Navigating the Sea of Approval

Attempting to expand the North American wood heat sector, U.S. distributors seek proven European technology to further foster market development.
By Katie Fletcher | April 06, 2015

Use of biomass heating systems has been spreading throughout Europe for over half a century. Boiler manufacturers have sprung up from Switzerland and Austria to Denmark and Sweden. Often starting as small and family-owned, these enterprises have grown into large production companies supplying markets worldwide. Schmid, Fröling, Kedel and HS Tarm join other European brands that have navigated through the sea of trade requirements to North America.

While hundreds of employees work on these technologies overseas in large manufacturing and distribution facilities, the distribution companies in the U.S. are often quite small. These companies commonly employ around a dozen people and focus on supplying quality products to customers in their native territory. Some boiler providers, viewing the grass as greener on the other side of the pond, decided to bring the proven technology stateside, while others merely acted on an opportunity. Although some may refute that European technology is better, the manufacture and marketplace of the appliances is more extensive and established.

Fröling, located in Grieskirchen, Austria, has been a family-owned business since 1960. Similarly, Schmid energy systems, headquartered in Eschlikon, Switzerland, is family-owned and has been in business for over 75 years.
HS Tarm and Kedel (NBE) wood and pellet boilers hail from another Nordic country—Denmark. HS Tarm manufactured its first boiler in 1927. The family-owned company was founded by Rasmus Soerensen, who later handed the business down to his son, Hans. NBE is a more recently established company that brought another Danish technology to the market just before the millennium. NBE manufactures small commercial and residential wood pellet boiler systems, getting its start when two friends began experimenting with alternative fuels and burner technologies out of a garage in North Jutland, Denmark. Today, the company has garnered 60 to 70 percent of the market share in Denmark, and 10 percent of global unit sales.

Besides going from small startups to household names, another common denominator of these four companies is export activities. After achieving success in their homelands, all reached a point where they felt comfortable infiltrating the budding North American market.

Oversea Opportunists
North America has a younger, smaller biomass heating market and similarly sized distribution companies. Tarm Biomass has been in it from nearly the beginning—over 30 years. This third-generation, family-owned business was acquired in 1995 by Scott Nichols, now president of Tarm USA Inc., when his uncle and father passed away shortly after purchasing the company in 1994. In 2008, the company expanded its inventory to offer Fröling products, which allowed it to sell commercial boilers and a broader line of pellet boilers, in addition to the imported HS Tarm products. Tarm USA also added the Scandinavian company LK Armatur’s product line, which includes valves, components and prefabricated products for the heating market. Nichols says adding the product lines was a natural progression for the business, and that Tarm USA didn’t want to be a company that relied upon the success of one company to dictate its own. “It was important for us to have more than one line,” he says.

Around the time Tarm USA added the Fröling line, McCormick Energy Systems and Interphase Energy were entering the U.S. biomass heating scene with plans to import. With 2008 came opportunity for biomass energy, as oil peaked at $150 per barrel and consumers were seeking alternatives. “Our phone was ringing off the hook,” says Michael McCormick, CEO and principal in charge of McCormick Energy Solutions.

As McCormick was looking at alternative energies, biomass came to the forefront as a promising opportunity for the company. He says MES had experience with geothermal, solar and other renewable energy projects, but being located in Maine, one of the most heavily forested states in the U.S., adding biomass to the company’s offerings just made sense. “We looked in the U.S. and Canada for biomass boiler manufacturers, but high-efficiency units and the experience in biomass were not to be found,” McCormick says. “It was a struggle to find any manufacturers, and I just knew from my experience that what I really needed to find was the European technology— they are 30-plus years ahead of us.”

After much investigation in Europe, MES landed an opportunity with Viessmann Manufacturing Co. Inc. as an independent manufacturer’s representative for the northern New England territory. McCormick was seeking a closer partnership with an overseas manufacturer, however, one that would allow him more control and influence to expand his territory. His answer came when MES signed an operating agreement in Switzerland with Schmid energy solutions in the summer of 2014. “Any Schmid project in North America comes through us, which is the kind of arrangement I was looking for,” McCormick says.

