International Collaboration with the ‘Optiwood’ Project

Improving the performance of our customers’ boilers

By Stewart Boyle | 6th October 2018

South East Wood Fuels, with our consultancy arm Vert Energy Associates (VEA), have been increasingly working with clients to improve the performance of their boilers. We call this the ‘Fuel ++’ programme where we link quality fuel, trouble-shooting and servicing.

Coincidentally, we recently started a 2-year EU project with three French Partners around the same theme. The project starting point is that while we now have many thousand biomass boilers in operation in both the UK and France, a sizeable number are not working as efficiently as possible. Our own estimates are that up to 25% of the existing 50,000 commercial and domestic biomass boilers in the UK are operating well below their optimum performance levels. Similar levels exist in France. That means a waste of wood fuel and money for clients.

The reasons for the sub-optimal boiler system performance are varied. They include:

  • Poor initial design of the boiler system including incorrect boiler and accumulator tank sizing
  • Poor quality or inconsistent quality fuel
  • Inadequate servicing and day to day maintenance
  • Incorrect boiler controls with poor integration of the biomass with the fossil fuel systems where present
  • Inadequate training of biomass boiler operators

Working with our three Brittany based partners – AILE, Department 35 and Pays de Fougeres – between us we have selected 12 Pilot Projects from varied sectors and will undertake a 12-month long monitoring, training and boiler tuning phase. Our aim is to work closely with partners at each pilot site and through data collection, discussions, then adjustment of the boiler systems, we will demonstrate that efficiency improvements are possible leading to financial savings and growing confidence from the operators.

Aurelie Leplus from AILE, who is coordinating the whole project, feels strongly that “with the right advice, training and boiler set up, efficiency savings of at least 4% are possible, and probably more. If these improvements are replicated across more boilers then the financial and carbon savings will be significant.” Year 2 of the project will see our results and lessons learned disseminated to a greater number of boiler operators and clients.

Stewart Boyle who heads up VEA, agrees that significant biomass boiler efficiency savings are available. “This project came at the right time for us as we have increasingly been involved with wood fuel clients who needed advice on how to get better performance out of their boilers”. Getting the ‘right fuel for the right boiler’ has long been our motto, but we also know that revisiting boiler set up and design is also important.

The SEWF’s ‘Fuel ++’ programme is a package where advice, technical support and improved service are offered. Several clients have now joined the Optiwood programme, including a hospital, a greenhouse and a community using district heating. Beyond the 5 pilot projects, we can also offer support to other clients needing training and technical support.

Paul Spencer, a biomass and controls engineer with 30 years of experience, has joined South East Wood Fuels as an Associate and designed a simple Monitoring Protocol for the project. This will use passive data loggers and other monitoring equipment for emissions and critical oxygen levels. He views the opportunity under ‘Optiwood’ as “getting a number of simple things such as good combustion right, as well as understanding the need for smart controls in order to integrate the whole boiler system – including fuel quality, accumulator tank and associated temperature controls”.

Stewart Boyle sees the whole ‘Optiwood’ project and our own ‘Fuel ++’ Programme as a “sign that the biomass heating industry is maturing and seeking to optimise the big industry we now have to make sure we have plenty of happy boilers and happy clients”.

Stewart Boyle


Stewart runs Vert Energy Associates, which is South East Wood Fuels’ consultancy arm. He has worked since 2001 in biomass and other green energy consultancy, technical sales of boiler systems and wood pellets, and wood chip and wood fuel market development.