PFI hosts webinar on standards program tailored toward retailers

By Katie Fletcher | February 19, 2016

On Feb. 17, Pellet Fuels Institute hosted a webinar on its standards program, with information specifically for pellet retailers to familiarize participants with the program, including the difference between the quality mark and other labels, and why it matters to customers. The speakers on the webinar included John Shimek with Hearth and Home Technologies, Chris Wiberg with Timber Products Inspection, John Crouch with the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association and Jennifer Hedrick with PFI.

Prior to the creation of the PFI standards program, no certification program for pellet fuel existed. Crouch began the webinar by explaining how the program came to be. Triggered by the EPA, the PFI created a third-party, independent regulation of pellet fuel, and it’s transitioned from the fuel standards set in 1995 to a nationally recognized quality management program for grading pellet fuels. Currently, 12 companies have qualified for the program, with 20 plants throughout the U.S. and Energex has its Canadian facility qualified. Hedrick, outgoing PFI executive director, stated during the webinar that at the end of 2015 the program represented 700,000 tons of product and more is expected in 2016. “From conversations that I’ve had with auditing agencies and manufacturers who are in the process of enrolling in the program, we anticipate well over 1 million tons of product qualified through the PFI standards program in 2016,” she said. “It continues to grow, and it’s gained a wider range of acceptance and understanding.”

Hedrick briefly commented about stepping down as executive director by ensuring webinar participants that PFI is finalizing a transition plan to ensure that the programs and services PFI offers to its members and the larger community remain intact and that the major programs, like the PFI standards program, move forward steadily and efficiently.

Last year, the EPA announced changes to their new source performance standards (NSPS) from 1998 for residential wood heaters, which will impact pellet manufacturers, retailers, stove manufactures and consumers. The new rules require that any new non-commercial wood burning appliance sold in the U.S. utilize fuel that has been graded through an EPA-authorized standards program (PFI, ENplus, CANplus). For pellet stoves, boilers and furnaces, the rule requires consumers to only use the grade of fuel that the appliance was tested for. Also, manufacturers will be required to state that their products have been tested with fuel from a particular grading program and indicate that in their owners’ manuals. According to PFI, fuel producers can continue to produce and sell product that isn’t grade, but it can only be burned in appliances already in use, and retailers will focus on using labeled fuel for best results.

The webinar was targeted at keeping retailers informed as more customers ask for pellets with the quality mark on the bag. Wiberg, manager of Timber Products Inspection, focused his presentation on understanding the PFI quality mark and grade criteria, as well as the overall structure of the program, program documents, facility requirements and third party oversight.  “PFI is the issuer, maintainer and promoter for the standard,” Wiberg said when explaining the structure of the program. “Ultimately, the PFI standards program, developed by the PFI standards committee and approved through the board of directors, is passed over to the American Lumber Standard Committee through the form of an agreement where ALSC is the implementer and the enforcer. Their job is to accredit auditors and laboratories so that we have qualified third-party auditors and labs to oversee the densified fuel producers.”

He adds that it’s the auditing agencies and labs who work directly with the pellet producers to fulfill program requirements. In his presentation, Wiberg refers to a number of important program documents including the PFI Residential/Commercial Densified Fuel QA/QC Handbook or “the densified fuel producer’s bible, so to speak, for implementing the quality control assurance and quality control components of the program,” he said.

The PFI quality mark has a number of rules associated with it. The mark provides a registration number and must be displayed on the front lower third of the bag. The mark must state the material, additives (which may not exceed 2 percent), higher heating valued as-received and must reflect a minimum Btu guarantee.

Amongst the various requirements of a production facility, producers must develop a written in-house QA/QC program, based on the PFI QA/QC handbook and PFI specification; select an auditing agency and lab; demonstrate compliance with certification system components; and conduct QA/QC testing as necessary to verify continued compliance with grade criteria. “It really takes producers at least a couple of months to fulfill the requirements of the program,” Wiberg said.

Once producers are ready to demonstrate compliance, accredited auditors visit facilities and in-house testing is done. Monthly audits typically take an hour or two for the regional auditor to do spot checks of the process, look at feedstock, final product storage areas and obtain a sample. Wiberg said one sample per 1,000 tons of product is taken. He adds that one caveat is if a producer sets up an onsite lab that has a certain number specified tests and can verify compliance, sampling frequency can be reduced to once every 5,000 tons.

Wiberg concludes his comments by encouraging those listening that if they want a level of quality guaranteed, then ask for it—it comes down to the mark and what’s incorporated into it. “Stove manufactures are now required to do their testing with PFI—or other programs included—but quality-marked fuel that is under a grading program approved by the EPA and, in this case, ultimately what they test on has to appear in their owner’s manual, so matching up a PFI quality mark with what’s in your owner’s manual is an important thing to teach to the consumer and to all levels of the supply chain.”

Shimek, senior vice president with HHT, rounded off the webinar by providing the perspective of a stove manufacturer. “The real value in this is by using EPA-certified fuels in our appliances you’re going to get a better performing product that is going to mean less maintenance for the consumers, less problems and in the end happier customers,” he said. “We are taking the position that we are strongly encouraging dealers and consumers to use the grade fuel that the appliance was tested and certified to. It is the only way to ensure the customer gets the performance and service they’re expecting.”

More about the PFI standards program can be found here.

“The PFI leadership has invested quite a bit of time and financial resources—elbow grease—into this program over the years, and that commitment remains,” Hedrick said. “We’re seeing more and more fuel manufacturers take interest in the program and are taking the steps to become qualified for the program. I think it’s a really exciting time and staff leadership and others I’ve talked to are really encouraged by all of it.”