Interphase Energy LLC was another company in Maine looking for high-efficiency biomass units in Europe. While MES offers purely commercial-sized units, Interphase was focused on bringing residential and light commercial sizes to the marketplace, which made importing the NBE technology a good fit. It began in 2007, when a few of the initial members of Interphase Energy founded a company called Revision Energy, which today is focused on solar installations in Maine, but in the early days installed wood and pellet boilers. In 2008, the boiler division of the company expanded into Revision Heat, which continued installations of biomass systems with a focus on reducing the use of fossil fuels. The systems were expensive, however, and a better solution was needed. The answer was pursued overseas. “We searched high and low for a product that had all of the features and capabilities that the typical U.S. consumer was looking for in a stand-alone central heating system,” says Jacob Roberson, managing partner with Interphase.

This is when NBE came into the picture, a serendipitous encounter, as Roberson recalls. Interphase was created to bring NBE’s pellet boiler technology to the North American market as Kedel around 2012. “They’ve done all the life-cycle testing that is necessary; they really have a stable product line,” Roberson says. “That puts a startup company like ours in a really strong position to start importing, because we know what we’re getting, and, ultimately, that’s the crux of it.”

Proven Is Primary
One thing importers can agree upon is the confidence boost they receive by knowing they are bringing, to North American soil, technology that has been demonstrated to work for years via thousands of installations across Europe. “The single most important thing for us in selecting a product was that the product had to already be proven in the marketplace,” Roberson says. “As an importer, we were able to go to a company that says ‘we have 50,000 units in the field,’ and so we knew that we were stepping into technology that was proven and well supported.”

Besides years of in-field experience, these European boiler companies had designed boiler features appealing to the U.S. importers. Experience in sizing boilers and material handling were two important components to McCormick when selecting a partner. “Selecting the appropriate size output is not as simple as with fossil fuels,” he says. “Typically we don’t size biomass the same way as oil or gas. Biomass reacts differently, longer to get to temperature and slower to cool down. And on this side of the pond, we tend to not run biomass for the entire heating season.”

McCormick says a common goal is to offset at least 80 percent, sometimes more than 90 percent, of an existing fuel source, but rarely 100 percent. “There is no reason we cannot deliver 100 percent, but users are not totally comfortable with the newness of biomass in North America,” McCormick says. “And experience with the handling of the fuel type from the storage silo to the boiler is critical. That is why we chose Schmid. They have 80 years of nothing but biomass experience with thousands of installations all over the world.”

McCormick also attests to the European technology’s quality. “They are built to last,” he says. “This is a very important point when performing long-term payback for biomass projects.”

He adds that the U.S. is more focused on profits and shareholders by providing multiple levels of product quality at different price points. McCormick says you can buy cheap, thin metal, and cheap ball bearings, and if the average person doesn’t know what he wants, he will look at price. “We have the short-term view of capital expenditures in the U.S.—Europe doesn’t have that,” McCormick says. “You don’t have to have a lot of inventory on the shelf, because you’re not going to have a lot of failures with European boilers.”

In the event of a failure, it’s more likely to concern the electrical board rather than a full-system failure, as power spikes and brown outages are hard on the electronics of the system. Therefore, McCormick keeps a few boards handy in the U.S.

Importing companies keep some inventory on hand, but even if they have to order, they don’t see the logistics associated with importation as an issue. They are full-service distributors, and don’t rely on incoming shipments to fulfill day-to-day orders. “I have to keep a lot of inventory in stock for the residential sizes. Bigger boilers—over 500,000 Btu—I stock fewer of, and most are ordered as needed,” Nichols says.

Shipping varies from company to company, anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Interphase has a relationship with the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip. Located in Portland, Maine, the company is conveniently situated on Eimskip’s port of call in the U.S., which cuts shipping time to two to four weeks by water.

Once deliveries reach the shore, little assembly is required, varying slightly based on the unit size. “It would take a huge amount of product line to justify any amount of assembly here,” Nichols says. “If you look at the product production line at Fröling, it looks like Ford Auto Co. It's just massive, and there is no way that I can hire a couple of employees to swing together a few boiler jackets when they have that kind of economy of scale over there.”

Although manufacturing these boiler brands on U.S. soil doesn’t make economic sense now, many hope that is a direction they can go in the future. “Really, the best approach is to leverage the technology that is already proven elsewhere in the world, grow the marketplace domestically, and then start to look at manufacturing opportunities stateside,” Roberson says. “They’ve had the time in the marketplace to stabilize the product, to develop features, to continually test them, to garner feedback from end-users and installers, to try different types of fuel. Truthfully, they are way ahead of the game, globally. It makes a lot of sense to learn from what these manufacturers are doing and to leverage that technology, so that as this industry is getting off the ground in the U.S. and Canada, we’re getting off on the right foot.”

