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Wood Boilers for Greenhouse Heating - Paul Betz, High Mowing Organic Seeds Sales Associate and owner of High Ledge Farm, VT

Greenhouses play a big role on our farm. Spring plant sales account for 20% of our gross sales, and our tomato house provides beautiful tomatoes from early July till October. Once the plant production push is over, benches come out and more tomatoes go in, onions and winter squash cure and are stored there in the fall. We had been heating from start-up till the end of May, and then turned the heat back on in mid-October. All told, our propane use was around 800 gallons annually; small for some farms but a lot for us, even with a pre-buy contract. We had been looking into a fuel switch in the winter of 2008, but the cost of reinvesting in a new heating system when we had one that worked fine seemed like a lot for us. Then, in early April 2009, we lost our house, greenhouse, barns and much farm infrastructure in a fire.

We have been rebuilding our farm for a few years now. When we looked at our heating options, we knew we didnít want propane, and being tied to a fossil fuel and the whim of the market was becoming harder for us on a lot of different levels. We had looked at corn or pellet stoves, but the access to fuel seemed to have potential problems. We have no room to grow the corn we would need, and I have yet to find a wood pellet anywhere on the farm, but we do have lots of woods around us, so it seemed to make sense to use our on-site resources.

Outdoor wood boilers have come a long way. While some older models are heavy polluters with their particulate emissions, the new models are gassifiers, and burn clean. When the unit is at operating temperature, the only indication that it is running is some ripples of heat at the top of the stack. They are also able to capture more of the potential energy in each piece of wood. My boiler requires dry hardwood to operate, so fuel management is definitely a consideration, and should be a part of any decision to pursue this kind of a system.

The boiler heats 440 gallons of water to 185 degrees, which is then pumped underground through insulated piping. Last season, there was also a 275 gallon insulated tank in the greenhouse, which was constantly circulating in a loop with the boiler. When I initially designed the system, I wanted to have extra storage, mainly for use at night when I anticipated the greatest demand on the boiler. It turns out that the heat exchangers and boiler are pretty well matched, and I plan on taking the extra tank out this spring. From the plant house, the water is pumped into two zones, with each greenhouse representing a zone with its own thermostat.The time that the greenhouses were heating, from April 1st to May 31st, I used 8 cords of wood.  This is a lot of fuel, and it was a sight to watch my wood pile shrink that quickly, but in previous years I was using close to 800 gallons of propane.

While I was just heating the air last season, I will be putting in some under bench heating for the 2011 season. At some point I will swap in better quality piping from the boiler to the greenhouses. I went with a lower cost option, and I lose heat in the time it takes for the water to travel, which translates into more fuel use. I may also resize my heat exchangers. Right now they are adequate, but with a really cold snap I can't always get the temperature in the greenhouses where I want it. Under bench sidewall insulation (also on my pre-spring to-do list) should help the heat I have go farther.

I like the fact that my system is using atmospheric carbon to heat the greenhouses. It does require a lot more work though. Having a truck roll up and deliver millions of BTUs that work with the push of a button sure was convenient. One of the reasons I wanted a boiler is that I can run the heating end of the system pretty accurately with a thermostat, and I donít have to worry about loading a wood stove in the middle of the night. I do feel like the system adds a few hours a week to my schedule, including getting it lit, loaded and cleaned.  Having a tractor sure helps though.  I have gotten used to the extra time, and it doesnít bother me.

I did get help, both with engineering and financial assistance, through University of Vermont Extension. Hereís a link to the study online: http://www.uvm.edu/vtvegandberry/CaseStudies.html

There are a few other boiler installation studies there as well. I am excited about the choice that we made to install this system. If you have specific questions I would be happy to answer them.

All my best,
Paul

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