Fire sale: Borough buys used boilers
The Haines Borough Assembly this week got a smoking hot deal on three biomass boilers, authorizing purchase of the equipment valued at $450,000 for only $60,000 from the U.S. Coast Guard in Sitka.
The catch is one of the boilers exploded when it was installed in the Coast Guard’s AIRSTA Hangar in 2012. Manufacturer Unilux has since refurbished and reprogrammed the boiler, said Darsie Culbeck, who has been handling the borough’s $1.2 million biomass grant from the Alaska Energy Authority to install wood pellet boilers in public buildings.
“It wasn’t the boilers that had a failure; it was the way that they plumbed them together (that) was the problem. So during the testing phase, that explosion happened,” said Culbeck, who is working as a consultant for the borough.
According to Bob Deering, the environmental branch chief for the Coast Guard’s civil engineering unit in Juneau, faulty piping caused the boiler to explode. A civilian contractor was injured and hospitalized.
The other two boilers were taken offline after the incident and have only been used for a handful of hours, Deering said. The Coast Guard abandoned the idea of biomass boilers after the explosion and went back to oil boilers.
“The air station doesn’t care what they burn. For them, there was no big imperative for them to reduce costs or think green or anything,” Deering said. “It was like, ‘We want to get back to flying helicopters and saving people.’ And I get that.”
Assembly member Mike Case, who was the only member to vote against purchase of the boilers, was concerned about the equipment’s warranty, or lack thereof.
“I’m assuming there’s no warranty when it gets sold off surplus by the Coast Guard,” Culbeck told the assembly.
The boilers are large – the biggest one, which exploded, is 1.7 million BTUs, Deering said. The other two are 1.4 million and 500,000. The biggest boiler is much larger than any facility in Haines needs, he said.
“That (boiler) was running a bigger building than anything you have in Haines,” Deering said.
Southeast Conference energy coordinator Robert Venables agreed that there is no building in Haines that needs a boiler of that size, which is why the borough is now looking at tying a bunch of them together and piping the energy to several buildings at once.
Venables said these boilers are valuable because they can burn either wood pellets or wood chips. They could burn wood pellets in the short-term and transition to using wood chips produced from the Haines State Forest in the future, he said.
The boilers are being purchased with grant money from the AEA. The project, most recently envisioned as placing wood-pellet boilers in individual borough buildings starting with a new wastewater treatment plant, has been delayed by problems with existing boilers and questions about pellet sourcing and supply.
Manager David Sosa acknowledged buying the Coast Guard boilers was a risk, but said if the project didn’t work out, they could possibly be resold. “Given the work that’s gone into them and the potential we could see out of this, I think that it’s worth the risk to see what we can make happen out of this,” Sosa said.
Culbeck said he and Sosa are still working out potential changes to the AEA grant and that it would be a minimum of 12 months for the boilers to be fully active.
Oil boilers will remain installed at the buildings as a back-up and to supplement the biomass boiler, Culbeck said.
The Sitka boilers are made by Unilux, a different brand than the OkoFEN boilers that have had flame tube failures at four facilities around town, including a borough-owned one at the Haines Senior Center.