The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mid-winter Firewood Blues

Well, it's that time of year when you look out at your woodpile and decide whether you "done good" or not. And what you can do better next year.

If you're in that mood, take a look at this video. This gentleman in Sweden has a routine that makes firewood collection and splitting look downright enjoyable. While it's not the fastest firewood process I've ever seen, it sure makes for a great day in the woods (and on the lake). Just goes to show that not everything has to be fast or big to be productive. And that there's an art to everything woody, even collecting firewood.

So chase away those mid-winter firewood blues and start thinking about next year's haul.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Perfection in Wood - The Maloof Rocker

Work took me to Southern California last week. I expected the nice weather I found in Palm Desert, but I was truly blessed when, after speaking with the folks at the Western Pallet Association, I rambled down El Paseo Drive and into a cactus-lined courtyard called The Gardens on El Paseo. I was minding my own business of no business when, inside a trendy gallery called von Wening Art, I noticed wood out of the corner of my eye.

And not just any wood.  I knew as I approached that I was coming into the presence of greatness. There it stood, its well-rubbed walnut gleaming at me, bidding me to approach.

The shop owner smiled at me and introduced us. This is an original Sam Maloof rocker, he said. I continued to stare and take it in, speechless and curious at the same time.

Sam Maloof is one of the most famous American furniture artists of our time. He passed away in 2009, and this chair came into the possession of the gallery owner, who was a personal "friend of Sam". The design is well known to furniture makers around the world, and yet, they say, the quality of the chair can't be replicated.

I asked permission to take photographs.

The owner just smiled and seemed to enjoy my appreciation of the chair. And then he did the unthinkable...he invited me to take a sit.

As in a dream, the next few minutes were in slow motion. I instinctively reached into my pockets and removed everything to a nearby table. I wanted nothing between that walnut and my body, and would have removed my clothing if I could have gotten away with it. As I lowered myself, the chair seemed to reach up and attach itself to my body contours, as if the wood was a long-lost exoskeleton. I waited for the usual pressure points...but none occurred. I was sitting in the chair, on the chair, and yet, it didn't impose its design on my body. We were one.

No movement had accompanied the sit. No wild rock back, no tip forward. That chair sat as still as any four-legged side chair ever did. And then, with but a thought, I was gently rocking. No foot motion, no body weight shift...just the experience of perpetual motion without expended energy. I wanted to rock, and the chair rocked. As it did, I ran my hands along the contours of the arms. No chair arm ever felt as smooth and warm as this. No creaks from the back rails, no rustle from the rockers. Absolute silence in movement. I had found the perfect rocker.

As I rose and stepped back from the chair, I wondered, but felt it sacrilegious to ask, the price of this piece of wooden perfection. Most of these chairs are in art museums and the private collections of presidents and other notable personages. So I couldn't bring myself to ask.

But the owner read the desire on my face. Perhaps it was the tears in my eyes. And when he offered me the opportunity to have it delivered to my humble abode for only $32,000, the tears started flowing at this once-in-a-lifetime chance at wood immortality. And yet, there were the kids and the dog to feed...

And so, I left the gallery, and the Sam Maloof rocker, to another. To you, future owner, I say, take great enjoyment in this chair. It deserves an admiring set of buttocks.

As for Sam Maloof, rocking chair virtuoso...
"He was described by the Smithsonian Institution as "America's most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman" and People magazine dubbed him "The Hemingway of Hardwood." But his business card always said "woodworker." "I like the word," he told a Los Angeles Times reporter, his eyes brightening behind large, owl-eyed glass frames. "It's an honest word."
Enjoy some time with the man, himself.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Amazing Wood Art of Sergei Bobkov

Many of you have sent me this story, so even though it has apparently made the rounds, I'll share it with those who may not have seen it. Oddity Central has the best background story I could find...
"53-year-old Sergei Bobkov has patented a unique technique of creating amazing sculptures out of Siberian cedar wood-chips. 
“It’s not very interesting to do what others can. To create something out of nothing in a completely new way is far more inspiring”. This is how Sergei Bobkov explains the unique form of art that he created. He says many people compare his artworks to taxidermy, because they both look so much like the animals they replicate, but Sergei believes they are as different as light and darkness. Whereas taxidermy is all about death, his wood-chip art symbolizes life. 
This resident of Kozhany, Russia, has developed his very own technique, that prevents wood-chips from falling apart, in time. After creating about 100-150 chips, from 2-3 inch long cedar stick, he puts them in water for several days. Then, making use of his surgical precision, he carves the chips into any shape he needs. 
Sergey has been doing this for some time now, but he has only created 11 wood-chip sculptures. That’s because just one of these incredible artworks takes around six months t complete, at a work rate of 10 to 12 hours a day, with no days off. Sergei Bobkov focuses on wildlife creatures, and he studies their anatomy for months, before starting work on a sculpture. 
Even though he was offered $17,000 for his wood-chip eagle.Sergei’s Bobkov declined, saying his art is not for sale."

