As the most recent Earth Day came and went this year, I found myself mesmerized by the number of companies, large and small, that suddenly have turned “green”. Thank you Al Gore. You finally made a contribution to society that we can see. (I love that Internet invention thing you introduced us to.)
What I really find interesting about all of this is that most good hydronic heating contractors have been doing green things for a long time without recognition. I know my company has. We've been doing cutting-edge high efficiency hydronic heating systems since forever. Both my partner and myself have been doing solar since the 80s, and we've been doing the ground source heat pump thing for the last five years. Now, all of a sudden, it's the “green” thing to do.
Global warming has some dire consequences that can be seen and they are significant. I own property in Western Colorado. Over the last few summers, I have watched as the Pine Bark Beetle has devastated the lodge pole pine tree population. Entire green forests now are red and dying or already are dead hulks of their former selves and devoid of needles, and it seems like it happened overnight.
The National Forest Service has said the primary reason the Bark Beetle has caused such wide devastation (up to 90% tree loss in most affected forests from Mexico to northern Canada) is that it has not gotten cold enough to kill the beetles' larvae. Hence, the beetle is thriving and wiping out whole forests. It breaks my heart to witness this devastation, but underneath all of this apparent devastation is a golden lining, and it is “green” by nature.
Welcome to the burgeoning world of biomass conversion. Here in the central Rocky Mountains, there is an obvious wealth of relatively low-cost fuel available for the taking. In fact, this newfound resource is so great that it has spawned numerous upstart companies. Among them are logging operations to get the wood from the field to the processing plants.
Also necessary are processors to convert the standing board feet into miniature pellets, perfect for auger feeding into highly efficient converters (boilers and furnaces). A transportation/sales entity also is needed to get the goods from the manufacturer to the end users. Where do we fit into this green scene? Boilers! Someone has to design and install the boilers to make these chains of carbon do the work.
In the ever-changing arena of wood boilers, there is a new movement afoot, and it is driven by this same global climate change that has caused the problem in the first place. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally has stepped up to the plate and has mandated base efficiencies for wood-burning appliances.
The most recent history has been for the use of large, open combustion chambers that would allow the user to load up the firebox with large pieces of wood. This would allow them to “coke” all day long, smoldering the whole day, occasionally firing up to a higher operating temperature, only to be snuffed back out again to conserve the wood in the firebox.
If you've ever seen or worked on one of these numbers, you understand why it was important for the EPA to step in and come up with some guidelines. The plume of smoke from some of these beasts could be seen for miles. When you get an enclave of homes and numerous old smokeys doing their thing, it created a visible haze that you know cannot be good for humans, much less the environment. I know that wood is theoretically “carbon neutral.” In other words, the amount of carbon it would produce, whether it is burned in a firebox or allowed to decay on the forest floor, is theoretically the same. But I don't remember ever seeing a bluish haze associated with decomposition on the forest floor.
Mark Eatherton is a Denver-based hydronics contractor. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 303/778-7772.