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The Heat Is On | Fall 2006 Out Here Magazine

Demand climbs for wood pellets

By Carol Davis

A little pellet made from recycled sawdust is fast becoming the answer for many seeking to lower soaring winter fuel bills.

"Demand has skyrocketed," says Todd Forney of Hamer Pellet Fuel Co. in Kenova, WV. "Mainly, I think the cost of people's heating fuel has gone up dramatically, so they're looking for alternative ways to heat their home."

More than 600,000 homes in North American use wood pellets for heat, manufactured by upwards of 50 U.S. plants, according to the Pellet Fuels Institute, a nonprofit association serving the pellet industry.

Most of those households, however, probably don't know how a pile of sawdust that, once upon a time, might have landed in a landfill, is instead keeping them warm.

"It's a very simple, but very inventive, process," says Lori Hamer, company president.

You start with sawdust, a pellet company's No. 1 raw material, Forney says.

Most of their sawdust comes from lumber mills that cut trees. "Because it's green, there's lots of moisture content in it, so it has to be dried to make pellets," Forney says.

Pellet manufacturers also can purchase already-dried sawdust from places such as flooring and furniture manufacturers, he said.

Green sawdust is placed in a large drum dryer, where moisture is extracted. The sawdust is then sent through a hammermill, which turns it into a fine, even consistency.

That fine mixture is compressed, pressurized at a rate of 21,000 pounds per square inch, heated, and pushed through a die. "It's like a pasta maker when you're making spaghetti," Forney explains.

Pellets are cut into pieces about three-quarters of an inch, resembling rabbit food, he says.

A shiny finish may result from natural resins in the wood and also from friction created when the highly compacted sawdust goes through the die, Forney says. Nothing is added to the sawdust; it's 100 percent pure wood, he adds.

Pellets are packaged and sent to retail stores in time for the most demand, usually in August and September, Hamer says.

"And then, when it starts getting cold in the wintertime, it picks up again," she says. Last winter was particularly busy from the effects of the devastating hurricane season on the cost of gas and oil, Hamer says.

Forney predicts a continued high demand for pellets this year.

"I foresee a tight market going in to this winter," he says, "because spring and summer have been the strongest they've ever been."

Expect some relief, however, for the 2007-08 winter, he theorizes. "There are lots of new pellet mills going in and the current manufacturers are expanding," he says. "They'll be up and running."

Carol Davis is editor of Out Here.


Advantages of a Pellet Stove:

  • Wood pellets produce a consistent and economical heat.
  • Little ash is left over, reducing cleanup work.
  • Wood pellets produce virtually no creosote — a major cause of chimney fires.
  • A 40-pound bag of pellet fuel can provide up to 24 hours of solid heat.
  • A winter's supply of wood pellets is about 100-150 bags, depending on climatic and lifestyle variations.
Source: Pellet Fuels Institute