The "Siberian cedar" mentioned in the story is an interesting story in itself. From the website "The Ringing Cedars of Russia" we learn that
"The Siberian cedar may be rightfully considered our national tree, for it grows naturally almost exclusively in our country -- in the Urals, Siberia, Altai Krai (only 1% of the total area of cedar forests is found on the territory of the People's Republic of Mongolia). The cedar is the glory and pride of our forests. It is especially beautiful when it is blossoming, when the crimson-coloured male flowerhead shines brightly on the background of the dark green branches. Vladimir Chivilikhin had good reason to write that the cedar would be worth growing in our gardens and parks solely to see such lushly peaceful beauty on the thick green branches once a year."
Even more interesting to you dendrology and wood identification purists out there is the fact that Siberian cedar is not actually cedar at all, but the pine species Pinus sibirica, a member of the family of white pines that comprise the sub-genus Pinus strobus. It is well known in Europe for the value of its nuts. Again from the Ringing Cedars of Russia:
"Nevertheless, the main value of the Siberian cedar are its nuts. Cedar nuts collected in the environs of Leningrad (and, as an analysis has demonstrated, they are in no way inferior to those from Siberia) contain 61% oil, 20% proteins, 12% carbohydrates. In Russia, as far back as the time of Ivan the Terrible, cedar nuts were an object of export. And in 1786, the Academician P. S. Pallas wrote, "In Switzerland, cedar nuts are used in pharmacies; they are used to make a milk, which is prescribed for diseases involving the chest.... Because of their penetrating, delicate, somewhat balsamic oil, they are better than almonds, which is why it is maintained that they are used with benefit by people with consumption...." 
For a very long time in Siberia and in the Urals, from the kernels of cedar nuts was extracted an oil that possesses high-quality taste and nutritional properties, is easily assimilated by the body, and is rich in vitamins and minerals. It often surpasses the best types of olive oil. Siberians also prepare a vegetable-based cream from cedar nuts -- its fat content exceeds dairy cream by twofold. The value of cedar nut oil is well known not only by chefs, but also by artists: many famous masters have used it to dissolve their paints. 
Cedar nuts contain a high quantity of vitamins, and in first place is vitamin E (tocopherol, which translated from the Greek means "bearing offspring"). In years of abundant harvests of cedar nuts, it is no wonder that the fertility of sables and squirrels increases significantly. The nuts also contain vitamin A, the group B vitamin complex, vitamin D, and trace elements essential for the human body: manganese, cobalt, zinc, and copper. There is data showing that the nuts bring relief in high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. Even the shell of the nuts is also used in folk medicine: an infusion made from it is applied for hemorrhoids and salt deposits."
You long-time readers of Go Wood may recall we discussed the possibility of cedar and pine possibly being confused in the identification of the type of wood used in the True Cross of Christ. You can see why from Mr. Bobkov's creations...the larger flakes do resemble cedar, especially at first glance. But if you re-look at the largest wing feathers of the owl in the first two photographs, you see pine, if you're thinking pine. The confusion comes from the traditional Russian name for the tree, Сибирский кедр (tr. Sibirsky Kedr), which results in the translation of the name into cedar. So the "cedar nuts" discussed above are really pine nuts, which makes a lot more sense, when you think about it.

Another story that adds to our fascination with wood. Just when you think you've seen and heard it all...

Our congratulations to Mr. Bobkov for his imaginative and stunning use of wood. And thanks to all you readers who kept sending me the know a good story when you see one.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Certified Hardwood - From an American Desert

Here's a nice video brought to my attention by Lew McCreery of the Forest Service. It tells the tale of a hybrid poplar plantation out in eastern Oregon, one of the driest places in the country. I used to drive by this plantation on my way out to LP mills in northern Idaho and Montana. (Pleasant memory: sawmills in Sandpoint and Moyie Springs, Idaho...two of my very favorite places in the world. From the slasher deck in Moyie Springs you gaze out for hundreds of miles over the Canadian Rockies. I told the operator there I thought he had the best job in the world, and he agreed with me. I hope those mills are still running.)

