SunWood Biomass in the press! Times Argus | Vermont Commons
SunWood moves on Biomass Incentive Legislation...
Barre installation provides job training in renewable energy
Wood is considered a basically carbon-neutral fuel because the amount of carbon released when it burns is about equal to the amount of carbon the tree absorbs as it grows. Since new trees can be grown, wood is also considered a renewable fuel. But where can you pick up some practical information about wood pellet hot water heating systems or biomass heat in general? The opportunity might just come to your school, town hall, or fire department.
SunWood Systems, a small biomass heating company in Waitsfield, has started to offer educational outreach as part of its daily field operation installations at local schools and institutions. The company is also working with Vermont Technical College to help integrate biomass into VTC's curriculum. As part of that effort, SunWood will install a wood pellet heating system that will be used as a teaching tool at the college.
In Europe, biomass heating systems have been maturing for decades and now account for over 30 percent of the European Union's heating needs. In the United States, meanwhile, we have been heating primarily with fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal). It's time to catch up with our European neighbors - and more reason then ever to provide educational opportunities for youth, students and adults making career choices.
Vermont leads the country in volume of institutional wood-heating systems. More that 40 schools in Vermont use some form of wood heat, including pellets, chips, and even just plain old-fashioned firewood. These installations offer a natural teaching opportunity to bring biomass heat to the classroom and, in some cases, the classroom to the biomass heating installation. Some of the schools heated by wood in central Vermont include Barre City Elementary, Spaulding High School in Barre, Barre Town School, Berlin Elementary, East Montpelier Elementary, Randolph Union High School, and U-32 High School in Montpelier.
SunWood Systems founders Marc DiMario and Dave Frank saw that these institutional installations offered an ideal setting for educating young people about biomass heat and, even more importantly, encouraging students to think about future jobs and careers and in the renewable energy sector.
As Dave Frank explains, "We just felt this was this was an excellent opportunity to develop a basic syllabus for a locally available renewable. Currently it's a fairly immature program, but it's gradually evolving. With the younger students we keep it basic by identifying the source of biomass and its value as being local and harvested sustainability. Other situations are tailored to the target audience - their needs, interests and age."
Recently SunWood expanded on its educational outreach effort by partnering up with ReSource, a nonprofit community enterprise formerly known as Recycle North. The goal of ReSource is to sell quality, affordable used goods through an innovative program of repairing and reselling household items that would otherwise be discarded. Beyond simply selling a product and keeping materials out of landfills, the intent is to provide jobs and training for unemployed workers. Students learn ecologically sound skills, such as weatherization, appliance and computer repair, customer service skills, which they then use to provide affordable services to low-income people in central Vermont.
At a new location on Granite Street in the heart of Barre, ReSource is installing a biomass pellet heating system as part of a larger rehabilitation project that is bringing new life to an old granite shed. This new location, called ReStore, has been hosting some unique career training programs as part of the biomass installation process. Participants from these two programs - ReTrain and YouthBuild - shadowed SunWood employees to get a better understanding of the nuts and bolts of the biomass system. Some of the participants also rolled up their sleeves and completed the installation of several integral parts of this complex system themselves.
ReTrain serves individuals who are ready to work but need marketable job skills and work credentials for their desired career. The YouthBuild is for 16- to 24-year-olds who have dropped out of high school and are looking to earn their diploma or GED.
The biomass system at the Granite Street location shows how one company's educational outreach program can serve several community purposes by installing a sustainable biomass heating system and offering job training and career opportunities at the same time. The ReStore facility will eventually house a reuse operation offering household goods, appliances, building materials, and art supplies - as well as education and training programs to unemployed or underemployed individuals. But at least part of that goal has already been realized in the process of addressing its heating requirements in an environmentally sustainable and community-oriented manner.
Wendy Gaither is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]. SunWood Systems, a biomass renewable energy company with over 120 installations throughout Vermont, is developing an educational outreach program to inspire, train, and teach about biomass and biomass heat. For more information contact David Frank or Marc DiMario at 583-9300 or [email protected]SunWoodSystems.com.
Gaelan Brown Interviews Sun Systems' Marc DiMario: Sun Is Number One, and Wood Is Good (Energy Solutions for a 21st C. Vermont)
Submitted by Rob Williams on Thu, 10/30/2008 - 8:24pm.
Gaelan Brown: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Many people in Vermont
are working to help increase local energy independence and fuel
efficiency. Most agree that wood and solar are two resources
Vermont could be better utilizing. Why did you choose the name “Sun
Wood Systems” for your company, and how long have you been in business?
Marc DiMario: Utilizing sun and wood to provide energy is the core of
our company. We have been making the transition from being a
traditional heating contractor to our current structure [starting]
about two years ago.
What is your background and why did you go into supplying and installing wood boilers and solar hot water systems?
MD: I have been doing plumbing and heating for over
ten years and have always been fascinated with the concept and power of
wood-fired boilers and solar panels. I’ve had a wood boiler in my house
since it was built. After reading numerous articles published about the
energy future of our country, this concept seemed like a perfect fit.
