Pellet Power

Yankee ingenuity is the blending of tradition and innovation to create new classics. When you want to warm an heirloom home in the age of nuclear energy, leave it to ingenious Yankees to figure out how to do it better – with wood.

Story by Meg Cadoux Hirshberg
Photography by John Hession

Most people don’t find their central heating system very exciting, but New Hampshire Republican Congressman Charlie Bass practically scampers around his cavernous basement as he explains all the cool features of his wood pellet boiler. Bass is a classic Yankee tinkerer, and his talk is peppered with technical terms like BTU’s, watts, amps, and maximum loads. He pauses for a few minutes to mop up some pooled water that had seeped in from a recent storm, and wrings out the cold dirty water by hand into a bucket. Clearly, Charlie Bass is not someone who’s afraid to get his hands dirty.

Which is a good thing, because Bass’s boiler was imported from Denmark without all the bells and whistles that can make the system easy to use and maintain. Bass had to rig a pellet delivery device to move the wood pellets from their storage place into the boiler itself, and he has personally crafted several other refinements to his system. While Europe has a highly developed manufacturing, distribution, and service system for its hundreds of thousands of pellet boilers, this is not the case in the U.S., where pellet stoves for space heat are commonly used, but not pellet boilers for central heating. There are currently no American manufacturers of high quality “biomass” boilers, which burn wood, wood pellets, and/or pellet corn. (Not yet, anyway—but given the recent interest in renewable energy, which has spiked along with the cost of oil, some entrepreneur is bound to fill that vacuum soon.)

The century-old Bass home, in Peterborough, is redolent of an earlier age, one that was not as concerned with heat loss, solar gain, or the cost of energy. It is low-ceilinged, poorly insulated, and has a fairly dark interior. Recently Bass installed triple glaze thermal windows, and replaced every incandescent bulb with full spectrum compact fluorescent light bulbs, which has greatly reduced his energy use. He keeps his heat down to 60 or 62 degrees (“I like it, my wife Lisa tolerates it.”)

Bass’s 9000 square foot brick Tudor home is a stylistic copy of the Paul Revere House in Boston, though it’s much larger. The living room has an enormous old fireplace with logs as long as a man (“We light it once, on Easter”). It is an informal and cozy home, with scattered evidence, in the form of baubles and yarn, of Lisa’s hobbies — jewelry making and knitting. A large gray cat and a friendly old mixed breed dog follow their master from room to room. The view spilling out from the large kitchen window is classic New Hampshire—a small orchard, and hundreds of unspoiled acres of forest and field (owned by Bass and his brother), approximately ten of which are cultivated as an organic vegetable truck farm maintained by Bass’s stepmother, Rosaly, who has been married to Bass’s father for over 30 years. It is an idyllic setting for the Basses to raise their two children, Jonathan, age 11, and fourteen-year-old Lucy.

Outside Bass’s stately home stands, incongruently, a huge, shiny 5-ton galvanized steel feed silo that Bass uses to store his wood pellets. A 4-inch PVC pipe runs underground from the bottom of the silo to the basement boiler; the pellets are propelled by an internal auger down through the pipe and into the boiler. Inside the basement, Bass flips a switch to start the auger, a job he must do about 4 times a week in winter. (Bass usually spends Tuesday through Thursday each week in Washington—son Jonathan is responsible for the switch-flipping in his dad’s absence) The boiler heats water to about 165 degrees F and pumps the hot water through the house radiators.

In Europe, most pellet boilers are completely automated and require no more attention than a standard home heating system, except for the occasional need to empty the ash. But the less-advanced technology currently available in the U.S. requires a bit more homeowner participation than a standard boiler or furnace does. In the absence of an automated pellet feed system, homeowners need to physically pour in the 40 pound bags of pellets. But even without the refinements usually present in European systems, pellet boilers are not hard to use. Says Cindy Cadot, business manager of the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock, of the Center’s recently-installed pellet boiler: “We don’t have a maintenance staff here, so if a bunch of nature nuts can run this thing, anyone can.”

