New educational opportunity for biomass heating technology

By Katie Fletcher | December 10, 2015

Next month, a textbook is scheduled for release, written to show readers how to design and construct practical systems that supply space heating and domestic hot water using renewable energy heat sources such as solar thermal collectors, heat pumps and wood-fired boilers. It uses modern hydronics as the enabling technology for these systems.

John Siegenthaler, principal with Appropriate Designs, authored “Heating with Renewable Energy.” This text adds to the educational base available for biomass heating technologies. In May, Siegenthaler launched, in conjunction with Heatspring Learning Institute and the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, a shortened rendition of their 10-week online course, hydronic-based biomass heating systems. A third version of the 10-week course began this fall and a fourth will take place next year on Feb. 22.

According to Siegenthaler, more effort will be needed to keep enrollments higher. The course is currently running with 12 students. “The large drop in oil prices over the last 18 months has affected just about everyone in the biomass industry. It's not surprising that interest in any renewable energy source declines with drops in conventional fuel prices,” Siegenthaler said. “Heatspring and I will continue to market the course with the assistance of BTEC.”

He adds that two versions of the course have been created. One is a “lite” version, primarily aimed at contractors, and the full 10-week version will be reconfigured to focus on larger systems designed by engineers.

Siegenthaler hopes, through these courses and his new textbook, more information can be available for his target audience of those who want to design systems using renewable energy heat sources, including engineers, heating technicians, energy professionals and in particular students in college-level courses dealing with renewable energy systems.

“There really isn't much information currently available in North America regarding complete system design for biomass boilers,” Siegenthaler said. “While there is some guidance information provided by some boiler manufacturers, it doesn't go into detail on issues such as the importance of low temperature distribution systems, outdoor reset control, control system design and how to interface a biomass boiler with a conventional boiler. This textbook covers these topics in detail.”

The framework for the systems discussed in the text is modern hydronics technology. In the preface, the textbook states that “modern hydronics technology can be thought of as the “glue” that holds together many systems supplied by renewable energy heat sources. If you removed the renewable heat source from one of these systems, what remains are pipes, circulators, valves, tanks, heat emitters and controllers.  Much of this hardware is the same as that used in hydronic systems supplied by conventional heat sources.  Still, the ways in which this hardware is applied, and the logic by which it is controlled, must respect the unique characteristics of each renewable heat source.” 

The renewable heat source of biomass—discussed in the textbook—covers complete system design, helping ensure that the first installation will be successful based on avoiding several design pitfalls. “Many of those making their first attempt at a biomass heating system installation do not understand the unique operating characteristics of the biomass boiler, and how the ‘balance of system’ will affect that boiler's performance,” Siegenthaler said. “The growth of the biomass (thermal) market will be very dependent on heating professionals that can provide complete system design, and not repeat mistakes that are present in some early installations.”

Siegenthaler adds that the book provides a generic approach based on fundamentals and not dependent on the specific requirements of a given manufacture. “It allows designers to understand and explore design options rather than simply repeat a specific ‘template’ design based on specific products,” he said.

Siegenthaler has been involved in other educational opportunities on the topic. “I've been involved in training about 200 heating professionals over the last 18 months who want to participate in the Renewable Heat NY program from NYSERDA,” he said. “The existing skill level with these boilers is quite low, and there are plenty of ‘less-than-optimal’ systems being installed. The full day training that I provide for NYSERDA helps, but this book goes into far more detail than what a seven hour course can provide.”