Have you ever thought about using an outdoor wood boiler to heat your home? For the past six years, Heather Hilson has used one to keep her house warm during the heating season in Upstate New York. In this week’s blog, Heather shares her experiences with installing, operating, and maintaining an outdoor wood boiler, including installation and operating costs.
In 2004, my husband and I bought a “new” house in Delhi, NY. The house was new to us but it was actually a one-room schoolhouse built in 1860 with an addition added in 1960. Needless to say, the house was in need of some TLC and since 2004 we have been renovating it to the best of our abilities.
The house had baseboard hot water radiators heated by an oil furnace in the basement. The oil furnace also heats the domestic hot water supply. In addition, there was a large woodstove in the basement that vented into the dining room via a floor grate. The system wasn’t very efficient. The wood stove vented into the same chimney as the oil furnace (not safe or up to code). The floor grate only heated the dining room and we used fans positioned around the house to push the warm air to other parts of the house. Plus, the baseboard heaters were ugly (painted several times over), noisy, and furniture could not be pushed up against any wall with a radiator on it - which was most walls. After approximately 10 years living this way with annual fuel costs of $3k-$4k, we decided that an upgrade to the heating system was necessary and we invested in an outdoor wood boiler. The savings in heating costs, positive experiences from friends with outdoor boilers, and improved safety by moving the fire outside the house aided in the decision. Neither of us mind cutting and splitting tree-length logs into firewood and we had been doing so for the woodstove in the basement anyways.
After a little research, we went with a Hawken GX10 outdoor wood boiler that was rated to heat a house of approximately our size (2,000 sqft). I think the equivalent model today is the Greenhawk 10. It’s a gasification model, so it maximizes energy efficiency through a gasification process that the Hawken company calls “Afterburner Technology”. Basically, when operating at full temperature, the only product coming out of the boiler chimney is water vapor. These boilers burn 40% less wood than traditional wood furnaces and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that emissions are reduced by over 90% compared to traditional furnaces. Amazing right?!
We also decided to upgrade to European-style wall mounted radiators throughout the house, which my husband could install. These are slim heaters that take up very little wall space and can be turned off individually.
Myson radiator – installed.
Luckily, we are somewhat handy and we own a tractor with a backhoe, so we were able to do the site prep by ourselves using plans that were included with the boiler purchase. We also ordered and buried the recommended insulated pipe(s) that circulate the hot water from the furnace into the house, and the electric supply.
The trench for the insulated pipe.
Installing the insulated pipe.
With site prep finished, the wood boiler was delivered and winched onto the prepared pad. Handy we may be, but plumbing in the wood furnace and “piggybacking” it to the oil furnace was well out of our comfort zone. Luckily, we have a friend in the plumbing and heating business who helped us out.
The oil furnace (red in front) and the plumbing for the wood boiler on the wall behind.
The Hawken wood furnace installed with added bluestone slab in front.
In simple terms, here’s how our outdoor wood boiler works:
Log-length wood delivery.
The load of logs ready to be cut, split and stacked for the heating season.
Here’s where the hard work begins!
Hawken GX10 Wood Boiler: $9,400
Insulated Pipe: $500
Heat Exchanger: $420
Plumbing (labor and supplies): $2000
New Radiators & Fittings (10): $2000
One tractor-trailer load of log-length firewood every 2 years: $600 - $700
Our time and effort to cut, split and stack the firewood: free
So. Prior to installing the wood boiler we were spending $3k-$4k per year in fuel oil costs. This means that the wood boiler paid for itself in a little less than 4 years and we have saved anywhere between $2.5k-$3.5k per year in fuel costs. During the coldest Upstate NY winters our house is a toasty and constant 70 degrees F.
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