Back to the tree farm. It's impressive...about 10 minutes wide at interstate speeds, if I remember correctly. Seemed longer. And growing in the middle of the Eastern Oregon desert, it looked even bigger. I used to wonder about the economics of planting, watering, and harvesting all these trees for pulpwood...didn't seem possible, I thought at the time. My doubts have been confirmed. The trees never made it to the pulp mill. But since they continued to grow, they eventually became something of value...hardwood sawlogs that can be proven to have been grown sustainably.

The video tells the tale of the companies that recognized the market potential, and how they are taking advantage of it. Enjoy, and appreciate the companies that made it work, after all.

Those of you who've never seen veneer peeled from a rotary lathe, you'll see it in the video. Hardwood veneer produced for cabinet-grade plywood is sliced from the log in a different process, a process I'll cover another time. The rotary process shown here is used for thicker veneer used in structural plywood and other engineered wood products.

If you're wondering about water for the plantation, note that the trees are separated from the mighty Columbia River only by Interstate 84. I assumed they had a way to pump water from the river to a drip irrigation system, but I'm not really sure. Maybe one of you western readers can help us out...please comment!

Friday, January 11, 2013

January Thaw in Pennsylvania

Mid-winter is a time of rest and reflection for most of nature. Not so for man. We're busier than ever planning business for the year, trying to get the attention of new clients and markets, attending meetings of the higher-ups who've thought up great things for us to accomplish this year, and figuring out how to do more with less.

Which is why I appreciate life and work in rural Pennsylvania. There's always a nice spot nearby to take a break, eat a sandwich, and reflect on the finer things in life.

Take three minutes to sit and relax with me on the banks of Spring Creek in Centre County. And then get back to work.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Heating Decision Made Easy (Epilogues)

Read Part 1 here...

Read Part 2 here...

Read Part 3 here...

Epilogue the First - You Get What You Need

The project was a learning process for me. Was familiar with the theoretical pros and cons of the alternatives, but had to test them in specific application. I had dreamed of converting my over-sized one-car garage to an "energy cabin" since I had visited the Energy Cabin factory in Austria and seen them operating on location.

But life is tough, and we can't always get what we want, as the Rolling Stones used to sing...
No, you can't always get what you want 
 But if you try sometime, you just might find  
You get what you need.
My energy cabin dream would have been great. It would have cost me about $40,000 - $50,000, and would have never paid for itself. But it would have been an altruistic venture, and I would have become a Go Wood legend in my own mind.

But with 172, 616 miles on the family Suburban, and five kids still to get out of the house, altruism had to give way to reality.  And my fallback vision of a wood or pellet boiler gave way to the original vision of the architect who built the house in the late 50's for himself. He designed a Frank Lloyd Wright-style contemporary with supplemental passive solar heating (windows completely along the southeastern-facing front, upstairs and down), and he parked the northwestern backside into the side of a hill to take advantage of natural insulation. And for primary heating, he buried a 575-gallon oil tank on the property to supply all the warmth he desired at fifteen cents a gallon.

But times and technology change. And when the cornfield in front of the house turned into a subdivision a couple of years later, he sold the house to a young professor and his wife, who raised a fine family in the house for the next 42 years. (For you Penn State alums, that young professor was Dr. John George, who established the wildlife program at Penn State. I bought the house from his widow. One of the interesting points about the property that it still has the remnants of various wildlife experiments grown into the trees. The squirrels have taken them all over now.)

The architect never considered the problem of getting wood, pellets, or coal from the parking lot up into the boiler room. And for me to overcome the inherent disadvantages of such (and the climb up the hill) it was going to cost me a lot in either money or muscle, and I don't have much of either to spare.

So, even though coal was definitely the lowest-cost solution, it didn't make sense for me to take advantage of it. And even though the cost of wood and pellets were roughly the same as natural gas in my application, my winter physical exercise workload is already slightly above my capacity. Natural gas, then, it was.

And I still have the satisfaction of the downstairs wood stove insert. I hung a 60-inch screen over it this summer, and every weekend I sleep in front of some great game while wood heat keeps me toasty. My firewood species experiments continue, and will do so until some young professor buys the house from my widow.

Epilogue the Second - Project Management

First of all, whenever a project includes the word "excavation", be prepared for the unexpected. The excavator bid $1600 to dig the line from the sidewalk to my garage with his backhoe, and another $800 to dig a shallower ditch from the meter into the front of my house with a Ditch Witch. The first part went fine. But when the plumbers arrived with the boiler, they agreed with my original thought that the gas line should go around the back and directly into the boiler room, not under my entryway steps and through a couple of closets. So I was happy, but the excavator wasn't. He tried using the Ditch Witch up the side of the hill, but no go. And the backhoe couldn't squeeze between the garage and the trees on the property line. So he had to hand dig up the hill...and when he got to the back, we found a concrete slab buried under the soil where we had planned to run the line. By the time he got there and hit that concrete, he was ready to plant that shovel in a place of mine where the sun never shines.

