Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The woodchip story

The first load of chip is delivered.

When it all began....The Treshnish woodchip story began about 10 years ago when our architect John Renshaw suggested we had a good location for a centralized heating system powered by biomass. At the time it seemed to be too big an undertaking for us, plus there was no woodchip producer on the island at the time. So we put the idea on the back burner.


In 2005 we had a Renewable Energy Study done to highlight possibilities on the farm for utilising small scale Renewables. Our goal was to produce enough electricity ourselves to offset the usage by the Treshnish and Haunn holiday cottages.


In 2006 we embarked on a project to install a small micro hydro turbine on Treshnish lochan, applying for and being awarded a grant, finding the man to manufacture the turbine and install it. Unfortunately though, it turned out that the information within the Study was flawed and we didn't have enough head of water or flow to run a turbine however small. This was hugely disappointing. So back to the drawing board we went.

2007 Failed funding - 2008 successful funding

Over the next couple of years we looked at the other options and the one which stood out was the biomass, particularly as now there was a woodchip supplier on the island - within 15 miles of here. We tried for the Low Carbon Buildings Programme grant in 2007 but that didn't work out so we waited for the launch of the Scottish Rural Development Programme in 2008 and submitted our woodchip project in the first round of grant applications. It was worth waiting for as we were one of the first projects to get approval.

Now the Treshnish Renewables project could begin.

We chose Highland Wood Energy as installers. Based in Fort William, they seemed within easy reach and they had already installed 3 other woodchip boilers on the island. Our Froling 70 kW boiler with 1,800L accumulator tank housed in a shipping container was the first system of its size and kind to be installed on the island.

Work inside the cottages started in November - removing old storage heaters, fitting wet system plumbing and radiators (by a very experienced Salen based plumber), redecorating, laying reclaimed Junckers flooring. The outside work started in December - digging trenches, laying the pipe, backfilling the trenches, landscaping. The boiler should have arrived on 2 March. It eventually arrived on 17 March. Guests expected 3 days later. (A few anxious moments to say the least..) The boiler was lit for the first time on 19 March. Guests arrive the next day to warm cosy centrally heated cottages. Huge sense of relief!

Step one: Digging the pipe work trenches.
We lived with open trenches for most of the winter. The highly insulated pipe could only be ordered once the trenches had been dug and then measured as different sections of the project required different pipe sizes!

Step two: the insulated pipe arrives.

Step one: Digging the pipe work trenches.

Then it was delivered to the road end, as the trenches cut across the track so lorries could not drive in to the yard. The pipe was lifted off and brought in on the tractor and trailer, these huge coils of pipe.

Step three: backfilling trenches, leaving joints open.

The pipe was laid and the joints were sealed - a complicated system of heating and shrinking to ensure they won't leak at some point in the future. Then the trenches could be filled in. The joints had to be left accessible to be able to double check the seals under pressure once the boiler was up and running.

Step four: Arrival of Heating Station.

The container, weighing nearly 8 tonnes, arrived on the back of a lorry. The driver overshot the turning but thankfully stopped just beyond Burg and turned round.

It was lifted off with the HIAB, a slow motion aerobatic dance operated by a quiet and confident driver.

Step Five: Commissioning the boiler.

The benefit to us of installing a containerised system is that essentially that you have the boiler and the boiler house/fuel store delivered all in one go. But it still took time to commission it once the container was sited - connecting the underground pipe work, the water supply, putting up the shiny stainless steel flues and so on. Everyone worked very hard, long hours, to get it ready on time.

Step Six: The first chip delivery.

Couldn't light the boiler without chip so it was time for a delivery! The chip comes from Mull timber, processed and dried at Crannich Farm, in Glen Aros. The woodchip arrives in a 'scissor trailer'. The tractor reverses the trailer up to the side of the container. We use the 'remote' to operate the sliding roof from below. The trailer pours its 10 cubic metre load effortlessly into the fuel store. Over and done with very quickly!

And so, now the boiler could be lit for the first time! We expected some celestial sign, a significant fireworks display,a crashing drum roll perhaps? After all, this was the beginning of something very new and exciting for us..but no, it was lightly quietly and efficiently and off it went!

Living with Woodchip:

6 months on, now all the hot water and heating for the farmhouse, the 4 Treshnish cottages (Shian, Duill, Studio and Shieling) and the Laundry/Office is provided by zero carbon sustainable biomass heating.

Looking back: It all felt very daunting when it arrived. The boiler was huge. It looked bafflingly complicated. There were a few hiccups but they were ironed out, and now they are a distant memory! Gradually we have got used to the enormity of the boiler and how it works. We know what to do on the rare occasion it stops. (And we know who to call if we need to!) We check it every day, usually twice, more out of interest than necessity! We clean out the ash bins once a week. And once a month we have to clean the combustion chamber with a hoover. It is a living thing in the way that a fossil fuel oil boiler is not.

The local plumber is on hand should we need him and Highland Wood Energy provide a great back up service and are at the end of the phone with supportive, well experienced technicians - so we are not 'alone'.

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