Growing Seasons – Kiln-Direct Heat-Treater Makes Firewood Conform to Federal Regulations for Insect
BRIDGEVILLE, Pennsylvania – Jim O’Connor, 49, has owned and operated a commercial printing company for 25 years.
But he had an entrepreneurial interest in the firewood business since his high school and college days, when he sold firewood on a small scale.
In January of 2007, he seized the opportunity to purchase a landscaping and firewood company that was going out of business. “I bought Growing Seasons and its five commercial firewood accounts,” Jim said.
Since then, he has bought two other firewood companies along with their accounts and equipment. Growing Seasons now has many commercial accounts and residential customers. Jim does business from a 20-acre parcel in a small town about 12 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.
The decision to own and operate a firewood business made sense for Jim and his wife, Sue, who have three sons; Justin, 25, graduated from Penn State in landscape contracting, Ryan, 21, attends West Virginia University, and Josh, 17, plans on going to college next fall. Justin recently took over as manager of Growing Seasons.
Growing Season is a landscaping business, too, and the firewood division was a small part of the business when Jim bought it. “I wanted to grow the division by producing a high-quality, heat-treated product,” said Jim.
He built two kilns using insulated containers and heated by woodstoves, but the kilns turned out to be too labor-intensive, and they could not maintain the temperature he needed. “I even had to have guys come out in the middle of the night to put wood on the fire to keep the kiln running and hot.”
He bought a self-feeding coal stove to fuel the kilns, but the heat it produced was not hot enough to destroy the larvae of the emerald ash borer. In order to comply with federal regulations, the kiln must maintain a uniform temperature of 170 degrees for 75 minutes.
Jim tried these different systems and heat sources for about two years before he decided to contact Niels Jorgensen of Kiln-direct. Kiln-direct supplies lumber dry kilns and is a leading supplier of pallet heat-treating kilns, and in recent years it has begun serving the firewood industry. Niels visited Jim’s company twice during the decision-making process.
“I bought a six-cord, end-loaded kiln that’s heated by propane gas,” Jim said. “The reason I went with propane is, although it’s more expensive, there is no labor involved and I can keep the kiln running 24/7 without anyone having to be there.”
The previous kilns had significant labor costs involved because of the need to feed wood to the stove at all hours, keep the coal stove clean, and so on. “I chose the propane kiln based on the cleanliness and trouble-free service of this kiln,” Jim said.
The aluminum-chambered firewood kiln has foam-insulated walls and operates off a 300,000 BTU propane heating system. “A benefit of this kiln is its heat-recovery system on the venting process, which lowers overall energy costs,” noted Niels. Warm air venting out of the kiln heats the incoming air. Companies can expect energy savings in the range of 20% to 40% because of the heat-transfer feature, according to Niels.
The kiln features a plc-based control system with wireless link to the office computer; the program can print out a report documenting that the firewood has been treated to federal specifications.
“The kiln control system uses a total of eight temperature sensors,” explained Niels, “two for the chamber temperature and six to be drilled into the firewood. U.S.D.A. heat-treating regulations require only three internal wood sensors, but our experience from the pallet industry shows us that redundancy is important in real life. Without extra sensors you would have to re-heat-treat the load if one sensor fails.”
The emerald ash borer is an invasive insect that kills ash trees. It entered the country from Asia on wood packaging material. It has been discovered in a number of states, and quarantines impacting the movement of wood products have been imposed in Pennsylvania and other states in order to prevent the insect from spreading.
The emerald ash borer can spread as easily as being transported in firewood that people take on a camping trip, noted Niels. Heat-treating raises the standards of the firewood business, he noted. Kiln-direct will soon introduce a smaller firewood kiln for the industry.
Many counties in Pennsylvania are currently under quarantine, according to Jim. “This means you can transport firewood within your county but not outside. But I can transport firewood anywhere in the country because I am heat-treating it, and have Pennsylvania certification as well as U.S.D.A. certification.”
Every week, Jim has a tractor-trailer (carrying about 10 cords of wood) of firewood, already cut and split, delivered to his yard. He works with several other companies that supply him with only hardwoods, like maple, oak, hickory, and cherry.