My experience in construction contracting served me well in the heat of the moment. I negotiated with the plumbers (who were ready to load up the truck because of the hold-up) to run the gas line along an adjacent retaining wall instead of under the ground, out to where the excavator could go straight instead of turning into the concrete. Everyone agreed, and the project got done. But it cost me an additional $1600 in excavation cost to get it done that way. $4000 bucks for a couple of ditches. Glad I didn't know that going in. I'd be out splitting wood right now if I would have.

Epilogue the Third - The Efficiency Sleight-of-Hand

Recall that I went into the project with the determination that I was going to go as high-tech and high-efficiency as I could. So when I investigated the alternatives, I always compared the high-efficiency options. And I finally decided on a high-efficiency condensing boiler as my solution.

Now that boiler required some special plumbing, but the contractor came up with a solution that worked. But while I was waiting for final bids to come in, I did a little more research. I checked out the boiler manufacturer's website and discovered a wider range of options than the contractor had shared with me. And since the technical specs and warranties were online, I got to checking them out.

It turned out that the condensing boiler I had selected, while 93% efficient, only came with a twelve-year warranty. And the manufacturer had a regular boiler, that while only 83% efficient, came with a twenty-five year warranty. Now I know that warranty science is a pretty good indicator of how long a product will last, minus one year. The contractor assured me that the condensing boiler would "probably" last a good 20-25 years, but that I might have to replace the combustion chamber or some piping somewhere along the way. Why wasn't that true of the older design, I asked? Well, since the flue gases weren't being captured and recycled, causing condensation in the system, but simply being directly exhausted, the system stayed cleaner and therefore lasted longer.

Well, that made sense to me. But wasn't higher efficiency inherently better, and pay for itself in reduced fuel cost? I had my doubts, because I had bought the most expensive German washer and dryer a few years before in order to save on water usage. (Water/sewer rates in State College are about as high as anywhere in the country, don't get me started...just think about using Perrier to flush your toilet, and you'll get a sense of my frustration.) It turned out in that case that the washer did use less water, but it didn't get a full load of clothes clean, resulting in our needing to reduce the size of the loads and thereby running more loads. And the door seal had to be replaced once a year, at $125 a pop, and the belt motor went out in year 2 at a cost of $250. In year three, I went out and bought the cheapest, lowest efficiency washing machine I could find...and our clothes are clean and fresh again.

So, I rethought this high-efficiency strategy from a cost standpoint. That's where my project spreadsheet helped me out again. I knew that at 93% efficiency my ten-year fuel cost was going to be $13,270. And that my boiler was going to cost just a little less than $13,000. When I plugged in 83% efficiency at $1.00 a therm, I found that my ten-year fuel cost was only going to increase to $14,869. So, if the lower-efficiency boiler cost was (14,869 - 13,270) $1599 dollars less than the high-efficiency boiler, it would be a better buy. Especially considering that it came with a twenty-five year warranty instead of a twelve.

Guess what? When I had the contractor re-bid the job with the lower-efficiency unit, it came in at $7,800...$5,200 less than the high-efficiency unit. So, in order to get "high-efficiency", I was about to spend $5,200 more to save $1,600 in fuel cost, and to have the privilege of replacing the boiler in twelve years instead of twenty-five. What a deal!

When I asked the contractor why the lower-efficiency unit was so much cheaper, he mentioned that they wouldn't need to do the special plumbing, and that the lower-efficiency unit was an older design that was being phased out. In fact, he said, these lower efficiency units were no longer going to be sold after 2012, the government had mandated that all non-weatherized residential furnaces and boilers had to be at least 90% AFUE starting May 1 of this year. Can anyone say CFL lightbulbs?

So, that final tidbit was all I needed to hear, and I ordered the "inefficient" 83% AFUE boiler "while the gittin' was good."

It seems ridiculous that the government is forcing efficiency standards to levels above their effective value when we are essentially floating on natural gas. But hey, the HVAC manufacturers must love it. Glad someone does.

Got to run.  Some guys in dark suits and glasses are standing outside my office.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Heating Decision Made Easy (Part 3)

Read Part 1 here...

Read Part 2 here...

Having investigated the wood, pellet, and coal options against the cost of staying with oil, my thoughts turned to gas.

