Running On Pellets
Well we finally did it! We finally converted our old propane boiler/heater to wood pellets, and as of today we’re fully, completely operating on pellets!
This was a major project that we’ve been planning for a long time.
The whole thing took ~6 months from end-to-end, as such things tend do in France, but our new solution was worth the wait. It’s a rather beautiful, sleek, eco-friendly boiler and it should (hopefully) save us a ton of cash over the next years. At least that’s the plan.
There’s still a few details we need to sort out, including our first 7-tonne pellet delivery (hopefully arriving soon) and the finishing touches on the room where the boiler resides, but so far the new beauty is doing exactly what we hoped it would. Plus it’s rather techy cool too.
This is the story of how we moved from propane to pellets in SW rural France.
The BIG Boiler Install
The team was slowly rolling the luxury machine through our bedroom, the only way they could possibly fit the monstrosity into our boiler room.
It had been sitting in our storage area for over a month awaiting this very day, and it really was big, so much so that they’d had to take off & enlarge the door of our boiler room to get it in. It looked super fancy too, with it’s sleek Austrian lines, stainless steel interior and interactive touch screen.
“C’est le Rolls Royce des Chaudières” Thomas declared, as he heaved on the 32 kW beast
Personally I might have called it the Airstream of boilers, or perhaps the Newell of wood pellet burners (depending on which way you lean), but I couldn’t help but agree.
This was going to be a super cool upgrade….
The Project Was Launched~6 Months Ago
We started this whole thing ~6 months ago in the dead of winter, right as dad’s pocketbook was recovering from our latest propane delivery. Our old system was getting ridiculous, “hors de prix” as they say in France, and it was high time we changed.
Sadly our soil here isn’t suited to geothermal heating (which would be my #1 preference), but a wood pellet alternative had been highly recommend by three of our neighbors down the road. Apparently it was superbly inexpensive to run, a fraction of the price of our old system, and eco-friendly to boot, using carbon neutral 6mm wood pellets, a renewable resource grown right here in the Ariège. The clincher was that the installer, the “man for the job” was a well-known and well-respected local, with an abundance of good reviews.
So, it was with great anticipation that we held our first meeting with Monsieur Drigo (RSG Drigo) in November of last year.
He arrived with his dog, a cute terrier who travels and works everywhere with him, which of course immediately pegged him as “a man who could be trusted”. Anyone who owns and loves dogs knows this instinctively, as Polly will confirm. Plus of course he really knew his stuff, and spoke wonderful English to boot (never a requirement for us, but it’s always a nice bonus). We asked him a barrage of questions, all of which he answered knowledgeably and patiently, and by the end of the meet we were convinced.
Mere weeks later the contract was approved and deposits paid.
We’d have to wait another ~6 months for the work to begin, a necessary delay due to a long backlog of jobs (always a good sign), but the ship had been set in motion. Propane would soon be our fuel no more….
Materials Were Delivered in May
A few months ago the materials arrived.
The heater we got is a high-end Austrian brand called ÔkoFEN, and the model we have is the brand-new 32kW Pellematic Condens.
It’s a fully automatic pellet boiler that consists of a combustion chamber, hopper and ash tray box. The pellets are fed in everyday through a vacuum turbine from the silo (at a user-programmed time), a ~5 minute process that’s the only “noisy” thing it does. The unit also auto-cleans itself at this time. The rest of the time it burns whisper quiet.
It’s also fully computer-controlled of course, with sensors that monitor the inside and outside temperatures to tell the boiler if and when it needs to kick in. Plus it claims to be able to achieve more than 100% efficiency (yeah, really), thanks to a rather snazzy condensing technology that re-feeds the heat from the exhaust gases (mostly hot water vapor) back into the heating system, essentially boosting the output.
For my RV readers (and fellow solar geeks), this thing is kinda like an MPPT solar controller, but for wood pellets.
On top of all this it’s got all kinds of cool programming options including several custom operating modes, a quick-select for all-night operation (e.g. if you are partying all night and want your radiators to stay on), endless temp control options for water & radiator settings, a vacation mode (e.g. to maintain min temps while you’re gone) and more. Plus it can be seamlessly paired with solar thermal tube arrays, if we ever decide to do that upgrade down the line. Oh and lastly, it can be connected to the internet and controlled via an app from your smartphone; a sweet, extra geeky bonus.
It’s really quite the advanced piece of kit!
The only maintenance required is emptying the ash output (every 6 weeks or so), and a yearly in-depth clean/check-up by the installer. The whole thing has a 5 year guarantee, and gets stellar reviews from everyone who owns one.
Installation Took Around 8 Days
The installation took around 8 full days, with a team of 4-6 guys who arrived on the dot every day at 8AM.
