood can cost 25-50% less than wood pellets by energy content.
Wood pellets availability:
Wood pellet mills  are located throughout the Northeast. Wood pellets are available in 40 pound bags almost everywhere.  20 pound bags are also available at some locations. Bulk delivered wood pellets are also available throughout most of the Northeast.  Production of bulk wood pellets is usually prioritized by mills over bagged fuel production.  Even when bagged fuel has experienced availability pressures, bulk fuel has been available. In the relatively densely settled Northeast, some regions remain over 100 miles from the nearest pellet mill, which makes deliveries expensive.  We recommend bulk fuel storage capable of storing a year’s usage of fuel remote locations.  For remote commercial locations, the ability to purchase entire truckloads of fuel is beneficial.  In other areas closer to pellet mills there are usually 1-3 delivery companies to choose from.  Bulk delivery companies in business today have been around a while and are reliable companies.  We suggest calling delivery companies to get a feel for their prices and service territories.  Custom delivery programs may be available.


What is involved with daily operation of a modern wood boiler?
Firewood daily use:
Today’s Froling gasification (two stage style) firewood boilers generally require twice per day batch loading and firing.  That is once about every 12 hours.  Lighting the fire takes less than 5 minutes due to the unique lighting door.  A typical home might use about 125 pounds or about 30 pieces of wood per day– a typical piece of firewood being about 18”-20” long with a 3”-6” cross section.  A medium size garden cart filled up will generally last 2 days in the coldest weather.  We find typical homes in the Northeast use 5-6 cords of hardwood firewood per year.  The wood must be less than 25% moisture content, under 20% is much better.  We recommend drying the wood in cut, split, stacked, and covered piles for two summers.  Having a wood shed or space to stack wood outdoors is essential.  Ideally the shed or stacking area is located in close proximity to the boiler. 
A small amount of ashes are generally removed once every week or two depending on how much wood is burned.  This process takes about 5 minutes. 
Wood pellet daily use:
Today’s Froling pellet boilers are nearly fully automatic.  Make sure your bulk fuel storage gets filled when needed and take the ash drawers out 3-5 times per year.  That’s it.  Owning a modern pellet boiler is like owning a modern oil or gas boiler.  It can operate for a month or more without intervention. 
How do wood boiler prices compare to pellet boiler prices?
Firewood boilers generally cost less than wood pellet boilers.  Wood pellet boilers have significantly more motors and moving parts for the automatic feeding and de-ashing functions.  However, the installed cost of wood boilers and wood pellet boilers is often similar.  All Froling wood boilers must be installed with thermal storage; 400 gallons minimum for the S3 Turbo 30 and 600 gallons minimum for the S3 Turbo 50.  Pellet boiler efficiency and operation can benefit from small volumes of thermal storage, but it is not a requirement.


How is fuel stored?
Firewood is ideally cut, split, stacked in rows, and covered for two summers.  Drying wood for one summer is OK, but significant fuel savings can be gained by allowing the sun and wind to dry the fuel for the 2nd summer. This is especially true for dense woods like oak and hickory.  Our typical customer burns 5-6 cords of wood per year.  A cord is a stack 18” wide x 6’ high x  14 1/2’ long.  If enough wood is on hand so that there is an extra summer of drying, a woodshed is ideal.  If building a woodshed with capacity for two years of wood, make sure it is constructed for pulling wood from alternating sides of the shed.  If a woodshed isn’t possible, try to find a sunny spot when there is air movement around the wood piles.  Avoid stacking under roof eaves, under heavy forest cover, or any shaded or wet spot.  Cover only the top of the pile.  Covering the sides traps moisture and gathers additional ground moisture.  If firewood is stored outside, it is a good idea to bring it into the boiler room for several hours before burning it.  Throwing chunks of 10° Fahrenheit or colder wood into a boiler is counter-productive for clean burning. 
Wood pellets:
Bulk wood pellets are delivered in 1+ ton quantities.  Typical residences use 6-8 tons of fuel and should be able to receive a 3 ton delivery without running out of fuel first.  This makes storage bins of 3.5-4 tons or more an ideal size.  Bulk delivered wood pellets are often stored in basements or utility rooms adjacent to the boiler.  Custom built wooden bins or pre-fabricated wood-reinforced cloth bins are typical storage options.  Pellets must remain dry, but humidity isn’t normally a problem.  Commercial sites often take deliveries in 10 ton increments.  Outdoor storage of wood pellets is best accomplished in agricultural silos.  Whatever the bin, a slide gate at the base of the bin is a must to allow maintenance without having to dump all of the stored pellets.  Sometimes dust can accumulate in the bases of silos and bins causing flow blockage.  This area infrequently requires maintenance, but when maintenance is required, a slide gate makes the work easier.  Most Tarm Biomass customers use bulk delivered fuel.  Bagged fuel is another option.  Though not as convenient, bagged fuel may be more cost effective.  Ideally bagged pellets are stored under cover even when packaged in plastic. 


What’s your philosophy?
For some, burning wood is life-long hobby.  Putting up the firewood is as en-grained in their lifestyle as mowing the lawn or planting a garden.  For those people there is great satisfaction from being in charge of next season’s heat.  When the wood pile is stacked for the season, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and independence.  There is no relying on a wood pellet infrastructure to supply fuel, or worse the regime of a hostile petro-state.  Cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood is a great form of exercise and is a great reason to spend time in the woods.  For some, stacking wood is meditative.
There is a generation of firewood burners who have burned wood for a lifetime and now their bodies can no longer perform the task.  Having sold wood boilers since the 1970s, we get calls at Tarm Biomass regularly from those folks.  There is no shame in switching to wood pellets when the body can no longer handle the wood.  It is a hard switch, but rest assured, wood pellets are still a local fuel and often primarily made from wood waste. 
For others, firewood is a dreaded task.  Time for many families is in short supply.  Some would like to spend free time with other hobbies.  The ability to push a button and burn locally grown wood in pelletized form is the ultimate form of heating satisfaction.  With almost complete automation, Froling P4 automatic pellet boilers heat quietly and according to calls from the thermostat or domestic hot water tank.  Making wood heat forgettable can be very attractive.

Which would you choose? 

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