Biomass boilers: an introduction
For domestic heating purposes the main biomass fuel is wood in the form of logs, pellets or wood chips â€“ although there are boilers available that burn a range of cereals. The full range of biomass fuels also include animal, food and industrial waste and high energy crops such as miscanthus, willow, rape and maize.
Smaller biomass stoves can be used just for room heating, with a back boiler to heat the water, or to produce hot water and heating for the whole house.
Unlike most renewable energy technologies where there is an upfront investment, then the element that provides the power (ie wind or sun) is free, there is an ongoing fuel cost with biomass heating.
Is a biomass boiler suitable for my home?
Wood burning stoves are suitable for heating any room that has a chimney or a flue. They come in sorts of shapes and sizes, and can burn logs, or wood pellets. The wood pellet stoves tend to be cleaner and easier to maintain, producing much less ash. However, some people find the noise of the fans on these stoves annoying, so check how loud it is before you buy.If you want to attach a back boiler, you will need to check with your installer or plumber whether additional changes to your plumbing are necessary, especially if youâ€™ve got a combi boiler.
If you are in a smokeless zone you will need to check the
appliance before you buy. Some burn the wood so cleanly that they are certified
for use in smokeless zones.
Biomass boilers tend to be larger than the gas or oil equivalent.
They are generally more suitable for people not connected to mains gas who have some space for storage. You will need about 6-7 cubic metres of
space near where the boiler is sited to store the fuel (for an average
size house). To do a detailed initial assessment of whether or not it's appropriate, you can download the Carbon Trust's publication Biomass heating: a practical guide for potential users.
Ideally the fuel storage area will be under cover, as it is important to keep fuel dry. A higher moisture content in the fuel will reduce the efficiency with which it burns. If wood pellets get wet they turn to unusable mush.
It also needs to be accessible for a delivery lorry. Wood pellets can be delivered loose and blown into a hopper, or in bags on a pallet.
The boiler will need a flue in which the vent material is designed for wood fuel (existing chimneys can be lined). The installation must comply with all relevant building regulations. If you live in a listed building or a conservation area you will need to check with your local planning authority before fitting a new flue.
Itâ€™s important to check that the boiler will work with your existing plumbing, or whether it needs to be altered. Also find out how easy it will be to get the boiler serviced regularly and whether there are local plumbers or engineers who know how to work with it.
Also, find out if there is at least one, or preferably a choice of, local fuel suppliers, as the cost of fuel varies according to the distance the supplier has to travel. Not all suppliers offer all types of fuel. The lowest maintenance way is in a tanker to a hopper. A pallet full of bags will involve more work feeding the boiler. The National Energy Foundation has an up to date list of wood pellet suppliers. You can search for a local wood fuel supplier at Big Barn.
Wood pellet boilers will need an annual service.
How do biomass boilers work?
Wood is hardly a new fuel for heating houses, but the technology has improved considerably to make it more efficient. Open fires may look lovely, but they are not a good way to heat a room. Most of the heat goes up the chimney and, as the fire draws in oxygen to burn, it creates draughts in the room that can cancel out the benefit of the heat.
Modern wood-burning stoves are a huge improvement on the open fire for room heating. They convert 70 per cent of the fuel into useful heat. If you attach a back boiler, they can also help heat water and supply some radiators.
More efficient still are automatic pellet stoves which operate at 85 to 90 per cent efficiency. They spread the heat through convection, rather than traditional radiation, which means the room is heated more evenly and efficiently using a fan. They are clean and easy to use, with automatic ignition and a thermostatic control. They have an integrated hopper, which automatically tops up the fuel. They generally hold enough fuel for one to three days operation. The ash pan needs to be emptied about once a month. It is also possible to add a back boiler to these.
Biomass boilers can replace oil or gas boilers to heat hot water and radiators (or under floor heating). They burn logs, wood chips, wood pellets or other forms of biomass. The most advanced boilers are fully automatic. They control the amount of fuel and air supplied to the combustion chamber. As a result they are highly efficient and emissions are low.
They are fed with wood chips or pellets from a large hopper sited nearby. If youâ€™ve got space, manufacturers recommend a hopper thatâ€™s big enough to hold a yearâ€™s supply of fuel. This minimises transport and delivery costs for fuel, as well as work for the owner. Maintenance is minimal â€“ although you will need to clean it and remove the ash about once a month.
At the other end of the scale, log-fed boilers are more suitable for people with ready access to a supply of wood, and time to cut it to the right size. These will need more time spent on feeding them with fuel and cleaning out the ash.
Which wood fuel is best for biomass boilers?
All wood fuels need more storage space than fossil fuels (oil or LPG). The three types of fuel most commonly used are logs, wood chips and wood pellets. Of these, the latter two can be used in automated systems and stored in a hopper. Logs must be manually fed into the boiler and they are less automated, so their efficiency is more dependent on human input. If the wood isnâ€™t adequately seasoned or contains too much moisture, or if the air supply is reduced too early, they will not burn as well and will create smoke and tar.