In the first few days the 7-tonne silo was built, and the basics of the system installed. For the silo Mr. Drigo converted the inside of an old pig-stall on the east side of our house, a perfect (and completely unused space) for the job.
The following 5 days were detail work with lots of custom copper plumbing, a large exhaust chimney that was erected through the roof, and of course installation of the vaccum-filling system that conveys the pellets from the silo to the burner.
In addition to all this, the liquid in our radiators was meticulously flushed, and each of them (we have 22 radiators in all!) was checked for uniform heating (i.e no air pockets), a process that took several days.
The latter is a process that’s not usually done in France, but it’s something that Mr. Drigo insists on, and it was an extra attention to detail that I really appreciated. Our radiators have probably needed a good flush for a while, and this will help to ensure that they operate at maximum efficiency this winter. Yet another cost-saving measure.
Overall the work experience was excellent. The guys arrived on-time everyday, worked efficiently throughout, and cleaned up after themselves before leaving every evening. They did a meticulous job. Plus everything looks wonderful, well-finished and well laid-out. Apart from a few days of head-pounding drilling, it was a perfectly painless install.
And Now We’re In Business!!
We took our first pellet-powered showers a few days ago, and I’m happy to say it all went swimmingly.
We still have several little details we need to complete, including our first 7-tonne pellet delivery (we’re functioning on just a few bags at the moment) which should hopefully arrive sometime in the next few weeks. Plus we still need a new door for the boiler room (to replace the narrow one that had to be ditched), as well as some small, extra ventilation details. And of course we need to connect le Rolls Royce to the internet & our phone apps. The latter is something I’m geekily looking forward to.
But overall we are done, another project in the bag.
Now, if only we could get the septic guy to come (yes, we’re still waiting on our broken septic)….
The Only Other Big News This Week Is Masks….
The only other big news this week is that masks are going to become mandatory in all enclosed/interior places throughout France, starting tomorrow. And there will be a €135 ($154) fine for non-compliance.
To be honest, it’s a move I welcome. In our rural area it’s not really been an issue (so far) as cases are still extremely low. But with tourists and folks traveling for vacay the virus has started to a spike again in certain parts of France, especially popular spots such as Paris & the coastal towns. So masks are going to become a “must” in all interioir/enclosed areas throughout the country as of 20th July. IMO this will (or should) eventually be the norm everywhere.
Prepare yourselves my friends, because the 2nd wave is coming.
Oh and we had rather a large drama today, which involved sirens and other craziness right outside our front door. But that story my dear blog readers, will have to wait until next week. There’s only so much excitement I can convey in one post…..
So, my lovely commenters, tell me about your week!! Any new projects completed recently, or on the horizon? Or perhaps you’ve got some RV plans coming up (I always love to hear about travel)? DO share!
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Terri Reed says
Totally exciting! Instead of traveling this year, I recently bought a lot in a small town in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains so I can build my retirement cottage, and I’m looking at various heating systems . . . so your post was very timely 🙂
We had a pellet stove when living in VA and loved it. Of course the Wheelings’ outfit is an entirely different beast but if you’re looking for something simpler a pellet stove is the way to go!
If pellets are a renewable resource in your area, I think this is definitely worth looking into. There are smaller hand-fed pellet stoves that you can buy, which work quite well.
Mike Wyant says
Just curious, if you don’t mind sharing, how much was this miracle solution? How long before a ROI?
The whole installation ended up costing around $15K, with energy discounts. It’s going to take just around 2 years to pay back (the price difference between propane and pellets here is that big). So it’s a pretty fast recoup.
I just hit the “buy” button on a mini split heating and air conditioning system for our Montana home. We’ve never had air conditioning due to our normally mild summers but every year now it seems we will have a stretch of nasty hot days. By leaving the windows open at night and closing them first thing in the morning our house stays relatively cool for most of the day. Around 4-5pm, just when I’m starting dinner preparations the house starts to heat up. We have a wood burning stove in our basement but Mike and I both have developed an allergy to wood smoke and don’t use that stove unless it’s really, really cold–which we usually avoid by going to Arizona. We’ve been tossing the idea of wintering in Montana this year (less Covid cases than Arizona) and these mini-splits will supplement our existing radiant floor heat. Congratulations on our new heating system–as you said, looks geeky, cool!
Have 2 mini splits in our home in North Western PA.
Love them! They both heat and cool.
Next big project is solar on the roof to run the mini splits and charge the car.
That will save us a lot of $$$ in the long run.
The mini-split is a great solution for both heat and cool. We’ve had to install Air-conditioners here in France (the summers are simply getting too hot), and they do the ability to heat too if we need it. We use them to supplement our radiators in winter.
