Dutch Dresser

When you work on introducing a new technology to a population and region, you discover lots of intriguing impediments to that introduction that you’d never have imagined. Yesterday (October 11, 2012) the Maine Fuel Board voted to allow Maine Energy Systems to engage in an “Emerging Technologies” project with them that might lead to elimination of one of those impediments for the pellet central heating industry in the State of Maine.

Maine is unique in its licensure of technicians for “solid fuels.” In Maine a person installing a boiler must have “solid fuel” authority on his license to legally install a “solid fuel” boiler in someone else’s building. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, but let’s avoid the levels of license detail.) The need for this rule apparently arose from three potential hazards associated with “solid fuel” boilers: the possibility for a thermal run-away during a power outage as combustion continues on a load of fuel while circulation fails due to lack of power, high chimney temperatures, and high boiler surface temperatures.

As highly sophisticated automatic pellet boilers made their way into the American market, they were defined in Maine as “solid fuel” appliances because pellets are solid. While that seems innocent and logical enough, the categorization has one substantial flaw and it creates one significant impediment to product growth in the marketplace.

The Flaw

State-of-the-art pellet boilers display none of the attributes that led to the perceived need for “solid fuel” rules in Maine. The rules were devised for cordwood boilers and coal stoker boilers that can hold a significant charge of fuel at any given time. The combustion of that fuel is relatively uncontrolled. Pellet boilers burn a very small quantity of fuel at any given time, and the combustion of that fuel is highly controlled. Combustion stops almost immediately if the power goes out, hence, no excessive heat can be produced during a power outage.

Cordwood boilers and coal stoker boilers can produce very high stack temperatures. The exhaust gas temperatures from state-of-the-art pellet boilers are very much like those of modern oil boilers. In fact these boilers are so efficient, the stack gas temperature is often quite cool, 250F, or so, but it never exceeds 400F. Therefore, high chimney temperatures never occur.

Old cordwood and coal stoker boilers could develop high surface temperatures making installed distance from combustible surfaces important. The surface temperature of these state-of-the-art pellet boilers is the same as the temperature of the room. The heat exchangers are extremely well insulated to achieve the desired efficiencies. So, the worry about proximity of flammable materials due to high boiler surface temperatures is not justified with these boilers.

The Impediment

Because these highly sophisticated boilers are lumped in the same category as cordwood boilers and coal stoker boilers, “solid fuel” license holders must install them in Maine. There are many fewer “solid fuel” license holders than ordinary oil license holders, so scheduling boiler installations in this rapidly growing segment is very challenging in the busy times of the year. Other busy technicians find it hard to justify studying for a test that focuses generally on boilers they’ll never see, so they’re not inclined to prepare for the “solid fuel” test to install pellet boilers as they’re just beginning to make a mark on the marketplace.

The Emerging Technologies Project

On October 11, 2012, the Maine Fuel Board approved a request made by Maine Energy Systems for a year long project intended to confirm the company’s assertion that their boilers, and those similar to them, can be installed by oil boiler license holders who have been suitably trained in the differences between pellet boilers and oil boilers.

This is great news for the pellet industry in Maine as the State’s boiler inspectors will inspect some, or all, of these installations and, thereby, become much more familiar with these sorts of systems. If the project leads to the anticipated conclusion, the request to re-categorize the boilers for licensure requirement purposes should be reasonably received. We have little doubt that the Project will reach successful conclusion as these very same boilers are installed throughout the Northeast by the same technicians who install oil boilers and who have been trained at Maine Energy Systems in fuel handling and burner adjustment.

In the meantime, Maine Energy Systems will be training oil boiler technicians in the installation of their equipment to ensure that all who choose to install the MESys AutoPellet boiler can do it this heating season on a schedule that works for them.

Dutch Dresser is the Managing Director of Maine Energy Systems in Bethel, Maine.