Summer’s almost over, time to start thinking about heat

2013 Boiler design flow chart

I know it’s early on the calendar but my focus is starting to shift back to my heating hobby.  After two years of experimenting I have a proven performer with both the mechanical unit and the software I used last winter.  I could change nothing and go through the winter fairly smoothly but there is  always room for more improvement.   So this is my plan:  1) Build a new unit very similar to the proven unit I have been using but with greater feed range capability to allow the unit to feed wood chips as well as pellets.  By building a complete new unit I can always roll up the proven unit after the experiment is over and the data collected and resume heating without a hiccup.   2) Make slight modifications to the boiler to allow a larger interface plate between the feed unit and the boiler.  This will allow a greater range of experimentation with burner designs.  3) Continue making small experimental changes to the working pellet unit such as a vibrator for ash removal, different burner designs, different draft designs.  4)  Continue to make changes and improvements to the software.  To start I would like three modes of operation.  Continuous, run for some amount of time, and run until a set time.  I changed the software to run to a set time by calendar date last spring but it was built into the software by date not menu or button choice.  I would like to have the option of running for a few hours for both experimentation and also to occasionally heat hot water and be able to choose these options by menu.  This fall I am sure I would like the unit to be able to take the chill off and then shut down.    5) Build a chip dryer.  This is going to get to be a priority , I know the days are getting a little shorter and it is amazing how much less solar there is in the fall.  Time to giddy up on that one.

I know I have to prioritize the work, and work as time and cash flow allows.  But I think the first step will be to make a new interface plate and boiler opening.  This will allow standardization for the next design and this work can be done while there is no particular need for heat.  I went dumpster diving the other day and got a great new electrical box, so I guess I can get going on the that part of the new burner feed.  I like free stuff.  I may hit that dumpster again soon.

In the mean time it is still summer and there is still sailing weather.


Mid January cabin fever and progress report

It may not be cabin fever, more just a general malaise. That midwinter everything is working and I don’t want to take it apart feeling. But I have several projects half done at this point. I am waiting for headers to install the Ethernet card so the Ethernet update project is on hold. The CNC plasma cutter is apart awaiting a new lead screw for the y-axis. This is to remove the vibration issues I have been experiencing. I am changing from a single start to a five start lead screw. I will lose one fifth of the resolution I have presently but that will still be plenty of resolution for this application. But the big news is I am finally going to move on building a new firebox. It’s time to retire the over the road fuel tank turned boiler. Well maybe not retire, just move onto a new home. Anyone want to buy this working boiler? I would consider selling the auger and burner feed as well as a combination. The unit is located in Newport, NH if you would like to see it working. It won’t be available until it’s replacement is built. It is after all heating the house, shop and hot water. But I am hoping to have the replacement built before the end of the heating season for some testing. If you are interested drop me an email at: clarkcontr@gmail.com
A quick reminder of what the combination looks like, this has successfully burned pellets, chips and to a limited degree sawdust. Ideally you would be a person who can tinker as this is a prototype unit.
The software, Arduino and LCD display all very solid and work very well.

Boiler and Feed Combination


12/14/12 data, more testing, draft improvements

I  added  gasket rope which I bought at a local hardware store, which is made to replace the gasket material which comes in a wood stove door between the burn plate and the boiler.  This gasket changed the Magnehelic vacuum reading from .1″H2O to .4″H2O.  That I thought would make the flame a bit more vigorous.  I also made the holes in the bottom of the burner larger to allow the ash to fall through.  Lastly I made minor changes by tacking some material across some holes and making more air holes in the ramp plate which the pellets fall down.

Temperature vs. Minutes 12/14/12 data

Temperature vs. Minutes 12/14/12 data

The main differences in this graph and the previous day’s graphs are at approximately minute 273  pellets were added and the sawdust which had been running finally ran out.   As you can see it had enough energy density to overcome the demands of the circulator circuit.  The biggest problem after that came at about 341 when the program allowed the temperature to go past the set point of 140°F  The only explanation I could come up with is the division by different types of declared variables was not allowed and yielded a result of zero.  I was dividing an unsigned long which is an integer by .8 to increase the Auger Off time by 20%.  Since you will not get an integer when you do this the program may not have liked this result.  The Arduino language is a slight variant of C++ .  I have since made all the variables doubles we’ll see if that works.  Today’s burn will be a better test of the burner floors ability to let ash fall through.  Sawdust is very difficult to burn.  It’s also difficult to get the ash to fall through the burner floor.   I think this is because the air cannot get around the sawdust sufficiently to burn it completely and hence it smolders in clumps instead of falling through the grate.    The burner when I pulled it out to inspect it was definitely not clean of ash but did appear better than yesterday.


