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Would fuel briquette venture be worth it?

Post in 'The Green Room' started by boardmaker, Feb 3, 2009.

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  1. boardmaker

    boardmaker New Member

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    So here's my situation, and I would like everyone's advice.
    I work at a large sawmill and have access to virtually all the sawdust, planer shavings, and wood chips I could ever dream of. I have been contemplating on getting a sawdust briquette press and getting myself a side business. I am within an hour and a half of St. Louis so that would probably be my avenue for selling. I have noticed on the net that nearly all of the briquette sales are in the northeast. I have been crunching numbers and I don't think I could get the briqs shipped up there and still have any profit left. I have heard pros and cons to burning them. I'm afraid if some occasional users buy them, they will have a lot of trouble getting them to burn correctly or satisfactory hence, not a repeat customer. I think if I could create a market, I could make a decent profit. As long as the product(dust) is dry the machine will basically run itself. So I could work on other things in the shop while the press squeezes out briqs all day long. One part of me says it's a no-brainer. Another part of me is scared my market is too limited and with a fairly high press cost, I don't want to bite off more than I can chew. Maybe I'm just asking for one of you to give me a kick to get going or quite possibly for you guys to put me in my place. With all the environmental concerns, it's an awesome fuel.
    Well, that's it for now.
    Let me have it.

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  2. begreen

    begreen Mooderator Staff Member

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    You might want to contact the folks at BioBrick to see if they franchise. I agree that you are better off establishing a local supply situation. Adding a lot of fossil fuel transport degrades the green side of the business.

    PS: Not sure this is really hearth related. Moving to the green room for further discussion.
  3. Ugly

    Ugly New Member

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    I've thought of something similiar, I was thinking pellets as a business but the same things apply. Once I looked into the equipment involved in making a first class product....The big sawdust dryers and the energy costs are what turned me off it. I decided it wasn't for me as it required too much space and too much energy.
  4. webbie

    webbie Seasoned Moderator Staff Member

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    I think there is some economy of scale involved - that is, the cost of a machine and workers, plant, etc......probably means it may be tough to run as a side business. It may be all or nothing. But you can work out those numbers.

    Yes, the market should be mostly local for biomass products like this, but your area should have plenty of potential in the St. Louis and surrounding areas. The key, I think, is to get a high quality product out the door.

    Yes, companies like Biobrick do sell the machines and the consulting to go with them. The dollar is a bit stronger right now, so that may help a little with imported machines.

    If you are handy, maybe you can pick up some old machines and rebuild them - that will provide a low cost of entry which may be better for a part-time venture.
    http://www.northidahoenergylogs.com/equipment.htm
  5. boardmaker

    boardmaker New Member

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    Thanks for the website webmaster. I get paid to tinker everyday. One of those would be right up my alley. I'm going to say this and I may regret it. I was actually thinking of building my own press, but If I can get one of those and rebuild it for the right money-okay. Yes, I actually build a small press with a would splitter. Putting nearly 20,000psi on sawdust can make a guy a little nervous the first time. It works beatifully. I have a large amount of hydraulic experience and I'm actually an electrician by trade. So it definitely would be plc controlled. I have invested many, many hours looking over the 3 most popular designs on the internet and I have a complete press drawn up with a parts list. It's still pretty expensive. As far as the briqs go, it seems the smaller biobricks are the most favored. I need to study this website you gave me. Now you got me all excited again. I lose interest every 3 weeks or so just because I'm worried if the market is there. Most of the people in St. Louis only burn wood for ambience and such. I assume very few actually do all of their heating with wood. From what I have read briquettes are a little hard to get started and they don't offer the pretty fire firewood offers. So what I'm saying is I will probably get a lot of first time buyers, but unfortunately few repeats. I have burned many of my prototype briqs and they all burned well, but I have wood heat my entire life so starting fires and such comes naturally.
  6. Corey

    Corey Minister of Fire

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    One thing I'd be careful of is any type of 'conflict of interest' with the sawmill. Are they OK with you (as an employee) pilfering the sawdust, then selling that for a profit? If they aren't and/or you quit your job to pursue the brick making full time, will they still allow you free access to the sawdust?