I had ruled it out a couple of years earlier. Although there was natural gas in the neighborhood, my house sits back off the street about 300 feet, and the gas company charges $12 a foot to run gas line to properties. Pretty steep, I thought at the time.

And propane seemed infeasible, also. Since propane is a petroleum derivative, it's price tends to track with oil, and to the high side from a $/Btu standpoint. It's a good alternative for folks who don't have access to natural gas and want to run a fireplace or a barbeque, but it's pretty expensive for a primary heating fuel.

But not having yet found the perfect solution, I decided to re-investigate and crunch the numbers.

Propane was easier to figure. I simply had to figure the cost of the storage tank (which again, would have to be situated in front of the house because of no way to get it in the back) and the equivalent number of gallons I would need to replace the oil. The tank can be rented or bought, but its cost either way is pretty trivial to the cost of the propane. So, I put town $1,000 for the tank, and turned my thoughts to the amount of propane I would consume.

To do that, I needed to figure out what kind of boiler I would purchase. It was my intention to go as high-tech, high-efficiency as I could in order to keep the fuel cost down. What I settled on after a lot of comparison shopping was a gas-fired condensing boiler that was priced about $11,000 installed. (To make the system work right, I needed a lot of plumbing rework, and that plumbing comes dearly here.) The boiler was rated at 93% efficiency, which would give me a net heating value of 84,900 Btu per gallon of propane.

I found that while propane is going for about $2.50 a gallon right now, it has been higher in the past. Whether it will be over the next ten years is uncertain. I gave it the benefit of the doubt and priced it at $2.50. For that boiler then, with propane, my fuel cost would cost me $2.50 * (115,000/84,900) * 10000, which totals $33,860 for the ten years. So my total cost to go propane would be $12,000 (system) + $33,860 (fuel) for a total of $45,860. The highest cost option so far, roughly $7,000 higher than just staying with oil for the ten years.

That brought me to natural gas. I called the gas company and they sent out their salesman. Driving a nice new shiny truck, one of those big suckers. He smelled like money, and it wasn't promising.

He got out of his truck, and slowly turned his head back to gaze back up the lane to my house. "That's gonna be a problem," he cheerfully informed me. I had heard that before.

He pulled out his measuring wheel-on-a-stick. We walked it off together. I had paced it off myself, and my pace was off by only a couple of feet. "Two-twenty-five," he said as we hit the front corner of my garage. "We normally charge twelve dollars a foot to set a meter this far from our main. But I'll tell you what. If you get your own excavation contractor to dig and backfill the trench, we'll set the pipe and meter for free."

What a deal, I thought. He could tell I was a high-usage residence, and he wants to get me on the system. But doesn't want to mess with the excavation. Maybe I can get it done cheaper.

Well, like I said, that's what I thought. Two months later, I had had three different excavators stand me up. One came out and measured but never bid the job. I had friends out in the surrounding counties looking for an excavator. One guy said he had a cousin who wasn't an actual excavator, but he would probably dig me the trench. I said no thanks.

Finally, a fellow from a few towns away gave me a bid of $2400, not only to dig the trench for the gas meter, but to run a trench into the house the way the mechanical contractor, who had bid the boiler, had prescribed. Which was not around the back, but in front of my garage, up along my front steps, and into the house just below my entryway stairwell.

Now I had some numbers to work with. I wouldn't need the propane tank, but extra plumbing from the meter into the boiler room. That made the cost of the gas boiler system $11,000 for the installed boiler, $2,000 for the additional plumbing, and $2,400 for the excavation. The company was selling natural gas at about 99 cents per hundred cubic feet (ccf) at that time, or about 90 cents per therm. I stayed conservative, fully expecting natural gas to rise over the coming years, so I put in the cost of natural gas at $1.00 per therm. The resulting calculation put my ten-year fuel cost at $13,270. Which was almost exactly the same as my solid wood cost, and more than $3,500 less than the wood pellet cost.

So, for the natural gas option, my expected ten-year heating cost would be $15,400 (system) + $13,270 (fuel) = $28,670. Not the least expensive option, but definitely in the running, and better than I expected. I re-crunched the numbers with the natural gas cost at $1.50 per therm (more than 50% higher than it is currently, and highly unlikely in the next ten years), and the fuel cost jumped to almost $20,000...but the total cost of the conversion would still be $3,600 cheaper than staying with oil.

So I had to consider the intangibles. First and foremost, no additional fuel to split, carry, stack, or pour, and no boiler fire to maintain. No running out of fuel in the middle of an icy weekend holiday, such as happened at least once a year with oil, and would probably occur more often with propane.