Sherry Fields says
You will love your pellets! We put a pellet stove in two years ago. Best purchase we have ever made! Our house is not big, so we opted for the type that looks like an old fashioned wood stove. We put it on our living room and it heats our whole house in the winter. Plus seeing the woods flames is so nice and comforting in the winter. Haven’t purchased propane in two years!!! We kept our propane furnace as a back up heat source. Last year we used 4 ton of pellets. Much cheaper than propane!
It’s a nice alternative to a regular wood-burning stove. Here in France they’re actually going to ban wood-burning stoves (starting next year I think), and will be encouraging folks to move to pellets as a more efficient choice. They do burn much better.
Paul Silver says
Wonderful project. My sister is thinking about a pellet based stove but her power periodically goes out during winter storms. She is looking into a battery backup but hasn’t found one yet. Do you have a solar and/or a battery backup solution in case your power goes out?
We do not have any backup here, but to be honest our power rarely goes out, and when it does it’s usually back again within a few hours. It’s hard to supplement a whole-house heating solution with solar. You could use solar thermal rods for the water heater (that actually works great!!), but it’s not enough for radiator heating or electrical heaters (which use a lot of continuous power). If your sister needs a sure-fire backup for whole house heating during winter storms IMO a generator is the only way to go.
Personally, I would NEVER consider burning wood as a main heating source today. Way too much pollution, even with a catalytic burner.
Europe is buying USA oak and other hardwood trees to BURN! How crazy is that.
One has to consider where those “pellets “ are coming from.
Who is actually paying the price? The Amazon? Cutting down trees in the USA? (and the cost/ pollution of shipping them to Europe?)
Short term thinking is killing us people!
I understand where this comment is coming from, but we did think this through rather carefully.
Wood pellets are different from virgin wood. The pellets that we use here are by-products from the milling & processing of local, renewable wood resources grown in France (actually in the Pyrenees in Ariège, just down the road). They’re classified as carbon neutral, although I realize those classifications can and do change over time.
At the moment they’re the most eco friendly option we have in our area for whole-house heating. The alternatives (propane, fuel oil, and even electricity) are considered either more polluting or worse for the environment (~70% of the electricity in France is generated from Nuclear, which has its own issues). Ideally geothermal would be an option for us, but our soil/terrain isn’t suited for it. If and when better options arise, then of course we’ll be looking at those.
Koos de Heer says
You might want to read carefully before coming down so hard on the author. The system is “using carbon neutral 6mm wood pellets, a renewable resource grown right here in the Ariège.”
Jeff T. says
In early March, coming through Sacramento on I-5, just north of downtown, the MCD Duo shade on the driver side-window fell off. Finally got around to getting it fixed. I had the shop that had installed it put it back up.
In the fall, they had redone the fabric on the walls, which had required taking down all the shades.
After, the shade was re-installed (this last time) we spent a couple of days at an RV Park on the Columbia River. It was pretty cool watching the barges and cargo ships cruise by going to or from Portland with their cargo.
Oh yes, the Columbia River. How absolutely lovely. I so miss that part of the country.
Moulin de la Roche says
Congratulations on the completion of your project. Looks like a beast of a machine!
Jody Stewart says
I am so glad to know you are doing well. This may be my first comment since I started following your blog several years ago. I have truly appreciated your talent for writing and your sound advice, not to mention the thorough way you research a topic. Thank you for that. 🙂
My husband and I will be leaving our home in northern Ohio a month from now…. Unless they have to start closing things again, this is the plan.
We have a 35ft Class A and will be traveling to Yellowstone NP and the Grand Tetons, stopping in the Badlands on the way and the Black Hills on the trip back home. We will take 4 weeks to do this and I am really looking forward to it!
What a WONDERFUL trip you have planned!! We SO enjoyed the time we spent in Yellowstone & Tetons, and of course the Black Hills are wonderful too. I would go back in a heartbeat. I wish you the best of travel!!
Why not use solar instead? The ultimate renewable resource.
Solar is not efficient enough for whole house heating. You could run your water heater with thermal tubes (this can work for around 40-60% of hot water needs), but not your radiators or house heating. Basically the energy you need for heating a house is simply far too high for solar. Panel wise you’d need an enormous amount, plus during winter your output would decrease by at least half (sun lower in the sky, less hours). Also, if using PV panels you’d need very large banks of batteries to store the energy and carry you through the night (where there is no sun). It’s simply not practical or affordable, at least w/ today’s technology.
We love solar and used it for 10 years on the RV, but it has its limitations.
Kim R says
You may have written about this and I missed it, but how is the old “beast” doing with her new owners? Do you keep in touch with them about their travels?