    I've worked for a couple companies and basically had to sign a waiver that any idea I come up with while at work can't be sold/used/etc for my personal benefit, but would be considered company property. Likewise, when I used to live in Springfield, MO, there was a railroad tie plant. They would crop the ends off the oak ties to make them uniform length, then put out the scraps - which were usually 8"x10" oak chunks between 5 and 12" long - as 'free for the taking'. One enterprising redne...uh...person...would be down there every morning to grab up a load of the best scraps. He'd then haul them back to his house and put them out for sale. It only took a couple trips of this before someone (ahem!) mentioned his practices to the plant. Once they saw the big piles of free scraps 'for sale' in his yard, he was no longer allowed to get wood from the plant.

    So just make sure everything is in line and good luck!
  7. boardmaker

    boardmaker New Member

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    Honestly, I haven't talked with them about this idea yet. I'm am in a higher position in the company so I know they aren't going to just jumping up and down if I pursue this. I will actually be purchasing the dust from them. It's cheap. I developed the idea on my personal time in my shop so they can't claim it was a time conflict of issue. Except sometimes my mind wanders at work so I guess they could bill me for that. This mill is quite large so if it's not dealt with in trailer truck loads they are not very interested. So I'm sure conflict of interest will not be a problem at first when the sidebusiness would not be showing signs of much profit. I do realize if the venture would take off they would start to notice. I'm torn about what to do. Do I tell them and hope they don't steal my idea? Or, do I play dumb? I love working here and I know they wouldn't fire me, but I really don't want to disappoint them either.
  8. Ugly

    Ugly New Member

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    Be up front about it, but spin it as a long shot. Propose a joint venture in such a way thet they decline (they won't risk the money), but offer to buy sawdust. They will figure they're doing you a favor at that point and be glad they have a gracious way of saying no to the joint venture by doing so. You can always stay arms length from the whole thing by utilizng a willing brother in law as a front man. No one knows the/your boss better than you, I'm sure you can figure out some realistic approach.
  9. JustWood

    JustWood Minister of Fire

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    If a pellet mill opens up within 200 miles be prepared for sawdust to get expensive real fast. Every last ounce of sawdust here is snagged up by 3 different pellet mills with long term contracts.
  10. webbie

    webbie Seasoned Moderator Staff Member

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    Building your own or rebuilding changes the equation in your favor - even on a part-time deal.

    I think you could sell them. Doesn't freight still go up the river pretty cheaply? But I think a market could be established within 3 hours trucking of your plant....

    Given your tinkering, you could probably work with various designs - like the holes in the middle, etc. - in an attempt to make them burn best alone and when mixed with wood.

    I don't know a lot about them, but it would seen that both the moisture consistency and the density of the finished product would be very important as to burning qualities.
  11. Peter B.

    Peter B. Feeling the Heat

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    Piggy backing on the thread...

    I wonder if anyone knows if fuel bricks are being made from ag wastes (spoiled hay bales, corn cobs, oat straw, etc.)?

    --

    boardmaker:

    Not that I'm experienced in such matters, but I'd think you wouldn't be able to 'escape notice' forever... and further, that it would make more sense to have the press onsite at the mill than have to transport the sawdust any distance. Why not thrash out a formal contract with the company that entitles you to be paid for 'sparkplugging' the idea and a share in (any) profits?

    Seems like a great opportunity for both parties...

    Peter B.

    -----
  12. boardmaker

    boardmaker New Member

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    I'm not really as concerned as much about stepping on my employers toes as I am my marketability. I have a very good relationship with them so if I begin this venture I will let them know and see what they have to say. You have to remember sawdust is a byproduct, not the major cash source for us. In fact, sometimes it's hard to get rid of. I don't see a pellet mill popping up anytime soon. That's more of a north-northeast localized item. There is one in central mo, but I'm not sure of how they are doing. I actually got the briquette idea after contemplating making pellets. For anyone wanting to learn about home brew pellets there is an awesome website www.makeyourownpellets.com that you should visit. I am not affiliated with them, but I learned a huge amount from their forum. I believe you can make briqs from ag byproducts such as straw. I just don't see it as being feasible. I live on a working family farm. Our cheapest 6x6 bales go for 20$+. Heck, last summer we custom baled and charged 15$/bale. And they only weigh 1200lbs. So with dust go for 15-20$/ton, it just only seems logical. What makes the briqs stick under pressure is a product called lignin. It actually changes to a liquid state under pressure and then rebinds the dust. I'm not sure straw or hay has that. It may have to be some for of mixture with wood. On that pellet forum, they make pellets with them, but they use a product called pellet bond. So I think with that it would be possible. I have thought so much about this. I have talked myself into and out of business more times than I can count. It just seems so logical though. A machine that practically runs itself while you can tinker with something else. The only cost is the initial which I could keep to a minimum by going used or build myself.
  13. Peter B.

