October 17, 2011

More than a few bricks

The market for tons of pressed-wood bricks and logs is heating up in Maine.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK — Six years ago, Mike Sullivan ordered a few cords of what had been advertised as “seasoned” firewood. It wasn’t. The wood was so green, it barely burned in his stove.

click image to enlarge

Mike Sullivan is Maine’s sole distributor of Canawick Hardwood Bricks. He expects to sell 2,000 tons of the bioproduct this heating season, at up to $280 per ton.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Compressed wood fuel, or wood bricks, like the ones seen here at the Maine Biomass warehouse in Brunswick, are arriving on the alternative energy scene in Maine.

Wood picks up steam as home-heating fuel

The number of Maine households heating primarily with wood has risen to 12 percent, a wood-heat advocacy group is reporting, second in the nation only to 15 percent in Vermont.

Since 2000, wood has overtaken propane as a primary heating fuel in Maine, Vermont and West Virginia, according to the Alliance for Green Heat.

The alliance cites 2010 U.S. Census data to draw its conclusions.

The figures reflect similar census numbers compiled earlier this year by MaineToday Media. The newspaper company’s analysis found oil heat had fallen nine points during the decade to 71 percent. Natural gas was at 5 percent and propane had hit 7 percent.

The alliance released its findings last week to show that wood heat had grown by 34 percent from 2000 to 2010, more than any other heating fuel. Roughly six in 10 of the wood-heat homes were in rural areas, with most of the rest in suburbs.

The rise in wood heat could increase air pollution, however. Only 25 percent to 30 percent of the country’s 12 million stoves are Environmental Protection Agency-certified or use cleaner-burning wood pellets, the group noted.

– Tux Turkel


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That got him thinking about alternatives.

Today, Sullivan sells Canawick Hardwood Bricks. The 6-inch long blocks are made from pressed hardwood sawdust, dried to a 6 percent moisture content. They burn very hot, with little ash and less air pollution than cordwood. They are imported and distributed in New England by IDW International LLC, of Fort Kent.

Sullivan sold 50 tons during his first year in business. He expects to sell 2,000 tons this heating season. He foresees so much growth, he’s trying to arrange rail service from New Brunswick, where the bricks are produced.

Ninety percent forest, Maine is a place where wood heat has meant cordwood. That’s changing. Wood pellets have been gaining in popularity, but relatively few people have so far bought pellet stoves or boilers.

Many Mainers already own wood stoves and fireplaces, however, and they’re looking for ways to offset high oil prices. That’s creating a market for an expanding variety of pressed-wood bricks and logs designed to compete with traditional, cut-and-split cordwood.

The market potential has caught the attention of Maine’s young wood pellet industry, which is monitoring consumer acceptance as it considers making a pressed-wood brick product.

These bioproducts have some advantages over cordwood. A shrink-wrapped pallet of bricks takes up less space than a cord of wood, without the bark, dirt and insects. The high density and low moisture content also mean more heat energy per pound.

Heat energy is a tricky comparison, though, when it comes to price.

At this time of year, a ton of the Canawick bricks that Sullivan carries can cost up to $280, plus delivery. Seasoned wood in southern Maine is roughly $30 less per cord. But unless the logs are air-dried to a moisture content of 15-20 percent and then stored correctly, they won’t have as much heat energy per pound as bricks.

“It’s just a matter of time and space,” said Bob Maurais, who operates Southern Maine Renewable Fuels in Windham and Wells. “People are tired of processing firewood, and the typical homeowner doesn’t have the time and space to do it.”

Maurais sells Canawick bricks, as well as six other bioproducts. They include EnviBlocks, a hardwood block made in Pennsylvania that can burn up to six hours; BioBricks, a compressed wood brick made in Connecticut; and Cozy Logs, an aromatic, Canadian-made log of compressed cedar.

Consumers can compare prices, burn times and availability on the company’s website: www.woodpellets4me.com.

Maurais also sells wood pellets. He has been moving twice as many tons of pellets as pressed wood.

But pressed-wood sales are growing fast, expected to reach 800 tons this year. Some people burn them exclusively; others mix them with cordwood for additional heat in the coldest weather.

Pressed wood won’t appeal to a homeowner with a woodlot and chain saw. But for city and suburban dwellers who stack and haul delivered cordwood, Maurais suggests sampling different pressed-wood bricks or logs.

“Mainers are smart, and frugal with their time and money,” he said. “Unless you have a woodlot, this is a better deal. And it’s better for the environment.”

The Canawick bricks that Sullivan sells are made from waste sawdust at a large flooring factory in Saint Quentin, New Brunswick. He drove there earlier this month to help design and package a long-burning log that the company plans to sell in New England, perhaps later this year.

Sullivan has 50 tons of Canawick bricks stored in a warehouse here. He and part-time helpers deliver in the area, charging $50 for the first ton outside of Brunswick. He recently was loading a trailer heading to Pownal, with an 1,800-pound pallet that sells for $260.

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