FAIRFIELD – Peter Watson can offer homeowners a heating system that relies little on fuel oil, produces savings with wood, and heats water year-round.
Since 2006, Watson, 41, has operated Watson Research out of the Fairfield home he shares with his son, Ander, 9, and partner, Molly, who works at a Jericho greenhouse.
Watson designs, sells, installs, and services high-efficiency, wood gasification boilers, which rely on pyrolysis – the decomposition or transformation of a compound caused by heat. Watson is also good at clearly describing what he does, especially when coffee is involved.
“I enjoy it,” he said recently, at The Traveled Cup, in St. Albans. “I enjoy the science of it.”
When wood is heated to around 900 degrees, it releases certain gases. The flame in this case is not on the wood, but above it. (Think of a hot campfire.)
A wood gasification boiler breaks down the wood in one chamber, combusts the gases in another, and then harvests and releases the heat through a centralized system that Watson installs in homes; he is a Vermont-licensed hydronics heating specialist.
The wood still burns straight, but the process is greener, and more complete.
“This kind of technology is much more common on Europe,” Watson said. “I think there is only one other company in Vermont that specializes in systems like mine.”
According to Watson, wood gasification started in Europe in the 1940s, but not for heat. Engineers realized they could turn wood into wood gas for engines, which was useful during World War II. The heating application began in Maine, during the U.S. oil crisis of the 1970s; three American companies emerged from that but then disappeared as the relied more and more on oil.
“But Europe never stopped developing wood gasification technology,” Watson said. “They perfected it.”
An investment in a boiler system through Watson Research might range from $14,000-$30,000, depending on the size and complexity of the system. He also installs the systems for small businesses.
The payoff for homeowners also can range anywhere from five to six to 12 years – again, depending on the and complexity of the system. “But there’s even a savings if you hire someone to chop and stock your wood – and hire someone local,” Watson said.
The lifespan of a wood gasification boiler can be 20 years or longer. “I want to see some of mine go way beyond that,” Watson said, “but we will only know once we get there.”
Watson comes from a large family of studio artists. He grew up in Fairfield and graduated from BFA-Fairfax in 1990. He is close to earning his degree in philosophy from the University of Vermont, where he also took courses in Welding, Solar Strategies for Building, and Computer-Aided Design (CAD) – all which helped him develop his boilers.
Watson educated himself on wood gasification boiler technology when he was building his Fairfield home in the 1990s. He is a one-man show at Watson Research and travels within a 90-minute radius to install and service boilers. It is easier for him to install them during warm-weather months, he said.
“I jumped off a cliff when I started this, and it’s been successful,” Watson said. “Now, I have to figure out what’s next.”