Wood pellets are made from compressed sawdust and wood shavings and other biomass products and are uniform in size and shape. They have a higher energy content and so take up less storage space than logs or wood chips. Stove and boiler manufacturers specify the size, shape and moisture content their products need to perform well. Wood pellet systems are the smallest, neatest and most like a mainstream boiler and require the least input from the user.
Wood chips are cheaper and abundant. They allow for more mechanisation than logs, but are not as efficient as wood pellets. Itâ€™s important that they are pretty uniform in size to work smoothly in a automated domestic system.
If you donâ€™t have a hopper, you will have to load sacks manually into the boiler or stoveâ€™s feed system. How frequently you have to do this will depend on the system you choose. Not all suppliers are able to supply loose pellets.
It's important to think through carefully the supply, storage and handling of fuel before you invest in a biomass boiler. There is generally some trade offs between each element, and they will be specific to your site. You need to consider ease of access for the fuel delivery and how you are going to get fuel to the boiler.
To maximise the efficiency of your appliance itâ€™s important to get the moisture content of the fuel right. Ideally logs and wood chips will have a moisture content of less than 25 per cent. Wood pellets need to be dryer â€“ at around 8 per cent moisture. Your supplier should give you information about how to achieve this.
What size / cost for a biomass boiler?
Automated wood pellet stoves 5-7kW in output range from Â£2,000 - Â£4,000 including installation according to the Energy Saving Trust.
Boilers are in the range Â£5,000 - Â£11,000 including installation, flue and commissioning (also EST figures). Because of significant differences in price it can be difficult to weigh up the competing claims of different suppliers.
Research commissioned by DECC and published in February 2013 found the following average costs per kW for biomass boilers:
10-20kW - Â£945; 20-50kW Â£568
When choosing a biomass boiler itâ€™s important to consider the ongoing cost of fuel as well as the initial investment.
As of February 2012 wood chips are the cheapest form of heating fuel at 2.9p per kWh generated according to Biomass Energy Centre. Wood pellets are 4.2p per kWh, with natural gas at 4.8p, heating oil 6p, LPG at 7.6p and electricity 14.5p per kWh. Prices are around Â£200 per tonne for wood pellets and Â£100 per tonne for wood chips. These figures will depend on where you live, as prices for wood pellets and chips vary considerably.
Biomass boilers are eligible for the renewable heat incentive.
Domestic RHI scheme
The domestic renewable heat incentive will start in spring 2014. The tariff for biomass boilers and biomass pellet stoves with back boilers will be 12.2p per kWh, index linked and paid quarterly in arrears for seven years. For more information see the renewable heat incentive page. You will have to meet the RHI's air quality and fuel sustainability criteria.
In the meantime the Renewable Heat Premium Payments scheme offers a grant of Â£2,000 per unit to help with the upfront costs of installing a biomass boiler (not pellet stoves). This sum will be deducted from the RHI payments over the lifetime of the scheme. For more details click here. Apply via the Energy Saving Trust website.
Biomass boilers are eligible measures under the green deal, so you may be able to use use green deal finance to help with the upfront cost of installation.
Non-domestic Renewable Heat incentive opened for applications in November 2011. It covers commercial and community installations, and pays a generation tariff per kWh produced over a 20 year period. It aims to give a 12% return on capital, and is index linked. The heat produced must be measured by a meter.
Tariffs for new installations from 1 July 2013 are:
Small biomass (less than 200kWth) Tier 1: 8.6p/kWh, Tier 2: 2.2p/kWh
Medium biomass (200kWth < 1,000 kWth) Tier 1: 5p/kWh, Tier 2: 2.1p/kWh
Large biomass (1MWth +) 1p/kWth
The biomass tariff is tiered, to avoid any incentive to generators to generate excess or wasteful heat just to maximise their RHI payments. It is set at â€˜a reasonable minimum level of usage it would expect from renewable heat installation providing space heatingâ€™, which has been based on the equivalent of running the installation at full capacity for 15% of the year. So, each year you will receive the higher tier 1 tariff for the first 1,314 peak load hours, and the lower tier 2 tariff after that.
Planning permission for biomass boilers
Biomass heating systems are permitted development unless the flue exceeds the height of the roof by one metre or more. In conservation areas and world heritage sites it is not permitted development if the flue is installed on a wall or roof slope which fronts a highway. If you live in a listed building check with your local planning department whether consent is needed. More details are available on the planning portal . Make sure that your installation meets the standards of the relevant building regulations on ventilation, noise and safety.
For those of you living in Wales, from the beginning of September 2009, the Welsh Assembly Government announced new planning rules to encourage householders to install renewable energy equipment. A leaflet has been published to explain the changes - Domestic microgeneration permitted development: A guide for householders.
Find a biomass boiler installer
More information on biomass boilers
From the Blog
Practical advice: if you're considering a biomass boiler
Choosing a Boiler:
Which brand of biomass boiler is best? (Jan 2014)
Domestic RHI: which products are eligible? (Jan 2014)
Choosing an installer
Practical advice: living with your biomass boiler
Fuel for your biomass boiler or stove
Your questions answered
Air-tightness - are air tight houses compatible with biomass?