But there were other considerations. First, marital bliss. The Wife was definitely on board with the gas concept. Which led to the other, more tangible and measurable, benefits. She was way ahead of me in the decision-making process, and already mentally planning to replace her electric stove, and the old woodstove on the back porch (I haven't mentioned the back porch, to keep things simple) with new, sleek and sexy gas appliances. And it didn't stop there...the upstairs open fireplace could be modernized with a "fireglass" insert, and a backyard grill and tiki torches entered the conversation at some point. For my part, I started thinking about the electric hot water heater, and the electric clothes dryer that runs about eight hours a day at our house. And about our apparent national desire to send all our coal production to China instead of running our own power plants, which is almost certain to cause our electricity prices to climb over the next decade, probably at a far faster rate than the natural gas market will recover.

So, I pulled the plug and signed a contract for the natural gas boiler. And by the first week of November, we had heat, lots of heat, and The Wife, Kids, and I were locked in mortal kombat over control of the thermostats.

So, the decision which was so complex, and took more than a year to figure out for our home, wound up being easier to make once I had all the numbers in front of me. It's hard to weigh intangibles without all the hard cost data in front of you, but once you've taken care of the calculations, the intangibles become easier to value. I built a spreadsheet for the analysis as I performed it, which allowed me to play with the numbers as my assumptions about fuel prices and my choices for boiler options changed. If you care to see the spreadsheet and use it, you can view it by clicking here. Once you're viewing it, if you want to plug in your own numbers, click on File, Download As..., and download it to your own computer. It's pretty rough, but you can improve it and customized as it you see fit.

Story finished? Not exactly. The project didn't go exactly as planned, and a key decision was changed in the process. I need to write at least one, and possibly two, epilogues to the story. If you've followed the story this far, come back tomorrow, you'll find it worth your while.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Heating Decision Made Easy (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 here...)

Before leaving my wood boiler option, I need to mention another couple of considerations.

First...last winter, while trying to "zone heat" my home without the boiler, one of my downstairs bedrooms got too cold and the copper line for the heating system froze and burst...and when it thawed, left a big mess before we discovered it. Many folks with wood boilers put in a backup oil or gas boiler for exactly this that when they leave the house for more than a day, and are unable to fire the boiler, the backup boiler kicks on and keeps the house pipes, plants, and pets from freezing.  That meant it made sense for me, if I was to Go Wood Boiler, to keep the old boiler in place for a backup, replace the oil tank, and add the new wood boiler as the primary system. Unfortunately, my boiler room is too make room for a new boiler, the old one had to go. Or else one of the kids had to share their bedroom with a new boiler. Not an optimal solution. much as I love stacking and feeding wood, The Wife does not share the sentiment. So when I am gone, she tallies each armload of wood onto her mall ledger. Those days away really cost me. Another related issue is that I am almost 57 years old now, and my father passed away at 60. And his father, at 63. So while I hope to be writing Wood Wit well into President Obama's fourth or fifth term, there's always the possibility that the next blog post could be the last. And that The Wife will be left with a chore that will not cause her to remember me kindly.
3. Replace the oil boiler with a high-efficiency wood pellet boiler.
OK, so I had to consider other options. The next best solution, one that would seem to overcome many of the drawbacks of a firewood boiler, would be to Go Wood Pellet Boiler. There are some great systems out there. The one I settled on cost $5,725, plus $3,000 for a pellet hopper, and $3,000 for installation...a total installed cost of $11,725 dollars. Great, that is less than the solid wood system, if I ran it without a thermal storage tank, which the vendor assured me was alright because of the high efficiency of the boiler design.

Pellet cost, however, would offset the lower cost of installation. I used the same method of calculating an oil equivalency factor. Wood pellets provide 13.6 million Btu's of net heat at 83% efficiency, so the calculation was 115,000 (gallon of oil) / 13,600,000 (ton of pellets) for a factor of .00845. I used a lower than historical average of $200 for a ton of pellets, since I expect pellet production to continue to exert downward price pressure on the market over the next ten years. We've been paying between $210 and $240 a ton here for the past few years.

These assumptions and calculations produced a ten-year pellet cost of $16,912 ($200/ton * .00845 * 10,000) on about 84.5 tons of pellets...$1691 and eight and a half tons per year. That meant my fuel cost would be about $4,000 higher with pellets than firewood over the ten years, just slightly more than offsetting the lower cost of the system. Total ten-year cost of pellet boiler option...$11,725 (system) + $16,912 (fuel) = $28, 637... a savings of $10,263 over the oil option, about the same as the firewood boiler option.