How do your boilers work? What exactly is “wood gasification”?
MD: Our boilers are placed in your basement or utility area.
They vent into a masonry or stainless steel chimney. The heat produced
is transferred to your house through pipes that tie into any existing
central heating system. “Gasification” refers to the process in which
the combustible gases produced by a wood fire are re-ignited by
injecting air into the flame. This process burns off the chemicals that
cause smoke and creosote and gives very high efficiency.
How are the wood-furnace systems you work with different from traditional wood stoves, in terms of convenience and efficiency?
MD: Lighting fires is basically the same process; the difference
is that the heat sent to the rooms is controlled by your thermostats
with a boiler and the whole house heats evenly. Our boilers have higher
combustion efficiency than most wood stoves.
How has the Vermont market responded? Approximately how many Vermont
homes do you think have gone with these systems in recent years?
MD: Our sales have been good. With the soaring fuel prices, many
people are seeing value in our systems. I would estimate that only 5 to
10 percent of Vermont homes have switched to these alternatives in
How much money does the average home save per year on fuel costs by
relying on an efficient wood boiler compared to oil or propane?
MD: A home that uses 1,000 gallons of heating oil for the winter
months will save around $3,000 this winter (oil: $4.79/gal, wood:
$250/cord). If oil rises next year the savings are greater.
Plus they won’t have to spend money on a health club because they stay
in shape from stacking firewood – an added bonus. All kidding aside, it
seems to me that a lot of wood-boiler and solar-system companies on the
Internet make “too good to be true” claims. What are the most common
“false claims” that you see out there, and how do you overcome this
with your customers/prospects?
MD: A lot of these companies make bold claims. The most common things they conveniently forget to mention include:
1. Wood costs money (or time) – it’s not free;
2. Heating with wood is a personal commitment – it requires daily attention;
3. The sun does not shine every day – sometimes not for many days at a time.
I try to make all our customers aware of all angles to ensure complete satisfaction after the sale.
Would you say that burning wood for heat and hot water is a key part of
the equation for Vermont to become significantly more energy
MD: It makes a great deal of sense. Of course, to do it on a
large scale we need to do it responsibly. Clean-burning units and
sustainable forestry practices are a must.
If everyone used one of these systems, how would that impact the local forestry economy?
MD: Foresters would be able to “clean out” the lower-grade
timber, loggers and firewood companies would prosper, and all our
home-heating energy dollars would stay here in Vermont.
Are your systems primarily for homes, or do they also work well for
commercial use? Do you have any examples of commercial use you can give
MD: We offer a boiler that is suitable for medium-sized
commercial jobs. They are very large and need their own room, but they
can do a lot of work. Heating a 6,000-square-foot shop or house is a
good example of their use.
What would the economics look like, in terms of annual fuel cost, with
a wood boiler to heat a large building such as a school, compared to
oil, propane, or natural gas? Let’s use the Waitsfield Elementary
School as an example.
MD: Schools and large industrial applications are generally
heated with chips because they can be fed automatically and delivered
in large trucks. These systems are very expensive to install, so it’s
not practical to do in a smaller school. Schools like Waitsfield are
designed around oil heat and are probably going to stay that way. If
Waitsfield school was tripled in size and set up to accommodate three
or four towns, a heating plant could be part of the expansion; the
savings of combining the services coupled with the wood plant would be
What if someone already has an oil or gas furnace? How can one of these wood boilers be integrated into that?
MD: We have different methods for each type of system we tie
into. We always leave the oil or gas as a backup so the homeowner
always has the option of convenience.
Who is the ideal buyer of these wood boilers from a consumer
perspective? A new home construction? Someone who needs to replace an
old oil furnace? Or will the fuel-cost savings of using wood mean that
a wood boiler makes sense economically for just about anyone?
MD: Our systems make sense for most homes in our climate.
What type of household should not consider this?
MD: People with very small homes, or handicapped people
should not consider wood-fired boilers. Pellet boilers would be a
How are your wood-boilers different from the outdoor boilers that are often referred to as “smokers”?
MD: Our boilers have been developed in Europe over the last 30
years; they use the best technology to get the most heat from a smaller
amount of wood. The outdoor models (OWB) are a primitive design that
consumes a lot of wood and produces a lot of smoke. The OWB companies
are starting to build better products but it will be a couple of years
before it’s perfected.
Can you give me, in layman terms, a technical explanation of why many
of those outdoor boilers smoke so much? I heard that recent regulations
mean that new installations of most of those outdoor boilers are no
longer allowed in Vermont.
MD: They leave a large pile of smoldering logs in a box
surrounded by cool water for long periods and then burn off all the
collected creosote and carbon deposits when there is a call for heat.
The EPA set a few rules for them, but their rules are not very strict
due to lobbyists and contributions. The rules only removed the worst
units from market. They have a responsibility to look out for large,
prosperous entities like the outdoor boiler companies.