“We are very selective in what we accept from our suppliers,” said Jim, “and they cut to our specifications, which is 16-inches long and nothing larger than four inches in diameter. The reason is that customers I sell to and people buying firewood in bundles don’t want to handle larger pieces of wood.”
The firewood is offloaded onto the ground. A Bobcat loader scoops the firewood up and places it in metal baskets, and the baskets are picked up and moved by forklift into the kiln. The kiln has room for about eight baskets.
“Once the wood has been processed, the forklift picks up the metal baskets and rotates them around, so the firewood dumps into a waiting dump truck,” said Jim. “There is minimal manual labor involved.”
Kiln-direct can supply the metal baskets or provide drawings to fabricate them, but Jim found some used ones for sale from a company in Ohio. “We are in the process of modifying them to be more accommodating for our process,” he said. “We will fabricate them so they are easier to handle and so that we can get more baskets into the kiln.”
Jim’s company produces about 50 cords of heat-treated firewood per month, but he expects that volume to increase over time. The company operates a fleet of five assorted dump trucks to make deliveries.
Sales have grown more than 200% in the two years since Jim bought the business. The growth of the company was another factor that led him to invest in the heat-treating kiln.
It used to take him five to seven days to heat-treat firewood. With the kiln supplied by Kiln-direct, the process takes 24 to 36 hours. When the heat-treating process is finished, the moisture content of the firewood has been reduced to between 8% and 12%.
Jim attributes the growth of the business to old-fashioned hard work. “I focused on this division and ran it as a business and not as a hobby,” he said. “I watched the cash flow carefully and dissected the business to find out where all the money goes.”
A high level of customer service is another reason for the company’s success. For example, one Sunday night Jim received a phone call from one of the commercial accounts he serves in the Pittsburgh. The account needed firewood right away. “We are proud to say they got the wood they needed that same night,” said Jim.
Normally, Jim expects customers to give him reasonable time to deliver their order. “But in an emergency like this, we always try to help our customers. Some people in this business will not answer the phone after 5 p.m., but not us. Our customers know that I will return their phone call promptly.”
Jim has been running the new Kiln-direct heat-treating system for about a month. He is pleased with the way it is performing. “It reaches a temperature of 200 degrees and keeps it there. Not only do we have to kill the larvae of the emerald ash borer, but we also dry the wood for our commercial accounts.”
“We were told it would cost about $15 to $30 per cord in gas, depending on the season, outside temperatures, the price of gas, and how much drying is needed,” said Jim. “Those cost figures seem to be about right based on our experience so far.”
Commercial customers are a testament to the quality firewood that Jim’s company supplies—thanks in part to the Kiln-direct heat-treater.
“Our kiln maintains the proper temperature to produce the kind of wood our customers need to burn in their wood grills,” said Jim. “They don’t want firewood that will just sit there and smolder and smoke. They want a real flame.”
The firewood business has its challenges, Jim acknowledged. “There are always problems. This business is very equipment-intense, so you have to make sure you have back-ups and manpower required when things go down. We want to be sure that we can get things fixed promptly and properly.”
Growing Seasons obtains customers through word of mouth and some advertising. When making deliveries, the truck drivers will make a few stops at other businesses, such as taverns or restaurants, that may burn firewood to see if they can pick up another customer. Another value-added service Jim offers is a complimentary storage locker for a customer to keep their firewood.
Company employees are paid an hourly wage and receive training in dealing with and responding to customers. Six full-time employees work with Jim and his sons; the number of employees can increase to 15, depending on the season.
When he is not working, Jim likes to take time to enjoy the outdoors with his family, including skiing, snowmobiling, hunting, and riding dirt bikes.
“Anyone can sell firewood in the summer,” added Jim. “But it’s during the winter months, when snow is on the ground and it’s freezing, that people can’t get the service they expect. My customers tell me they want to know we will be there for them with the wood their ovens need. This value-added service I offer my customers helps me to build long-term relationships with them.”