    Peter B. Feeling the Heat

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    To my ear, it sounds like you'll kick yourself if you let the chance pass...

    If you can assure a quality product and keep your prices reasonable, I would think you'd have plenty of repeats... and word of mouth... and you may be surprised at the number of folk in your neighborhood trying to beat oil or gas prices.

    I <really> like the idea of using biomass that is typically thought of as 'waste' (in any form) used to do something other than create methane and C02 lying on the ground.

    Do It !!!

    Peter B.

    -----
  14. kenny chaos

    kenny chaos Minister of Fire

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    Random thoughts:
    Better to try and fail than blah, blah, blah....
    With the world wide shortage of pellets, why briquettes? We're even shipping pellets overseas! Seems like it'd be worthwhile to ship to northeast. Wholesale them and let someone else handle all the headaches with trucking and selling?
    It does seem like there's a basic flaw in pellet stoves that people need to be so fussy as to what they feed it. I can load up a basket and put it in my woodstove and it doesn't care if they're dirty or too big or whatever the problems are. Maybe that's why briquettes? I've just never known anyone who used them.
    You mentioned "creating a market." That's another whole ship to sail and you can't be on two at the same time.
    Here's a story for your boss- Use to be some pig farms around who capitalized on the by-products of a cheese factory and numerous vegetable packaging houses.
    Once these by-products had value, they started charging for them.
    The pigs lost profitability and sold out.
    The by-products are a burden again.
    I wouldn't base my desicion on what might happen.
    The whole fad with veggie oil has subsided or at least quieted. People got dissuaded by the fact that the growing demand for the used veggie oil was causing it to be sold. I got a buddy that does real well with free WVO. He just doesn't brag so much about it (hint, hint,) or he tells about how much effort for so little return.
    You enjoy working in your shop and the worst that could happen is that you have a nice machine to sell. So the worst you could do is make money?
  15. boardmaker

    boardmaker New Member

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    I do just want to mention first that I really appreciate all of your opinions. I've been quietly searching this forum for awhile. There is just so much valuable info. I looked at the possibility of pellets. If you don't have 100g up front, you're not going to get much. Also, there is a very large feed mill close by that my brother works for. He has heard numerous stories about how much maintenance the pellet mill is. Part of that is because they will hire just about anybody. But it can't all be human error. I have also read the makeyourownpellets forum from front to rear. There is a huge learning curve, and I just cant see them guys making a profit with the smaller mills. They do have some talent though. One guy hooked a 6 cyl engine to his mill. I enjoy reading that kind of stuff. Anyways, that is why not pellets.
    I don't see how I can get away from some form of marketing. I could sell them to the fireplace shops and such. I don't know how it's done everywhere else, but in the midwest a lot of city gas stations sell small quantities of firewood. So that would be another. I would just sell each station a pallet at a time. There's also big box stores. That might not be worth it's time. Who knows. I've never tried to sell lowes or home depot anything. That would be a learning curve itself. Anyways, in some form or another I would have at least market to these guys. I wouldn't try to market to the end consumer other than having some fancy box and fact sheet about how they our good for our earth. I've noticed the guy from biopellets has been on this forum. I wish he'd reply. As far as I know he's the mastermind behind BioBricks. It seems he knows what he's doing. I can't really see that I would be stepping on his toes because most of his products are in the northeast.
  16. Ugly

    Ugly New Member

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    Here's a random thought... When I was in Vancouver my house there has a fireplace and I used to buy those sawdust logs for it since they burned in a nice controlled manner and gave off little creosote. One brand I used to buy had coloured flames... green, purples, reds, blues and some whites. I hate to say it but that sold me on the product because my wife was on it like a fat kid on a donut. To further this, a little mom and pop department store in town sells those packets you add to your camp fire to give those same coloured flames. It's as dead simple as dropping the packet in the fire and they it's non toxic etc etc etc... (my kids loves em). I've made enough homemade fireworks to guess at the metals used and I'd have to agree.

