Don’t call Telescope Casual Furniture if you’re looking for wood pellets to fuel your home pellet stove –at least, not yet.
Plant Manager Bruce Rathbun said he has been inundated with calls from perspective buyers since word began to leak out that the furniture manufacturer was going into the pellet fuel business.
It is true, he said, the factory that began making Army cots will begin producing fuel pellets some time in the near future, just not at this time and certainly not for this winter.
“It’s a little exciting, but also overwhelming,” Rathbun said.
Calls from suppliers looking for a pellet source and users looking for a steady supply have been a constant, he said.
The positive side of that is they know they’re on the right path if the demand is that high for a product they don’t yet produce on a regular basis.
Over the course of doing some investigation into wood pellet stoves as a part of putting one into his own residence, Rathbun said he began to notice a phenomenon – no one had surplus pellets.
“For the last five years there has not been a surplus of pellets,” Rathbun said he discovered. “(Users) have exhausted the supply each year.”
The demand for the alternative to fuel oil has been gaining steadily in popularity over the past several years and made a leap over the past year as fuel oil prices soared.
A search of the term ‘wood pellets’ on the Google website yields 931,000 hits, many of those about where to get the best price on the sought after items.
Based on the calls alone, Rathbun said he knows the factory is on to something, the interest has been tremendous. In the future he said it might be possible for people to either come to the factory to pick up pellets or have pellets delivered.
Those delivered pellets might then be stored in a container or silo which could be produced at the Telescope factory with an added bonus of eliminating the need for the pellet plastic bags.
“We’re still fine tuning it,” Rathbun said of the pellet-making set up.
After running the pellet making set up to see how it was done, the workers at the Telescope factory have taken the machine down to begin tweaking it to improve its efficiency. Rathbun said the machine produced just under a ton of pellets before it was shut down.
Trying the pellets out for himself, he said they worked great, exactly the same as any others.
During the course of the research that led up to the purchase of the machinery, Rathbun said he has traveled to Canada and destinations in the United States looking at both places the source material for the pellets is grown and also how the technology works.
The four-machine set up was brought to the Telescope factory from Utah, where it had been used to make wood pellets from the scrap of a wood working operation there. “Those people set it up to turn waste into a product,” he said.
After getting the machines set up at the factory, the Telescope crew worked with the group who sold the machine to get it up and running.
“They were surprised by how little space it took up,” Rathbun said.
The issue, in pellet manufacturing, becomes what type of material is used to produce the pellets.
Hardwood trees make the most desirable pellets for burning, but their downside is that it takes decades to produce a mature tree.
The machines currently in the factory can produce between one and one and a half tons of pellets per hour, Rathbun said, but it remained to be seen what would make more fiscal sense, to run the machine for one eight-hour shift or have it running around the clock.
Rathbun said what he has been looking into as a source for raw materials for the pellets was called switch grass or canary reed.
This grass is frequently used in bird sanctuaries as habitat, he said. It can be grown in local conditions, which means local farmers could be getting paid to grow the raw materials for the fuel pellets. Typically the grass is expected to produce from 4 to 8 tons of raw materials per acre.
The plants take about three years to mature, he said, and produce for several years without needing to be replenished in any way.
“It’s not a feed type of grass,” he said.
Versus feed grass, where keeping it dry to retain nutrition content is important for using it to feed livestock, this grass is simply cut down and left.
Rathbun said the crop would not be picked up in bales until the following spring.
The natural aging process that takes place while the grass rests on the ground helps to break it down and actually readies the grass for processing. “There are a lot of pluses if we can bring it all together,” Rathbun said.
Rathbun said Telescope was also looking into the possibility of using the pellets that did not pass muster as a heating source as animal bedding. The pellets are completely natural; nothing at all is added to make them except pressure which in turn produces heat – no glue or other additives goes into any of the pellets, meaning they can be disposed of without concern for environmental impact.
The process is fairly simple and anything but revolutionary. Rathbun said the technology has been around for years. The raw materials, wood, or, in the hopes of Telescope, hearty grasses, are smashed by a hammer mill into a sawdust-like material. The material is moved by conveyers to a mill and is then pushed through a die to produce pellets. The pellets, hot from being under pressure, are moved again into a cooling tower where they are bought down to temperature and allowed to harden. A naturally occurring compound in the grasses and in wood, lignin, helps the pellets harden and stay together without the use of any chemicals or additives.
The pellets, in their final form, move one last time to a hopper to await dropping into bags.
The trick, Rathbun said, is figuring out at what production rate the system can be kept running where the supply of raw materials doesn’t run out, necessitating a shut down. Shutdowns are bad news for the system and can gum up the works because of the lignin; to counter the effects of the glue-like substance corn is fed through the machines.
Once the rate is determined Telescope will know how many customers they can accommodate with the present machinery.
“We are absolutely excited about the potential here. We’re anxious to get into the grass-growing end of it,” Telescope CEO Kathy Juckett said Friday. “I feel like it can have an impact on the farmlands in the area and maybe help with the taxes.”
With the farmland available in Washington County Juckett said she thought this operation would be in the perfect spot.
The machines at Telescope are set up to receive round bails so the farmers who grow the grass would not be looking at needing to change equipment.
“There’s some real potential here to help the county farmlands and the farmers that own the land. The possibilities are limitless,” Juckett said.
Environmentally and even strategically, Juckett said she thought the move to alternative fuels’ time had truly come.
“It’s kind of the right thing to do to get away from fossil fuels right now,” Juckett said. The use of alternatives to petroleum also help reduce the use of foreign oil and help make the country more self sufficient.
“Being self sufficient helps to keep you stronger and gives you more control – that’s kind of the way we’ve run our business,” Juckett said.
In her own home she said she added a pellet insert into the fireplace which was augmenting the furnace and reducing the amount of petroleum fuel used to heat the place.
At the factory they were looking into what it would take to possibly use the pellets as fuel for the heat in the powder coating ovens versus the propane currently used.
e looking forward to getting back after Christmas and really launching into the grass growing end of things,” she said.
“We’re working with economic development people to look at all the opportunities that are out there,” she said.