Biomass heating systems are a cost-effective and sustainable solution for many buildings, yet without the proper system design, ongoing care and maintenance, installations may not perform to the best of their potential. Paul Clark looks at how to maximise returns in the long term
18 January 2016 | By Paul Clark
With their low fuel costs and an improved carbon footprint, it's little surprise that biomass boilers have grown steadily in popularity over the past few years.
A number of economic and legislative drivers, such as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), changes to Building Regulations and increasing environmental awareness, have contributed to this surge - meaning many facilities managers have found themselves tasked with operating and maintaining renewable heating systems that they may not be familiar with.
They have a high capital cost compared with that of traditional oil or gas boilers, so there remains a level of uncertainty among many FMs as to the real long-term costs of installing biomass. What's more, poor system design and installation - as well as a sub-standard maintenance routine - can contribute significantly towards the life cycle cost of the installation.
Service and maintenance can have massive implications for system life spans, breakdown frequency and running efficiencies. Unfortunately, the level of care and servicing that is needed to achieve the full potential of biomass technology is too often not communicated clearly enough in the headline benefits. Importantly, one thing that a lot of FMs are unaware of is that in order to qualify for the RHI scheme all systems must be maintained in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations - if they are not, the RHI will not pay out.
These recommendations will vary from supplier to supplier, but to get the most out of a biomass system there are a few simple servicing facts that apply to all biomass heating systems that FMs should know.
For example, every biomass system will need an annual and six-month interim service as a minimum - for heavy-duty applications (typically systems with more than 3,000 running hours a year) a third annual service visit is recommended. These comprehensive check-ups are critical in ensuring day-to-day running efficiency and will greatly reduce the risk of breakdowns.
This is particularly important on larger biomass systems as, in addition to the inconvenience, spare parts on these machines can be costly and take a considerable period to fit, which can lead to extended downtime. The level of service contract, however, can be of help to FMs, as some service providers will offer significant discounts on the more comprehensive servicing options.
Time your works
Works completed during these larger services will also mean that FMs will need to give careful consideration to when they take place.
Indeed, because of the level of inspection and servicing carried out in the main annual visit, the biomass system will need to be turned off for a while.
A manufacturer's full service can comprise of a complete check of the biomass installation including fuel store and flue - the Herz service, for example, includes more than 45 different safety and component checks and will take a full day. Therefore the scheduling of this visit is crucial if disturbance to operations is to be kept to a minimum. FMs should plan the main annual visit when demand is at its lowest, typically in the summer months.
As well as these major service visits, there are a number of checks that must be completed on a monthly and weekly basis, such as emptying the ash bins and sweeping out the boiler.
Having an operative on site who has been given adequate training is therefore crucial. Training usually takes place at the time of installation or premises handover, but if this is not the case it is imperative that training is sought out soon after the FM becomes responsible for a biomass system.
Site care and monitoring can be assisted further by service providers that offer round- the-clock technical phone support. Not only does this give operators peace of mind in case of emergencies, it can also be extremely helpful in the day-to-day operations. FMs who have systems with remote monitoring systems will also find technical phone support particularly useful if they are faced with fault codes they do not understand.
Use quality fuel
One of the other most common causes of poor efficiency levels in biomass heating systems is the use of sub-par fuel.
Poor-quality fuels tend to have higher levels of moisture content, meaning that more energy is needed to burn them and more ash is created, decreasing efficiency and increasing servicing requirements. Different boilers work with different types and quality of fuel, so it is best to stick to the manufacturer's recommendations.
Paul Clark is managing director at Rural Energy