    You could either incorporate a product like that into your dust or add a packet to each bundle or something to help differenetiate your product over others. Might give you a nice marketing twist to focus on for a low cost.

    The guy near me who makes windows and doors has a brick press, he flogs them to campgrounds in the summer in the puck form in poly bags.. (as opposed to log form). There's an easy market. Campgrounds and stores near campgrounds, we sell a lot of firewood to campers and private campgrounds.

    Final thought... when you make your business plan , stick in X hours every week to the task: marketing and DO IT.
  17. CarbonNeutral

    CarbonNeutral Minister of Fire

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    I have a lot of respect for you for giving this serious thought - if the numbers work out, best of luck - a true entrepreneur

    A few comments on your last post - selling to gas stations. People who buy firewood from gas stations are not doing it to heat their house, they are doing it to have a fire once in a while - I've seen someone else on here post that gas station/supermarket prices work out to about $800 a cord. People who buy pellet stoves are in it to heat their house - they buy a pallet at a time, or at least 10 bags - I would believe it's a volume sale. That said there's a gas station around here that will also sell you a pallet, or even deliver, but you're not going to convince your average gas station to do that.

    I don't know how Lowes/HD buy their pellets, but to go in with the "buy local, sell local" thing could be a bonus especially with a green product such as pellets. Go speak to some employees in the aisles. Ace hardware stores (or your regional equivalent) may be great for a local manufacturer.

    Speak to a someone who sells pellets - how many pallets do they sell a season, what is is the pattern of demand? How much you could produce - if you had one seller just like this, is that all you would need given supply and need to make money. Most importantly go speak to anyone in your market who buys them. Where from, how much, how much at a time, satisfaction, what could be better....

    Being the distributor as well adds a whole other layer of cost, but of course cuts out the middleman. The power of both the internet and your connections to pellet buyers would then be key.

    I wonder if there's a market for delivery of raw sawdust to pellet makers elsewhere - you'd have to compress it, but maybe a trash truck could do the job....

    Go sort out the distribution/price point of your business before anything else. Write a business plan, and most importantly be honest with yourself about what you think you can achieve. Shield yourself from liabilty and protect your assets and family.

    I'm sure you've thought of these things, but I just wrote as things popped into my head. Best of luck.
  18. kenny chaos

    kenny chaos Minister of Fire

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    Are you near the rail lines? Lots of places around here to recieve rail goods.
  19. boardmaker

    boardmaker New Member

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    Actually, I am near the rail lines. My employer owns a switch. Never even thought about that. Hey, if anyone here is a distributor for any of the other compressed logs, pm me. I have a question for you.
    I know this is something I should just do. I need to make phone calls next I guess. Then setup a llc. I checked for patent issues and the only things I found that my pertain to the idea expired. At least, I'm pretty sure. Any of you guys tried to navigate the United States Patent Office site. Can be very time consuming.
    Well, I have the whole summer to get the press running and setup a distribution network.
    I forgot to mention earlier about the dust shortage at all the pellet mills. Since the housing market tanked, sawmills are closing left and right. The market is just saturated. And it's both hard and softwood mills. If the fuel prices go back up, you'll be talking about 2x4's as something you used to see as a kid. I am so ready to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here I go hijacking my own thead.
    Appreciate the time guys. You all just told me what I knew, but needed someone else to say.
  20. Titus

    Titus New Member

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    Guess I'll rain on the parade a bit. Making compressed wood pellets or bricks is one thing, making them well is another. Maine Wood Pellets invested millions of dollars in their facility in Athens, Maine. A brief search of the forum will show you how well they have done in making pellets.

    Some mention has been given to fireplace logs. Duraflame logs, for example, are not just compressed sawdust, but contain wax as well to maintain the nice "fireplace" flame. BioBricks make poor fireplace logs, in my experience. They are meant to be stuffed into a woodstove for heat.

