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Biomass boiler means house is warm for the first time

"It's the first time in the history of our house that we've had a warm house. Last year we were scraping ice off the inside of the windows."

Anyone who lives in an old, leaky farmhouse and heats it with oil will probably prick up their ears at a quote like that and want to know what's made the difference. For Ian Shears at Highfield Farm in Topsham, Devon it's a biomass boiler.

Highfield is a small mixed organic farm producing beef, cereals and vegetables. It has a kitchen garden which is looked after by the local school, a campsite, a green oak barn which is used as a class room or for parties, and has converted barns to produce 4,700 square feet of office space.

All these activities led to an increased demand for electricity and heat. The former was addressed in 2011 with the installation of a 10kW solar PV system. With the benefit of an educational grant and the feed-in tariff, the system will pay back in just three years. It generated 9,600kWhs in its first year.

Ian investigated biomass heating in 2010 but found that it didn't stack up prior to the renewable heat incentive (RHI). But this year, with the benefit of and educational grant from EDF and the RHI the picture has changed completely.

Highfield Farm is now the proud owners of a 90kW ETA wood chip boiler. Not only is the farmhouse toasty and warm, so are the oak barn and the office spaces. At the same time they also installed a 2,000 litre thermal store for hot water.

The biggest problem during the installation was adapting the building to make a boiler room and wood chip store. It cost Ian £3,000 to make it with stud walling. The fuel store has a pivoting roof, so the wood chip can be dropped in using a tractor.

Currently they are using chipped pallets as fuel, which cost £28 per tonne. There are some nails in it, but the boiler copes with them OK. Going forward they intend to coppice some home grown wood for the boiler.

Ian is enthusiastic about the controls on the new heating system. It is zoned and can be controlled from your phone or your computer

The boiler was installed by Fair Energy with an overall budget of c.£40,000. Thanks to the RHI, Highfield Farm will receive £9,000 per year for 20 years. "Even if we spend £2,000 per year on wood chip we are quids in, says Ian.

To be eligible for the RHI the system needed four heat meters. This is so the owners only benefit from RHI on "useful" heat and not from any that is lost in the journey between the boiler room and another building.

The heating system is controlled either by touch screen on the boiler itself or from Ian's laptop in the office . Different tabs on the screen control central heating temperatures in the house or in the barn, hot water and buffer tank temperature. "Its going to take me a while to fully get the hang of it," says Ian, "but there is a vast amount of controllability on offer".

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