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 reason...so 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 small...to 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.
Second...as 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.