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Quality Considerations for European Markets

By Chris Wiberg - January 10, 2015

There are quality requirements wood pellet producers should consider when selling their production into European markets, or looking for opportunities with those buyers. Chris Wiberg says it all boils down to understanding your customer's needs.

I'd like to highlight some of the quality requirements for selling wood pellets into European markets but, more importantly, point out some specific differences between U.S. and European quality, logistical and consumer needs that producers should be aware of when selling into the European markets.

For wood pellet producers who sell their entire production into the European markets, it is actually quite simple. You can simply dedicate your entire operation to the needs of your European customers. This may include the use of specific operating equipment such as a 6 mm die instead of the U.S. standard one-fourth inch die or perhaps purchasing testing equipment that conforms to EN methods instead of ASTM methods.  You would likely need to adopt the 3.15 mm round hole sieve as your definition of fines instead of the one-eighth inch-square hole sieve used in the U.S., as well as numerous other items that are standard to the European markets. The challenge is that there are numerous pellet producers here in the U.S. who primarily sell their product into domestic markets, but are now seeking opportunities in European markets. Or, perhaps they are servicing one sector of the European market and now want to sell into other sectors, which may have different requirements. In these situations, it is tempting to take the approach that you make what you make and hope your product will be considered acceptable for the  markets you are interested in. Several differences, however, if not accounted for, can result in a poorly performing product, limiting your ability to sell into these markets. 

Here are some examples:

Traditionally, European residential heating markets have highly favored, blond pellets, very light in color.  U.S. producers have struggled over the years to make pellets blond enough for European buyers. Fortunately, this requirement seems to be loosening up a bit allowing for some hardwood/softwood blended products, but it continues to be challenging for hardwood producers to pass the color test.  Additionally, the top pellet quality class in Europe is A1 grade, which has an ash limit of 0.7 percent.  U.S. softwood producers can certainly achieve this limit, but it is much more challenging with hardwood and is a parameter that should be closely monitored.  It is also relatively common for European distributors to demand a limit of 0.5 percent even though the grade requirement is 0.7 percent.

There are a few physical properties that make a difference depending on the specific market within Europe.  Many European retailers seem to appreciate a true 6.0 mm pellet. The U.S. standard die is 0.25 inches, which is equivalent to 6.35 mm. After production, pellets typically expand a little yielding a pellet closer to 6.5 mm. This may not seem like a huge difference, but it can give retailers pause. European retailers are also very conscientious of pellet length and length distribution. They prefer an average length of around 1.5 to 2.0 cm with not too many small ones and not too many long ones, and absolutely no pellets greater than 45 mm. Durability is also significant and complicated. For all European markets, the published durability limit is 97.5. For the bagged market, this is fine and it is considered acceptable for bulk industrial markets as well. For bulk residential delivery, the published limit is also 97.5, however distributors for this market typically try to find product that has a durability between 98.5 and 99.0. This is due to the pneumatic conveyance used for this market and a strong desire to reduce fines. To achieve these very high durability numbers and low fines, most European producers who serve this market use additives such as corn starch. In the U.S. additives are not commonly used, so durability tends to be lower.

There are also significant transportation and logistical issues to consider.  Standard U.S. pallet and packaging, truck sizes and fork lifts are all different in Europe. To complicate this even more, the pallet size and stack height that is needed to optimally fill a shipping container does not match standard U.S. or European packaging systems. One of the largest hurdles to shipping bagged product in containers to European markets is getting the right-sized pallets and packaging for all stages of transport and delivery.  I have no helpful hints here as to what works best.  It is just something that I highly recommend you research thoroughly if attempting this model.

This all boils down to understanding the needs of your customer. If you take the time to understand the needs of the European buyers, you will find that by making some changes to your process to accommodate them, you may find that your product is much more likely to find a buyer.