The quest for the perfect pellet

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 7:30am

    There's a manufacturing plant in Boothbay that has been something of a secret for the last year or two. The Boothbay Register ran a story about it a year ago January, but the business has been put on hold while the owner, Erik Carlson, with help from his father, Al, have been working to make their product, wood pellets, as high quality as they possible could.

    Carlson, the owner of C and L Forestry and a licensed professional forester and arborist for over 20 years, decided to start producing pellets, for heating, around two years ago.

    After researching wood pellet manufacturing equipment, Carlson found that the machinery he needed would have to come from China if it was to be cost-effective. He went to the Chinese manufacturing facility in February 2016. In June, three trailer trucks full of wood pellet manufacturing equipment arrived at his plant in the Industrial Park.

    Carlson explained the process of turning wood into pellets. It's not as simple as people might think. “Basically you break everything down, and then press it back together.”

    The pellets start as logs, then go into a machine that spins the logs, knocking the bark off. The bark is ground up, for mulch, and the bare logs are then transported to a conveyor belt that sends them into a chipper. The chipped wood is fed into a grinder, making smaller, more uniform pieces. “When the pieces are similar in size they dry much more consistently,” Carlson said.

    The pieces are then transported, via a Bobcat skidder, to a conveyor that loads them into a huge dryer. A stove heats the pieces of wood at around 350 to 400 degrees, drying them. They go in at approximately 45 percent moisture content and after 15 minutes come out at between 8 and 10 percent.

    “Moisture content is everything,” Carlson said. “Twelve percent is ideal.”

    From the dryer they fall onto another conveyor that transports them to a hammer mill that grinds them up into sawdust. Excess dust is removed and the sawdust falls onto another conveyor belt that takes it up into a big hopper that presses the pellets with rollers. “They come out as an endless stream that resembles meat coming out of an old meat grinder,” Carlson said. “A knife cuts them into pellets as they come out.”

    The pellets are then cooled and hardened. They're then loaded into 40-pound plastic bags to be sold.

    When the three 40-foot shipping containers from China showed up last summer with every piece of equipment but the chipper and the grinder, it was all in parts. Assembling it wasn't a simple process for a forester and a former advertising man. “The directions were in Chinese,” Carlson said. “My 15-year-old daughter found an iPhone app that translates Chinese to English.” The two, with help from a friend, Mike Tomacelli, who owns a machine fabrication and repair shop, spent a good part of the summer and fall assembling the enormous machines.

    The last time the pellets were tested, in January, the quality was good, Carlson said. But it wasn't prime. “Our object is to have premium pellets. It's all trial and error. There's no set recipe for wood pellets, and we've been tweaking ever since.”

    Two weeks ago, after spending the winter perfecting their pellets in the 40-foot-by-60-foot plant, they sent a 40-pound bag of them to the facility at the University of Maine in Orono to be tested for moisture content, density, durability, ash content and BTUs (British Thermal Units). The Pellet Fuels Institute sets the national standard for pellets, which have to meet the requirements before they’re considered marketable. Last week, they got a thumbs-up.

    The biggest obstacle the wood pellet company is facing is the cost of electricity. Some months the electric bill has been as high as $2,600. “It's not just the power we're using – it's the delivery charge,” Carlson said. “There are two machines with heavy demand charge that can cost $800 for 15 seconds.” Last month, the electric bill was $280, and the delivery fee was $1,770.

    But this is the time of year when Carlson has no choice but to use a lot of electricity. Now that the quality of the pellets has been approved, the pair will start pounding out pellets. People will be buying them in the fall, for the winter.

    All the wood products at the plant — pellets for heating stoves, hardwood grilling pellets and chips and soft wood animal bedding, are made from local forests managed in a sustainable way. The pellets are made with a combination of hard and soft woods.

    A cord of wood makes a ton of pellets, and the goal is to put out three tons a day.

    “We'll get there,” Carlson said. “It's been pretty much trial and error for the last year and a half, but after a while you figure it all out. And everybody needs a pellet stove.”

    There will be an open house at the plant in June. For more information about wood pellets, and availability, call 207-633-6330.