OK, so far, so good. But I had yet to consider the fuel handling issue, same as with wood. Recall that my boiler room is cramped, and that there is no way to get a delivery truck to my back door. That meant either hauling eight and a half tons of pellets per year up those seventeen icy concrete steps per year, 40 pounds at a time, or figuring out a bulk handling solution. Several vendors had suggested a pellet hopper with an automatic conveyor feed to the boiler. But in my yard, that would mean a bin in my driveway, just off the front of my garage, with a conveyor running (somehow) up the side of my garage and house and around to the back door, about 120 feet total from the storage bin to the boiler room...a room which has no window or adjoining wall to pierce, just a door. So my house layout stumped our best efforts to design an affordable pellet conveyor...a couple of vendors just said "forget it" about five minutes after arriving at the house.

Now, I carry 40-pound sacks of salt up those steps for my water conditioner, about five a month. The thought of carrying two tons, or 100 sacks, of wood pellets up those same steps every month in winter makes my old spine cry out just thinking about it. Time to consider another option.
4. Replace the oil boiler with a high-efficiency coal boiler.
Coal. Would I really consider it? The greenies out there already sling arrows at me for burning wood...what kind of grief would I get if I started burning coal? And would the progressive State College borough council find a reason to evict me?

But it kept gnawing at me. Coal is cheap here. In fact, it is the lowest cost fuel per Btu around, and is likely to stay that way for a long, long, time. And my home maintenance costs for all other expenses keep going up. I'm a practical guy, and I'm on a fixed income here at the U. I made the call.

The numbers looked good.  The installed system was only going to cost me $9,900, and that included the building of an outdoor storage box for the coal. The coal equivalency of my oil usage was five tons per year, and at $240 per ton, I was only going to be paying $1,200 for fuel, one hundred dollars a year less than firewood. So the total ten-year cost for a coal boiler rang up to $9,900 (system), and $12,000 (fuel) - $21,900 total. A ten-year savings of $17,000 over keeping the old oil boiler. By now, I knew I had to get that oil boiler out of there.

But whatever handling issues I had with wood, coal was worse. The nice thing is that 5 tons is exactly what the coal guy can deliver in his truck. But then, when he arrived at my house, he would dump it, either on the driveway for me to transport (somehow) to the coal box behind my house, or into the coal box sitting in front of my garage, for load by load hauling up to a smaller bin in the boiler room. A bin I had no room for. All the while developing black lung for my effort. OK, forget the coal.

Well, I've run pretty long again, and I know that most readers don't get past the second paragraph of a blog post. And the gas options and a summary will take some white space to explain.  So, see you tomorrow, if you're still interested.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Heating Decision Made Easy (Part 1)

I've hinted over the past year of so that I was studying my wood heating options at the Ray homestead, and that I would share my experience with you after the project was decided and completed. Well, it got very complicated, but I'll take a stab at sharing it with you with the hope that it will be at least a little understandable.

Since every heating solution is a house-specific problem, let me set the table. Our home is a 1958 vintage 3600 sq.ft. split-level house, cinder block construction, with a vaulted ceiling and no attic. The heating system installed in the home at construction was a baseboard hot water system run by an oil-fueled boiler. The boiler room is in the middle of the lower level and is quite small, just enough room for a boiler and plumbing.

I bought the home in 2005 from an elderly lady who had owned the home with her husband since 1960. The boiler had been replaced in the 1990's, but was functioning poorly due to a bad sludge accumulation in the underground oil tank behind the house. Boiler maintenance was a twice a winter requirement, and in the last year or so it had gotten so unworkable that even monthly maintenance failed to keep the boiler working efficiently. So, late in the winter of 2010-2011 I shut it down for good.

I had installed a high-efficiency wood stove in the lower level family room in the middle of the house prior to the winter of 2009-10, and run it as supplemental heat. For winter 2011-12, I attempted to run only with the wood stove and three electric ceramic room heaters. I burned about eight cords of firewood in 09-10, and six in the warmer winter of 11-12. However, I couldn't get sufficient heating circulation and the cost of the electric heaters made it obvious that I needed a better central heating solution.