Work out the software bugs to test burn, Step 8 of a DIY Record

Over the summer and fall I have written and tested a number of programs to have the building blocks of a working program.  I knew the key this year would be the ability to log data.  Of course to log data and have it mean something you have to have good data.  So I spent several days working the bugs out of OpenLog, which works but I would not recommend.  I also spent some time figuring out a combination of moving averages which resultx in stable data.

Of course the integration process was a train wreck.  The arrays used for moving average data smoothing were declared wrong so that bug had to be found and fixed.  The Serial LCD needed to be replaced, and my soldering iron wouldn’t work.    A few of the functions are timed and there were some issues with those functions.  The code for Open Log was not robust enough, once I worked out all those issues, which took most of the weekend, it is finally ready to test.

I had a plow in the shop for repair and soaked up the spilled hydraulic fluid off the floor with some sawdust, actually pellets that got wet.  So the hydraulic oil soaked sawdust is in the hopper to be burned.  It’s burning now, so tomorrow I should have some excel data which will help me make decisions to improve the software.  At this point I am not sure it will be valid however, it is really taking a long time to come up to temperature with the sawdust.   Another data point.

Boiler hooked up and burning for the first time

Boiler hooked up and burning for the first time


Electrical box and paint, Step 7 of a DIY record

It took me longer than I would like, but the hopper/auger assembly is now painted and the electrical box is mounted and the wiring is functional.  I have mounted the Arduino and LCD display.  That box also contains the board that accommodates the thermistor electronics, which are the sensors that read various temperatures.

The main electrical box is a stainless steel box  I picked up used from a scrap yard, putting the frugal in frugaltinker.com.  That’s the reason that there are so many holes in the box,  however it was such a good deal I thought it was worth it, despite the cosmetics.  The cover was just too ugly to leave be, so I attempted to skin the cover with a plate which I plasma cut in “Frugaltinker.com”.  This doesn’t show up too well, I probably should paint a background behind it to make it stand out better. Painting a background seems low on the to do list right now, so I think I will skip that task and focus on the burner.

The CNC was invaluable in the production of the electrical mounting plate, mounted inside the electrical box.  It was great to not have to drill any holes to mount anything.   All the holes were cut with the CNC and fit just fine.

So the final task is complete before the burner is welded up and tested.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Adding wheels, Step five of a DIY Record.

I often have to cut multiple parts, so when I do, I take the opportunity to experiment a bit.  In this series of cuts I changed the amperage of the Plasma cutter, a Hypertherm 45.  Hypertherm plasma cutters are American made, designed and built, only about a 45 minute drive away from me.  I still haven’t gotten my free T shirt for buying and registering the machine but I guess that’s another story…  anyway, amazingly enough there really is not a lot of difference in the dross or slag between the three different amp settings I tried.  I’ll keep experimenting to try to optimize the cut quality and speed of the CNC machine, plasma cutter combination.

The auger pipe connects the burn plate which attaches to the boiler and forms the interface between the auger feed and the boiler/burner units.  I took a piece of 6″ pipe and welded it to the boiler plate and this attaches the plate to the auger feed via screws that tighten. With this assembly I can detach the auger and hopper and test a different burner simply by loosening 6 screws. Modular design for ease of design changes and maintenance.

Burn plate attached to auger via screws tightened 120° apart

I attached the hopper plate first because this determines the wheel height required. I slotted the holes in the saddle plates so that there is about 3/8″, or about a centimeter of adjustment up or down adjustment.  Then after careful alignment I assembled the entire assembly with clamps and threaded rods. I did cut and weld in some cross pieces with gussets

Cross bars with CNC cut gussets and CNC cut caster plates

Close up of carriage assembly welded to auger tube

This will make maintenance of the boiler, ash removal, scraping of the burner holes, boiler tube cleaning very easy by simply rolling the auger/hopper assembly out of the way.


Mounting the auger drive motor. Step four of a DIY record.

In this step I mount the auger drive motor, it has a built in right angle drive and speed reducer which adds torque.  The motor comes complete ready for wiring and mounting using four screws.  Again I drew up the parts in SketchUp and then cut them out on the CNC plasma cutter, it was almost too easy.   The further I get down this path the more I take advantage of the CNC’s capabilities.  Note the rounded corners, I also added an extra hole on top of the motor mount plate to make adding a wire routing clip easier in the future.  I remade the worm drive plate to improve some of the adjustment capabilities and added at the same time some decoration, rounded corners and used less material.

I used a Lovejoy type shaft connector to connect the motor to the worm shaft with a Buna-N spider in between to minimize any vibration or backlash to the motor, although with the worm and worm gear combination there should be none.