Bass, now in his sixth term in Congress, recently supported a bill to provide rebates to consumers who buy renewable energy systems for their homes — though it is unclear if funding will actually be appropriated for the bill. (Although Bass is generally popular with New Hampshire’s environmental community, they sharply disagree with the Congressman’s refusal to support either the Kyoto global warming treaty or recent attempts to raise the mileage standards on cars.) “We are too dependent on oil,” Bass says. “My interest and concern is in reducing the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere.”

Bass installed his pellet boiler two years ago. “My home and the land around it are ancestral property. My grandfather [former New Hampshire governor Robert Perkins Bass] built this house in 1910, and gave it to my father [Perkins Bass, a four-term Congressman from Bass’s district], who gave it to me. I grew up in this house. In the late 1990s my father replaced our old oil boiler with a modern one. Even the newer boiler used over 4,000 gallons of oil a year to heat this house. Now that oil is over $2.50 a gallon, I’d be spending at least $10,000 a year just to heat this place. Currently my heating bill, using only wood pellets, with rare occasional backup from the oil heat system, is about $3,000 a year.” Bass has not had an oil delivery in more than a year — during which time he’s only used 165 gallons of oil — and his oil tank is still half full.

Bass is both passionate and knowledgeable about the subject of renewable energy. “Ideally I don’t want to burn one gallon of oil,” he says animatedly, his blue eyes blazing. “The wood pellets in my boiler are extremely efficient at extracting energy. In Europe, one-third of their energy comes from renewable sources. A couple of years ago I decided to look for alternatives to heat my own home.” Bass’s nephew by marriage, Steve Walker, is the president and founder of New England Wood Pellet in nearby Jaffrey, one of the nation’s largest wood pellet manufacturers (see sidebar). Walker got Bass excited about heating with wood pellets.

Bass bought his pellet boiler from Lloyd Nichols, owner of Tarm USA in Lyme, N.H. Nichols has imported Danish biomass boilers since 1975. Nichols’ biomass boilers range in price from about $5,000 to a bit over $10,000, which is far more expensive than an average oil furnace. But, as Nichols points out, people spend several times that amount on a car, which they replace in a few years, while the boilers last practically forever and save you money in the process. Bass had at first estimated that the pellet boiler would pay for itself in six years, due to the cost-savings achieved by using pellets instead of oil for fuel. When the price of oil went up recently, that payback period got reduced to three years.

Lloyd Nichols himself has a more typically sized home, at 2,400 square feet. It has standard windows and is not particularly well-insulated. Nichols uses about four tons of wood pellets a year to provide heat and hot water for his home. The pellets retail for around $220 a ton, bringing his heating bill to less than $900. In terms of BTU output, one ton of pellets — at $220 — is equivalent to 125 gallons of heating oil, about $325. So if Nichols had heated with oil, his heating bill would have been around $1,300 instead.

Wood pellets also compare favorably with propane and natural gas, in terms of cost, fuel efficiency and emissions. And because of the near total combustion (around 98.5 percent), pellet stoves produce little creosote, so they can be installed by direct vent, without a chimney.

Nichols says that selling biomass boilers is more than the way he makes his living: “It’s missionary work, evangelistic.” More and more of his customers are making the decision to heat with biomass not for cost reasons, but for personal ones. Wood, wood pellets and pellet corn are not only renewable energy sources, but they produce very little in the way of polluting particulates and are “carbon neutral,” meaning that they do not contribute to global warming any more than if the wood decayed naturally in the forest. “When I see my pile of wood pellets,” says Nichols, “I’m looking at independence and security. I don’t have to worry about the politics of oil controlling the way I heat my home. It’s a personal statement and a personal commitment.”

Charlie Bass heartily agrees: “The ‘greenness’ of this way of heating is comforting,” he says, “because it means I’m closer to living in balance with the world around me.” NH