BTEC partners for new course on small, biomass heating systems

By Katie Fletcher | May 06, 2015

Heatspring Learning Institute, in partnership with the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and instructor John Siegenthaler, will launch a shortened rendition of their 10-week online course, hydronic-based biomass heating systems on May 11.

John Siegenthaler, principal with Appropriate Designs, said he refers to this new, one-week course as the “lite” version of the 10-week course. “We created a version of that course focusing on residential and light commercial systems,” Siegenthaler said.

Specifically, the course is focused on entire building systems that use wood gasification and pellet-fired boilers. The course pulls together multiple elements—fuel sources, energy cost comparisons, boiler sizing and selection, venting, thermal storage, auxiliary heat source integration, control concepts and low temperature hydronic distribution systems—into several different combisystem designs.

Joseph Seymour, executive director of BTEC, refers to the one-week online training as an on-ramp course—an opportunity for interested individuals to get their feet wet who may not be ready to commit to a 10-week course. BTEC stepped in as the marketing partner to launch the series, and Siegenthaler develops the content and teaches the course through Heatspring’s online training forum.

BTEC was first introduced to Siegenthaler through a technical session he led on biomass heating systems during the 5th Annual Northeast Biomass Heating Expo in Saratoga Springs, New York. BTEC often looks for sponsors and partners who want to see the biomass systems market grow in their state, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority liked the idea of offering a design element at the show, so they co-funded Siegenthaler’s session.

Seymour said after the initial meeting, BTEC’s interest became focused on how the design principles of hydronic-based heating systems could be communicated to a broader audience. Essentially, a way to offer something to the workforce year round outside of the brick and mortar training sessions.

The result was the online training courses offered through Heatspring. The first 10-week program was offered last fall and again earlier this year. According to Seymour, the audiences targeted with the course offerings are two-fold. “One, we wanted to target the building community familiar with heating technologies, but not biomass, and two, individuals who are familiar with biomass heating systems themselves, but may not be familiar with the latest and greatest in heating system design and balance,” he said.

The self-paced course provides seven AIA continuing education credits, and although designed for completion in one week, Siegenthaler tells people it takes about eight hours to complete. The shortened rendition of the online course, provides a learning opportunity to those who focus on smaller, residential-sized installations. It also helps individuals who may not want to invest as much time and money. The one-week course is $300, about a third of the cost of the original 10-week program. If the one-week course is successfully completed, a $200 discount is being offered for those who wish to go on and take the full 10-week curriculum.

Siegenthaler has over 35 years of experience in hydronic-based heating systems, mostly residential. He said one of the reasons he believes education is needed in the area of biomass is because of the increased lack of attention to the “balance of system,” which Siegenthaler said is basically everything but the boiler.

He mentions there are many manufacturers who implement good training programs with their boilers so installers are familiar with the appliance itself, but the installation may not be connecting that boiler to a balance of system its compatible with. “They may not be designing a balance of system that leverages the operating characteristics of the biomass boiler,” he said. “The result of that is a mismatch between the ideal operating characteristics of the boilers and the need to get comfort in the building through the heat delivery system. Usually it results in compromised performance in the boiler; lower efficiency and higher emissions.”

One of the points Siegenthaler said he likes to draw attention to with his training is that most people blame the heat source if there are compromises in terms of comfort. Some, he says, look at pellet boilers or wood gasification boilers and say they’re not ready for prime time yet, but the problem could be poor system design rather than the boiler itself. “A majority of the time it’s the system, not the boiler, that is ultimately causing some kind of less than optimal operation.”

Siegenthaler adds that the new course is really design focused, intended for installers who want to do their own design whether it’s technicians or even engineers. “We’re giving them a good tool bag full of design tools,” he said.

During the course, students can post questions via a Facebook-style bulletin board for Siegenthaler to answer. Those enrolled are also encouraged to interact with each other, and downloadable PDF files of the course materials are available for future reference.

According to Siegenthaler, now that the one-week course is available, the 10-week curriculum will be retailored to focus more on larger system applications. Heatspring will offer the third version of the 10-week course this fall beginning on Sept. 14 and the fourth next year on Feb. 22.

The biggest takeaway Siegenthaler hopes individuals will get with the training is an appreciation for overall system design. “Not only are they dealing with the benefits of the wood or pellets as a renewable fuel, but they’re crafting systems that are very well tailored to both that type of boiler and the building where the system resides.”