Warm & Toasty

Warm & Toasty

If you’ve ever been out to Hitchcock Nature Center during the fall and winter season you may have noticed the lingering smell of a wood fire in the air, especially as you get closer to the Loess Hills Lodge.  A lot of people assume it’s from our big stone fireplace here in the gallery but it’s actually part of our heating plan here at the lodge.
The Loess Hills Lodge uses several different sources for our climate control throughout the year.  For most of the season, when the average daily temperatures are above 45 degrees and nighttime lows are above freezing, we rely on electric air to air heat pumps to cool and heat the building.  These heat pumps are very energy efficient but they are unfortunately not effective as temperatures drop during the winter.  Prior to the installation of the wood furnace we had four propane furnaces that heated the Loess Hills Lodge building.  Those furnaces are still here at the building and they serve as our backup heating system in a pinch but they were not very energy efficient. In an effort to combat this, a wood burning furnace was installed as our primary source of heat during the cold winter months.  This furnace has caused a fair amount of curiosity over the years so I connected with Chad Graeve to get the scoop on why this particular system was chosen and what its advantages are.
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The wood burning furnace has two major benefits; the first is our reduced propane consumption. When the propane furnaces were our primary source of heat we would easily burn over 4,000 gallons of propane a year.  Since the installation of the wood burning furnace our propane consumption is now less than 100 gallons a year if we run the system correctly.  This dramatically reduces out amount of fossil fuels burned here at the park and reduces the cost to the county.
Our Furnace

Our Furnace

The second major benefit is a more effective usage of our resources here at the park. Prior to using the wood burning furnace felled trees & invasive species were cut up and discarded on the margins of the park.  This removal took staff time & fossil fuels to complete and we received no real tangible benefit from it.  By finding a use for this wood we have made better use of our work hours.  There is also a deeper scientific reason for our system. This wood is a product of photosynthesis, a process by which solar energy is captured and converted into sugar for energy storage.  Later the energy is used for all the biotic processes in the tree.  When the energy is utilized (by the tree, by the insect eating the leaf, by the fungi decomposing the wood, etc.) a chemical reaction occurs. The byproducts of that chemical equation are carbon dioxide, water, and energy.  So, in the past, the discarded wood emitted carbon dioxide over time through decomposition or in a shorter period through combustion.  We decided to harvest that energy for the heating of the lodge.  The reasoning is very simple.  We must emit carbon dioxide and water to heat the building.  Rather than emitting the carbon from fossil fuels, we chose to emit the carbon that will be emitted anyway from the trees and use those BTUs to heat the building.
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The smoke from the initial burn can be quite heavy so we load the furnace early in the morning to alleviate this problem and not impact our visitors.  Once the furnace is at optimal temperature, the burn is cleaner & the smoke is hardly noticeable.
Overall we have found our wood burning furnace to be a dependable source of heat over the seasons and we look forward to continued use and upgrades to the system as new technologies become available.