    Check the link for a satellite picture of the Athens plant.

    http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=44.946341,-69.662129&spn=0.005824,0.006148&z=17

    Poor aerial photo of the Corinth plant. Millions of dollars spent here too, and last year, not very good pellets.

    http://maps.live.com/default.aspx?v...ir=0&alt;=-1000&phx=0&phy=0&phscl=1&encType=1

    Duraflame's planet in Kentucky, for what it's worth. (Arthur drive, not sure which building. No names on the roofs, lol.)

    http://maps.live.com/default.aspx?v...ir=0&alt;=-1000&phx=0&phy=0&phscl=1&encType=1
  21. boardmaker

    boardmaker New Member

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    Yeah, I have heard the stories about pellet mills. I have no desire for that. Plus, pellets are not exploding in my area. The mill I work for actually made them in the 70's. Funny thing is they were actually cattle feed. Yep, sawdust for cattle. They weren't loaded with protein, but they made a great filler. I have read here that the bricks do much for a fireplace. Now, must of us country boys burn entirely with stoves. So around here it would be great, but most of these guys want to make their own wood so...... Will bricks go over good in the once in fireplaces that only get lit once in a blue moon? Great question, and that's why I posted this thread-to hear your opinions. I am not offended by your post. It's what I want to hear, if it will or won't be worth it.
  22. spirilis

    spirilis Feeling the Heat

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    Digging up this thread, random question--How much pressure does it require to make one of those biobrick-like products? Would a 20-ton hydraulic floor press with some appropriate apparatus let you do it by hand? (heh, what kind of apparatus would you need anyhow? point being, floor presses can be had for fairly cheap... it'd be interesting building your own bricks by hand that way)
  23. BrotherBart

    BrotherBart Hearth.com LLC Mid-Atlantic Division Staff Member

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    Don't know about bio bricks but pellet mills use around 250,000 pounds of pressure. Buy lots of floor presses. ;-P
  24. summit

    summit Minister of Fire

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    best to do is start out small scale: do it up on a purely hobby based venture, selling a few pallets to a small market, maybe even around cost to see how it is...(will require an investment by you with equipment, and time pounding the pavement) then decide whether it is worth it to continue.
  25. boardmaker

    boardmaker New Member

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    Spirilis,
    I've done a fair amount of research and some prototyping. Here is what I can tell you. To make a briq. with hardwood sawdust, you will need roughly 24,000 psi. With that said, if the end or your briq that you are pressing against is 3x3, then you have 9 sqin. So, you will need 216,000 psi. Hardwood really does require that much pressure to get the lignin to successfully bind. I don't have softwood so I have no idea about it. Now, some presses use heat to help bind the dust so they don't need as much pressure. I don't prefer that. One, it's a fire hazard. Two, your product isn't nearly as dense. Most log splitters don't even put out 70,000psi. So lets say you have an 8" cyl. in your garage. To run it you will need a pump that will run at least 4300psi. Most log splitters top out at 3000psi. What I'm trying to say is that it will take a large cylinder and a good pump. Without 3 phase electric, it will have to run off an engine because you can't get enough hp out of single phase. I had a lot of my design built off of an ruf briquette press. And, I found out they have their infeed prepressure cylinder patented. What confuses me is that some companies have a machines that work very similar to theirs. I don't know enough about patents to know what I could legally get away with. I'm not looking for a lawsuit. If I had access to a machine shop, I would build one. I have all the basic tools. Welder, plasma, etc., but it still would require a lot of machining. The best way would be to make your cylinder part of the pressure rod. To make a reasonable priced custom cylinder would require access to a shop. I have stepped away from it for the time being. I have built some smaller prototypes with scraps rigged on a log splitter. I can make it work. But, it's not in my budget right now. And once it's built, if you find you built your infeed say to small, I would be depressed. I don't really see that being a problem, because with a plc you can change all of your timing and pressure setpoints instantly. But, as we all know there are unforseeable circumstances. If you decide to build one, or just tinker with it, let me know. I have done a lot of the hydraulic math for different combinations and such. Besides, you might have an idea I haven't thought of. I know most of this post is a let down, but if I had more time and 10 grand in my pocket. I would be ordering in parts tommorrow. It was good to see this post again. So does anyone have an idea they would like to share. I'd like to talk some more about this. I think a person could create a market for briqs. It would take a year or 2 to get where you need it to be profitable. Ya gotta start somewhere.
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