Oh she’s doing great!!!!! She’s on the road and enjoying life, and they’re treating her like the queen she is. We get pics every now and then, and we do keep in touch on Facebook. It sure does make me nostalgic when I see her, but I’m happy she (and her owners) are traveling.
Dave wonders….what form the pellets come in, bags, loose, etc? how are they moved from their delivery point to their storage area?
So you can buy them in multiple ways. They do sell bags for the smaller burners in our local supermarket, but in our case the 7 tonnes will be delivered in a truck, and pumped under pressure into our silo. At least that’s how I understand the process. And we should only need 1 or 2 deliveries per year. We get our first delivery this Friday so I’ll know more after that.
Dave Burdick says
I lived in a “paper mill” area in Arkansas, and they were actively working on making pellets from the paper and wood residue which use to be “waste” in the paper mill process. All the trees used in the paper mill business are ‘crops’ which are grown for 10-20 years, harvested, re-grown. If they can find a way to effectively collect the wood chips left in the harvesting it would produce even more pellets. Pellet stoves were becoming common in parts of Arkansas. Unfortunately, the cost of propane and natural gas is still too low here in the states for people to invest in pellet systems like you have.
Yes, and thanks for bringing this up. The majority of pellets produced in our area are also “waste” products from the mills & other industries. The wood itself comes from the Pyrenees, where they actively encourage the industry, as a means of forest maintenance (incl. forest fire prevention by selective logging). It’s not a panacea, but it’s a big improvement from reliance on propane and other “dirty” fuels.
Laurie Koch says
I had to comment on this…
Wood smoke is VERY dirty. I do not understand why people thing wood smoke is OK!
It creates soot. A LOT of soot. Soot has been implicated in heart disease, cancer, dementia and hypertension. (From any kind of fossil fuel including wood.)
Yes, a lot of the new wood burning appliances are better at removing soot and tar then in the past, but they are NOT clean.
I live in an area of Pennsylvania that is a hybrid of rural and urban. Most of my neighbors use wood stoves of some sort for winter heat.
As soon as the weather cools, I can’t open my windows because of the smoke. Hundreds of people using wood to heat their homes. The smoke does not “go away” just because one can’t see it.
I ended up in the hospital for 2 weeks a few years ago (March), because I could not breathe!!! Suffocating is a horrible sensation!
And keeping the windows closed does not prevent the smoke from seeping into my home. I have put in new windows and sealed up everything. Houses “breathe” and so the air is exchanged anywhere from within an hour to about every 4 hours.
The smoke/soot/ash, end up inside. There is no way to stop it.
I am aware that in Europe, pellet stoves are sold as “renewable energy”. Sure, it’s “renewable”, but definetely not “clean energy”. Totally different thing.
So, when one decides to use wood, or coal, to heat their home because they consider gas to be expensive, do they consult with their neighbors who will be forced to breathe the pollution? (Rhetorical question… of course no one does.)
I am not “coming down hard” on Nina, or anyone else for that matter. I used a wood stove with a catalytic afterburner to heat a home for about 12 years (long time ago). And I loved the heat a wood stove gives off. BUT, over the years I have learned just how bad wood stoves in any form can be…
And, this is probably the wrong forum to be discussing this topic. ♀️
Technology for wood pellet combustion has advanced a ton. What you’re talking about, regular wood burners, have no comparison to the high-heat combustion inside our boiler. The emissions are hundreds of times less, and the ash output is minimal, so much so that it’s been certified as a clean energy option, for emissions as well as carbon neutrality. We’ve not encountered any smell from our neighbors (who all have this model, and have been using it for several years), or us. There is simply no comparison.
I understand your passion, especially given your experience, but this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. I will leave your comment up, bit I’m stopping this discussion here.
I love the idea of wood burnering heaters. My bother in the UK used to live in a farm cottage powered by an industrial scale woodchip burner. The farm has fast growing willow that generates the maximum wood per acre. They cut every 5 years and chip the wood.
Paul Silver says
Thank you Nina. My sister has a woodstove. She just needed a solution of alternative power to run the auger that feeds in the pellets. She found a battery back up for the auger so, here in the Pacific Northwest of the US, where she lost power for 2 days last winter, she can have heat.
Ahhhh gothcha!! Glad she found a simple solution.
Anthony Ficara says
I had it pellet stove I had to clean it out every 3 days it’s a pain in the ass it’s not as easy as you think it is
Our system is not a pellet stove. What we have is a pellet boiler and the only thing we need to do is empty the ash tray every 6 weeks or so. No other cleaning or maintenance is needed except for the yearly inspection/tune-up by the installer (which we sign a maintenance contract for).