Can you say with confidence that your wood-boiler systems are
“clean-burning” compared to oil, propane, or natural gas? If everyone
used these, would we have winter smog issues?
MD: The products we sell are very clean burning. Once
gasification is achieved there is minimal smoke coming from the
chimney. All wood burning creates smoke over the course of a burn. If
every house in Vermont heated with wood there would likely be days when
smog levels were high regardless of the type of units used.
<em>(Editorial Note: Most normal woodstoves burn at 60- percent
to 70-percent efficiency, while a well-maintained oil or gas furnace
can get 80-percent to 90-percent efficiency. The Tarm Boilers and
pellet boilers that SunWood Systems carries get between 80-percent and
What are Vermont’s challenges to rely more on wood as a renewable fuel? What do we need to do to overcome these challenges?
MD: Challenges include clean air, sustainable forestry
practices, and fuel-delivery methods. To overcome these we need to view
the whole picture and determine what aspects need attention first, then
move towards solutions that can be permanent.
Forest management/access issues seem to be the biggest challenge.
If everyone used wood to heat their homes and hot water, how would we
maintain our forests in a sustainable way? Do you know how many acres
of forestland it would take to fuel 200,000 homes? Does Vermont have
enough forestland for this?
MD: I don’t have the details, but we have sold units to
foresters who speak positively about forest regeneration and “cleaning
up” the woods. There are a lot of trees in Vermont.
<em>(Editor’s Note: The Vermont forestry department says that if
an average wood-heated home required four cords per year, it would take
1 million cords – or less than 1 percent of the standing wood supply,
to provide 250,000 homes with annual heat.)</em>
Can you tell me how pellet boilers work, and what the advantages and disadvantages are?
MD: Pellet boilers will eventually replace oil and gas boilers.
They operate the same as a fossil fuel unit but need to be fed with
pellets, either with an automated auger or manually.
I hear that there is a shortage of pellet stoves and most suppliers
have a waiting list. What factors should someone consider before buying
MD: There is a shortage of stoves, but it’s probably a good
thing. The pellet production needs to catch up. My advice would be to
wait a year or two; there are many new products on the way and there
are pellet producers coming on line every day. In fact, we will have
some new pellet boilers in the spring from an Austrian company called
What do you know about the pellet-supply chain in Vermont? I hear that
pellets can be made from a lot of biomass products other than wood,
such as certain types of grass?
MD: These new types of biomass will change the market. They
currently have a lot of problems with reliable combustion, but through
technology the producers will figure it out.
This seems like a chicken-egg thing. Do you know of any significant
increase in Vermont pellet production that is happening? This seems
like an interesting business opportunity.
MD: We are currently preparing to sell pellets in bulk. However,
the pellets come from New England Wood Pellet company in New Hampshire
and they travel 130 miles to get here. There are many groups trying to
bring a mill on line in Vermont, but it will take time and research.
Let’s talk cost for a minute. What does a wood- or pellet-boiler system cost compared to an oil or gas boiler?
MD: A simple setup to run when the weather is cold would cost
around $13,000, but some installations can cost up to $25,000. These
costs are significantly more than installing an inexpensive gas or oil
unit. We only sell the highest-quality products, therefore our jobs
cost a bit more than others. Inexpensive cord wood boilers are
available but we do not carry them because of liability.
When you factor in the reduction in annual fuel costs of wood compared
to oil or gas, how many years does it take for a wood boiler to pay for
itself compared to buying a new oil or gas furnace?
MD: Cost of fuel is the driver in this equation. At current fuel
costs, realistic payback will be five to 10 years. Other companies
might tell you less but they are probably using “marketing math.”
Can you tell me how solar hot water can be part of this equation? Can solar hot water really work in Vermont?
MD: Yes, our latitude is actually excellent for solar, but we do
not recommend it for heating homes. It can work well for heating
domestic hot water.
How does solar hot water work in tandem with a wood boiler?
MD: Once the heating season is over in spring, solar can
generally heat domestic water until you turn your heat back on in the
fall. There are many installation methods.
What would a solar hot water system cost for a family of four and what
percentage of their hot water needs would the system provide?
MD: A system would cost around $6,000 and is generally
considered 70 percent of annual water heating. Again, there are many
methods and a huge range of costing.
Can you describe the ideal home heat/hot-water system using the best available technology to have the best economic benefit?
MD: A wood boiler installed with a large heat-storage tank, and a solar “indirect” water heater.
What should someone do to get more information on these systems? Would
any of your customers allow an open house for the community to see how
this works? I think a lot of people struggle to understand this,
especially with so much hype in the marketplace.
MD: We have many events planned; however, current sales have
consumed all our time. I am willing to show people firsthand how we put
these principles into practice. All of our contact info can be found on
our “very basic” website. <a title="www.sunwoodsystems.com" href="../">www.sunwoodsystems.com</a>