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05/20/2007

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Bill Reitz, owner of the Sawmill Bill’s Lumber Company, stands at the front desk behind his new product Eco Heating Wood Bricks. The bricks, below, are made from sawdust that his lumber creates while making hardwood flooring.

From Sawdust To Bricks

They burn like wood and take up less space

bobrien@record-eagle.com

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One of Bill Reitz's Eco Heating Wood Bricks.

INTERLOCHEN — Bill Reitz used to give away his sawdust to local farmers for animal bedding just to get it out his sawmill.

"I could always get rid of it, but it was always a pain,” he said.

But the owner of Sawmill Bill's Lumber Co. along U.S. 31 South near Interlochen found a way to turn wood byproducts into a renewable energy source known as Eco Heating Bricks.

Thanks to some European technology, Reitz is taking sawdust from his and other local woodworking operations and churning out wood blocks that provide fuel for wood stoves, fireplaces, camp fires, saunas and other such uses.

"Anybody that's been burning firewood is going to love this,” he said.

Reitz searched the Internet for ideas on recycling waste products from his 27-year-old sawmill and learned about a process that's been used for years in Europe to compress sawdust into combustible wood bricks.

"The Germans have been doing this for 20 years,” he said. "Of everything I looked at, this made the most sense.”

To make the bricks, sawdust from various equipment around the sawmill is sucked into a duct system connected to a large "bag house” just outside Reitz's mill. From there, fine dust is filtered out and the remaining sawdust is piped through more than 80 feet of metal piping into a storage house, and then into a large vat in another building before it's piped into machinery that makes the bricks.

The machine compresses the sawdust into two-pound bricks that are pushed from the bottom of the machine up two chutes that alternately drop them into a large container. Then the blocks run down a conveyer into small bundles to be packed in paper bags.

Reitz invested around $200,000 in equipment to set up the operation, and he said his brickmaker is one of only nine such machines in use in the U.S.

The sawmill started cranking out sawdust bricks in early April and has produced around 27 tons so far. A ton of bricks, equal to about a full cord of wood, sells for around $210. A $3 bag of bricks will burn three to four hours, he said. They take up less storage space than wood and don't create much smoke or creosote, but must be stored in a dry location to keep the sawdust from turning soggy.

It takes about four yards of sawdust to produce one ton of bricks, Reitz said. At full production the sawmill will go through about 20 yards of sawdust per day.

Bags of bricks are available at a handful of retail stores and Reitz hopes to eventually market them at campgrounds, fireplace and stove dealerships, and area lumber stores.

John Nuske, owner of Lake Ann Grocery where the Eco Heating bricks are available, said he's sold a few so far and put a stack of them in his garage for his own use.

"On these chilly evenings or chilly mornings, I throw a couple of these in the wood stove and they do just fine,” Nuske said.

Reitz hopes he's hitting the market with this product at just the right time, with soaring prices for heating oil and natural gas and the limits on wood-hauling around Michigan because of emerald ash borer infestations. He's also counting on the recycling aspect of the product to appeal to consumers.

"Green is the talk of the trade right now,” he said.

Reitz's sawmill makes paneling, flooring, moldings and other wood products. So far, Eco Heating bricks are just a small part of his business, but eventually he plans to go statewide, while finding a home for scrap wood and sawdust generated by his and other sawmills.

"We're all producing that (waste) product and there's nothing you can do with it,” he said. "We're all paying to take it away.”

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