New geothermal and forced-air heating solutions were infeasible because I had no where to run ductwork without making the house look like an industrial-themed restaurant. I investigated electrical "mini-splits" but the cost of a system for a house of that size was prohibitive. Since my return from Austria in 2008, I had been nursing a dream of running a wood or pellet boiler/solar thermal combination out of a garage conversion, but again, the cost of the installed system was out of my league. I also had the numbers run for a solar PV system installation, because the contractor had proposed that the economics of solar PV now approached the cost of a solar thermal system. The payback for solar PV on my house was 56 years without government incentives, and 40 years with them. Unfortunately, a 40-year payback on a 25-year system just doesn't make sense, and I didn't feel it gentlemanly to ask you all to help me pay for it, anyway.

So, after nearly a year of digging in all the wrong holes, I arrived at a simple conclusion: my best bet was to simply replace the old boiler with the best alternative new boiler I could get. The alternatives available were fairly straightforward; oil, natural gas, propane gas, coal, round wood, or wood pellet. My problem was to determine which fuel/boiler/installation best met the needs of my family. But each potential solution had at least one drawback.

First, I could have stayed with oil without even buying a new boiler. The old boiler still had about 5-10 years of serviceable life in it, but I would have to replace the oil tank so that clean oil could be fed into the boiler. The oil company gave me a bid to install a new above-ground oil tank in the back of my house, and they would simply cap off the old oil tank. So, my first scenario was

  1. Stick with the old boiler, hope for another ten years on it, install a new oil tank, and live with the high cost of heating oil.
The new tank would cost me $1,400, and I used $3.75 per gallon average over the next ten years as my baseline comparison cost. We had been averaging 1,200 gallons per winter since buying the home, and with the improved efficiency of the boiler due to the cleaner feed, and the addition of the supplemental heat of the wood stove, I figured we could reasonably lower our oil consumption to 1,000 gallons per winter. So, my total heating system cost over the next ten years would be $1,400 + ($3.75 * 1,000 * 10) for a total of $38,900, or $3,890 per year.

Next, I considered the "natural" alternative...wood. Since I really wanted a wood boiler, I researched several different types, and finally decided on one that I thought to be the best hi-efficiency unit that would fit in my small boiler room. (I won't discuss brands in this column, because, what worked or didn't in my case may not apply to yours, so no sense naming names.) Since I knew my Go Wood reputation was at stake, I came up with what I thought was a great woody alternative scenario:
2. Replace the oil boiler with a high-efficiency wood boiler. 
The wood boiler of my choice was a pretty high-tech wood gasification unit, and the system required a separate thermal storage (hot water) tank to maximize efficiency. The cost of the installed system was $7,945 for the boiler, $4,000 for the stainless steel tank, $3,000 for installation, for a total of $14,945 installed cost. Then I had to figure out the cost of the wood.

Now, the way most companies calculate fuel cost is on a dollar per million BTU basis, and then the home owner has to guess how many BTU's they're going to use. I had the advantage of knowing my historical baseline, and therefore simply needed to figure out a simple alternative fuel equivalency to a gallon of fuel oil.

For wood, that equivalency is fairly simple. A gallon of #2 fuel oil provides 115,000 Btu's at 83% boiler efficiency, which is what my old boiler was rated at. A cord of seasoned firewood delivers 15.4 million Btu's at 77% efficiency. The system I was looking at was rated higher than 77% with the thermal storage, but I used those numbers to stay conservative, lest any of you accuse me of putting my wooden thumb on the scales. So, one gallon of fuel oil in my system would be the equivalent of .00747 (115,000/15,400,000) cords of wood.

I then applied a historical price of $175/cord of seasoned firewood, multiplied that by my "oil equivalency factor" of .00747, and again by 10,000 for the number of gallons of oil I was replacing. That comes out to a ten-year wood cost of $13,068, or $1,307 per year. At the price of $175/cord, that meant I was going to burn about 75 cords of wood to replace the 10,000 gallons of oil, or about 7.5 cords per winter.

So, the total cost of my wood boiler investment was going to be $14,945 (system) + $13,068 (wood), for a total ten-year cost of $28,013, or $2,801 per year. This delivers a ten-year cost savings of $10,887, or $1,089 dollars per year. Not bad!

But the wood calculations above brought out one point I hadn't really thought much about. I failed to mention that my house is built into the side of a hill, and the back of the house (and the door to the boiler room) is inaccessible except by foot. To get wood stacked by the back door where it is needed for the boiler means hauling it up and around, and is a pretty non-trivial job. I had been stacking my 6-8 cords out in the front drive, for Sarah to admire, and bringing it armful by armful to a firewood rack for my stove; the thought of hauling an additional seven-and-a-half cords per year up those icy steps called for a little further investigation.

Since this is getting pretty long, and I need to rest my back from the thought of hauling all that wood, I'll give you "the rest of the story" tomorrow.