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Penn Pallet Completes Recycling Circle: Invests in a Biomass System to Heat Its Pallet Treatment Kiln
Penn Pallet: A family-owned pallet company has taken its commitment to recycling and reducing wood waste to the next step by installing an Abbott Vortex biomass furnace to heat one of their pallet heat treating kilns.

By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 7/1/2011

            Penn Pallet of St. Marys, Penn. has long been concerned with reducing the amount of wood and other wastes sent to landfills. For years they have offered free collection of scrap to their customers, and recycled wood waste as well as nails and other scrap metal. And now, they have brought their commitment to recycling full circle by making biomass utilization part of the manufacturing process. The Abbott Energy Systems Vortex Biomass System was installed in October 2010 to heat a pallet treating kiln that had formerly been heated solely by a natural fired furnace.

            Because the company already processed wood waste which it sold to local schools, hospitals and businesses, most of which saw savings by using it as fuel for heat and energy, the management realized that it made sense for them to reap some of the same benefits.

            “We thought it was only smart,” said Doug Cunningham, general manager.

            The installation of the Vortex furnace is part of a joint trial between Penn Pallet and the manufacturer, Abbott Furnace Company, a local custom furnace manufacturer, that they have worked with repeatedly over the years on many different types of projects.

            “Whenever we wanted to try something out of the box we called Abbott,” Doug said.

            Abbott contacted Penn Pallet for their experience and opinions on existing biomass equipment when it first began serving the biomass furnace industry several years ago. In early 2010, when they started looking for a company that produced its own wood waste that would be willing to work with them on testing a new alternative biomass furnace design to be rated below 2.5mmbtu/hr, Penn Pallet was their first call.

            The Vortex furnace now heats a Kiln-direct kiln with a capacity of 600 pallets. They chose to utilize the Vortex furnace to heat a pallet drying kiln which was previously heated with natural gas as it was one of the biggest users of fuel at the company and is closely monitored for gas usage, making it a good test for a biomass replacement.

            The Vortex furnace got its name from the “tornado of flame” that is created inside of it during combustion. Grindings are fed into the top of the cylinder shaped combustion unit while air is introduced through the walls and up through the bottom of the chamber. This creates a tornado of flame as the grindings fall through the middle and burn midair.

            “Most of the combustion occurs above the floors,” said Steve Feldbauer, Abbott’s vice president of engineering. “Very little of the fuel fed into the top actually hits the floor.”

            The hot gas formed by combustion is then vented through the center of the lid and carried to the heat exchanges where it heats the kiln air before reintroducing it back into the kiln. The Vortex is ideal for this type of air-to-air applications, but can be used for heating water as well. 

            The high level of combustion efficiency can be seen in the way most of the fuel is burned before it can even touch the floor.

            “Because it’s so efficient it also has very little ash,” Steve said. “So it’s a very clean burning technology.”

            Due to the efficiency of the furnace, very little of the wood waste processed by the company has to be diverted away from sales to fuel the furnace, even in the higher volume months of winter.

            “Right now it is miniscule, and even come the winter time it is less than 1%,” Doug said. “We’re still selling a lot of sawdust. This doesn’t use that much. It’s very efficient in the amount of sawdust that it uses.”

            According to Steve, the Vortex system is a simple design suited for small to medium capacities. It was built to be installed outdoors, keeping in mind companies that do not have the required space for an indoor furnace available. However, it can also be installed indoors if wanted. The Vortex is the first furnace of the line and Penn Pallet is working closely with Abbott over the first year of its use to test its abilities.

            Doug said that they won’t know the full benefits of the furnace until after the trial period is over. However, they are already seeing some significant savings.

            “We’re still in the trial portion of the process; we don’t know exactly where we can end up,” said Doug. “But based off of what we’re seeing we’ll definitely have the ability to payback the machine.”

            Though they do not yet know where they will end up in terms of savings over the long term, they expect their best savings to be seen during the winter months as that is when they typically would use large amounts of natural gas.

            “You have to remember in the winter time pallets and lumber are frozen,” Doug said. “There’s a real consumption to get frozen wood up to 140 degrees, enough to make that heat treatment possible. In the summer when the wood’s already 70 degrees it’s much different. So our real benefit of this is in the winter months.”

            Penn Pallet was established in 1976 by Doug’s grandfather, father and uncle, Paul, Dan and John Cunningham to provide new pallets to the local community of St. Marys, Pennsylvania, but has grown well beyond that in the past 35 years. The first few years were mainly focused on building new pallets in and around the local community. However, as the company grew it expanded into more regional markets and beyond to national markets throughout the United States. The company jumped into the pallet recycling market in the mid 80s through one of its largest new pallet customers. Though there was some apprehension about the resulting reduction in the amount of new pallets that were being sold, the decision to expand their offerings to include recycled pallets was made after much thought and debate. The decision paid off for Penn Pallet which has become one of the region’s largest suppliers of both new and recycled pallets.

            Even with the impressive growth and expansion the company has seen in the past three decades, it has remained a family owned and operated company with multiple members of the Cunningham family involved in its daily operation. Today the company employs approximately 85 people and ships over 50,000 new and reconditioned pallets across the country each week, about 10,000 of which are heat treated. The original location in Saint Marys specializes in customized new manufactured wood pallets, crates, frames, stringers, and cradles, as well as offering pallet retrieval, various sort programs and borate and ISPM 15 heat treating. It runs a Pendu saw system and a Baker band saw. The majority of new pallets are made on two Viking Champion nailers. They also have small tables set up for additional small quantity hand nailing.

            The second location, which opened in Woodland, Penn. in 2004, specializes in recycling of 48 x 40 GMA style pallets. It regularly stock four grades of the 48 x 40s, but also has other sizes available. Both locations run 24 hours a day, five days a week.

            When the company first started in the repair business, dealing with the disposal of unusable wood components and the resulting costs was a major concern. As a result, two Vortex grinders have been run at the St. Marys’ facility since the mid-90s. When the second location, which handles 90% of repairs, opened, it was equipped with grinding equipment and a biomass furnace, giving them a way to use the wood waste and enabling them to heat the building using fuel produced on-site and eliminating the need for the fuel oil furnace. A stronger emphasis on processing wood waste was started two years later, when Penn Pallet made a conscious effort to process as much waste from its customers as possible and combined it with green sawdust generated from new pallet production. Today, they recycle 100% of their wood waste, producing around 10,000 tons of ground wood waste and sawdust annually between their two locations, which they sell to local businesses that use it for heating, landscaping mulch, pressed wood and pet bedding. 

            Though they hope that the current furnace will supply all their needs and do not currently plan to install any more, Doug said that the longer they see what it can do, the more they see different ways that they could use biomass energy in their facility.

            “It’s funny because as we’re going through and seeing the uses and abilities this furnace has, we find ourselves thinking, ‘we could install one here, we could install this, or we could do that.’ There are so many different options when you have a furnace that’s capable of producing the heat that this one is able to. And we have the unlimited supply of raw material from our business. So there’s quite a number of different things that we could do.”








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