Roberson adds that the worst thing distributors can do to the industry is stumble and fall and bring poor products into the marketplace that aren’t well-supported. “Ultimately, that is going to tilt consumer confidence and the industry will be a nonstart,” he says.

Nichols believes it is also important for a European exporter to have a belief in the North American market, to really want to infiltrate and make it part of their business plan.

Charting The Waters
As the industry in the U.S. is still fairly new, there is really no central guidance on how to get imported technology approved. Most of the certifications must be met on a state-by-state or province-by-province basis in North America. The U.S. EPA standards, UL standards and ASME’s boiler and pressure vessel code (BPVC) are three big areas in the import/export process. “Representing products takes a long time; it’s not easy, and sometimes just when you feel like you have the bull by the horns and your job is done on a particular project, the regulations will change,” Nichols says. “If it was easy, everyone would do it and succeed. The more complex the number of products you import, the harder it gets.”

Meeting UL standards is one of the first requirements. UL is a global, independent safety science company. Boilers must be UL listed as a whole, as well as each of their components. There is now the UL Standard 2523, which Nichols says is more of an all-encompassing biomass boiler safety standard, whereas before it was a collection of oil burner and wood stove codes that were used as an umbrella for wood and pellet-burning boilers. Now with this safety code, Nichols believes it will help with the approval of local jurisdictions. UL standards are, for the most part, reciprocal between Canada and the U.S.

ASME’s BPVC is the code that dictates aspects of the boiler like thickness of steel, welding prep, quality of steel, tubes and vessels. ASME BPVC has the European equivalent EN-305, which is what the European pressure vessels are tested to. Even if a product line is listed and certified through EN-305, it is not necessarily accepted in all states—some require the ASME standard. Additionally, in Canada, there is a separate pressure vessel standard, so an ASME boiler must be accepted by each province individually.

As for the EPA, there is some variance of efficiency and emissions across the states. Even requirements pertaining to how installed boilers can take part in state subsidy programs can add a layer of complexity. “That can be difficult, not only for companies like ours, but also for the contractors who are out there installing these systems and navigating the programmatic details of state subsidy programs,” Roberson says. “Installers are absolute experts on the installation, service and maintenance of these systems, but the expectations of some states around what’s needed to qualify a project for state funds can be quite complex, time- and capital-intensive. That’s sometimes enough to make qualified installers uninterested in the technology.”

Time and money are spent certifying products and getting them tested in laboratories. Biomass boilers must undergo both a European and U.S. certification process, inspected and tested through both. While there are a handful of test labs in the U.S. accredited to do inspections, Nichols says that there is a bit of a bottleneck, so one is at the mercy of the labs.

Some approval areas and technology modifications may become easier as the technology exchange increases. Interphase no longer has to make changes for power distribution, as everything is coming to the U.S. in 110 volts alternating current (VAC). According to Interphase, international manufacturers are changing product lines to fit market requirements in North America, as well as heavily investing in testing and EPA certifications.

Still, there is some hesitation amongst European boiler providers about crossing the Atlantic. “European manufacturers are not in a big rush to come to the U.S.,” McCormick says. “There is a reason for that, and it’s called lawyers. The U.S. has more lawsuit claims than any other country in the world.”

He adds that European manufacturers want to be here, but are approaching it slowly and cautiously.

“They don’t want to be caught in the legal dragnet, so if they stay on their own shores and don’t have a business entity on our turf they remain isolated, it would be very difficult for a harmed American consumer to go after a European boiler company. I think our legal system really is a restriction for them,” Nichols says.

Low oil prices makes it hard to predict what lies ahead for the North American wood heat industry, but importers see growing market potential. “Unquestionably, I see the North American market becoming favorable for European suppliers,” Roberson says.

In fact, Nichols believes “the U.S. market should absolutely be the biggest market for European suppliers.” Nichols says that one reason growth of biomass heating in the U.S. is a challenge is that energy policy is still thought of at the federal level, which is nearly impossible to make work because every region of the country has different energy needs.

Nevertheless, “I think it’s a growing industry, that’s why I continue to forge ahead,” McCormick adds. “I think it will come, I just keep looking at the European model, and someday we are going to be as progressive as those people in regard to energy.”

Author: Katie Fletcher
Staff Writer, Biomass Magazine
[email protected]