The most I’ve ever paid for gasoline was $1.42/litre, and the experience left me feeling more than just fleeced. It also reminded me, once again, how vulnerable we all are when it comes to energy. Ultimately, we’ll pay just about anything to make our cars run and keep our homes warm, and even though the cost of energy has dropped recently, it doesn’t mean all is well. Far from it. We’ve been given a reprieve — temporary I’m sure — but with it comes a danger.
If we sit back and continue to do nothing structural to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, eventually we’ll all be in for some serious grief. Again. It’s just a matter of time. Instead of breathing a sigh of financial relief and hoping fossil fuel prices continue to decline, we need to make technical changes to our infrastructure while we’ve got time. This is especially true when it comes to something as simple as the way we heat our homes, and it’s where a particular form of wood heating can help more than many people realize.
Most Canadians don’t have practical access to firewood nor the space and inclination to store and handle it. That said, wood heating pellets offer a way around that difficulty. They’re much easier and cleaner to handle than cordwood, and a new Canadian innovation makes it more practical than ever to burn pellets.
Wood heating pellets are made of highly compressed saw dust — typically from reclaimed sawmill waste — but one of the challenges of using them has been the high cost of pellet burning stoves. Typically priced 3x to 4x more than a conventional woodstove, this fact has kept more than a few people from even trying pellets. London, Ontario resident Brad Palmer was one of them, but instead of giving up, he got busy.
Brad’s frugal by nature, and that stopped him from forking out thousands of dollars for a pellet stove when he and his wife found conventional wood heating too troublesome and messy to continue. But what about burning wood pellets in their ordinary wood stove? He tried and found that a heap of pellets burned poorly — about the same as a phone book or pile of magazines. The problem was air. It couldn’t get into the heart of the pile, so pellets simply sat there and smoldered. At least they did until he invented an elegant and simple way around the problem.
After hundreds of hours experimenting with different designs in his home workshop, Brad invented a simple, metal grate — the Bradley Burner — that admits air into a pile of pellets, allowing them to burn cleanly in any ordinary air tight woodstove and fireplace insert. His idea is now patented and for sale online, and I know from personal experience that it works every bit as well as it’s supposed to. I’ve posted an online video on my youtube channel and you can see the grate in action.
The Bradley Burner (www.bradleyburner.com; 877-746-7764) is a stacked crisscross of stainless steel angle irons with holes drilled in them. The triangular shape of each piece of metal allows air to penetrate the pile, enabling the pellets to catch fire and burn cleanly. You pile pellets on top — I found a 2kg or 3kg heap works well to start — squirt some gel fire starter onto the pellets at the front — then light it. The flames slowly work backwards over the next 15 minutes until the whole pile is on fire. When the initial pile burns down, add more pellets on top of the coals with a metal scoop. Stoked correctly at night, an air tight woodstove or insert will still have burning pellet embers in the morning.
Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels won’t be easy, and it won’t all come from one big change in the way we live. Heating with wood pellets represents one shift in the right direction, and it’s growing in popularity so much that certain areas are currently facing shortages of supply. But the marketplace is responding with increased production, and that’s a good thing. Pellet heat reduces our reliance on volatile and finite fossil fuels, it lets us heat without contributing to the greenhouse effect, and it gives more and more people the chance to enjoy an exquisite wintertime pleasure — snuggling up to a warm, glowing woodstove.
Watch and see the Bradley Burner in action here: