• Demand for new wood dust extraction systems has been hit in the downturn.
• Keeping extraction equipment longer raises the importance of service and maintenance.
• Local exhaust ventilation engineers have a new professional body.
• An EU directive has been proposed to cut hardwood dust exposure limits by 40%.

Historically, wood processors may not have dwelt much on dust extraction equipment. Just as long as it sucked up sufficient residue to keep them the right side of health and safety regs, then dumped the stuff outside en route to landfill, or perhaps a livestock bedding or sheet materials producer.

However, dust extraction specialists say, latest developments in the field and changes in market dynamics should now make it an increasingly significant focus for the industry.

In the downturn, the extraction sector admits, it’s been hit like other machinery suppliers by the squeeze and greater uncertainty in timber industry capital spending.

“We’ve remained busy elsewhere, but in the wood and panel market many people have hung on to what they’ve got,” said Dustraction managing director Steve Matuska.

Dustraction had recently seen this “stagnation” ease, winning two major timber sector orders in October, and more in November. But the market was still tough and pricing tight.

Wood Waste Control managing director Reg Gareppo said the company had “actually been enjoying a busy time” recently. “Although it is very patchy and goes in fits and starts,” he said. “Some customers are quiet, others flat out.”

Cades joint managing director Helen Rhodes also described business as hard work and a “mixed bag”.

“One or two companies are bucking the trend and making significant investment,” she said. “But many admit to just keeping heads above water.”

But one consequence of wood processors deferring installing new extraction systems, say suppliers, is greater onus on them to keep their existing system well maintained.

“People need more preservational service if they’re holding on to decrepit machinery,” said Mr Matuska.

Dustraction’s safe working and user training had also had a bumper year, thanks to customers “determined to get the best out of elderly systems”.

Cades also reported the majority of customers committing to servicing. “The make do and mend brigade may run equipment until it stops, so we have the engineers to respond to those panicking phone calls,” said Ms Rhodes. “But most recognise servicing is the most cost-effective way of keeping kit in optimum working order. We often undertake this at the same time as the obligatory 14-monthly LEV test.”

Professional service

Other companies also reported greater take-up of regular service contracts and, with customers increasingly seeing benefits in terms of system efficiency and reliability, the upturn was expected to remain a fixture. Nederman, for one, has responded to this by enhancing its servicing package with a “continuous LEV testing agreement” to keep companies compliant with regulations.

It’s also forecast that the extraction maintenance and testing business will be boosted by the creation of a dedicated professional body.

The Institute of Local Exhaust Ventilation Engineers (ILEVE) launched in 2010 to establish a code of conduct, provide training and information and give LEV engineering a professional image (

“We’re building the foundations of an organisation to benefit all concerned with LEV,” said ILEVE steering committee member Wally Gilder, adding that its inaugural open day on January 24 would be “of interest to LEV equipment users as well as engineers, highlighting how they can benefit from better industry standards”.

New technologies

But, despite some wood processors’ current preference to keep old extraction machinery going rather than replace it, manufacturers have clearly not been deterred from developing new technologies. And they maintain that the emphasis on cost-cutting benefits of latest systems could help boost interest and sales in continuing challenging conditions.

One of Dust Control Systems’ latest innovations is its Ecogate “computerised optimisation system”, unveiled at the W10 technology show and since installed at 22 wood processors.

Conventionally, a dust extraction system is off, or running with all ports open. Ecogate automatically closes ports when individual machines aren’t operating, and regulates fan speeds according to workload.

“Typically only half a workshop’s machines are operating at a time, but extraction continues at all of them, often burning more electricity than lighting and machinery,” said DCS sales director Melvyn Bathgate. “Ecogate provides extraction on demand.”

The eco-credentials of the system enable buyers to tap into the Carbon Trust/Siemens Green Equipment Finance deal. And, according to Mr Bathgate, the energy savings can give a payback under two years.

One retrofit Ecogate customer is DW Group, which bought it for its Bedfordshire mouldings plant and London machining business. DCS fitted 15 machines with motorised gates at the former and 24 at the latter. Both were equipped with two Ecogate greenBOX12+ controllers and had extraction fans fitted with variable drives. Combined, the systems cut DCS’s electricity use by 240,000kW a year.

Another new system, launched in the UK and Ireland by Fercell Engineering, is Fri-LAN extraction control from Frieters Europe of Germany. This directs extraction where it is needed through a combination of slide gate damper and fan control.

According to Fercell managing director Mark Fletcher, the technology not only cuts operational costs, giving a “very convincing return on investment”, but also “gives a new lease of life to mature extraction systems”.

“The utility of any system drops over time, but Fri-LAN extends it by only running equipment when needed,” he said.

Fri-LAN can be used to control “everything associated with the dust extraction system”, even lighting, and fire detection and extinguishing technology forms part of the package.

Then, says Fercell, there’s the key hook: the technology is wireless. Extraction gate, fan and filter monitoring and control technology is managed remotely using Windows-based software. According to Mr Fletcher, this makes it easier to install and adapt to changing needs, with no new wiring to fit. “It’s designed to grow with the operator’s business,” he said.

He added that initial interest in Fri-LAN had been “exceptional”, both for retrofitting and turnkey installation with new extraction equipment, which the system would “future proof”. Looking ahead, he forecast wireless systems becoming the norm.

From dust to fuel

Given rising bills for waste disposal, due to increased transport and landfill costs, another technical possibility more timber processors are exploring is connecting dust extraction with a wood-fuelled heating plant, or in the case of bigger companies, combined heat and power technology (CHP). And, extraction companies say, this option is now set to become increasingly attractive thanks to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which pays companies for every heat energy unit derived from a renewable source rather than fossil fuel.

A Dustraction system at SAM Mouldings was designed to integrate with a CHP system that eliminated its entire £230,000 annual energy bill and Mr Matuska sees this kind of installation increasingly to the fore at larger businesses, especially those with “energy-hungry” kilns. Consequently Dustraction provides advice on how to “maximise RHI funding” for heating and CHP equipment. Other extraction specialists, like Nederman, also consult in this area, while CADES puts interested customers in touch with a third-party specialist.

WWC also undertakes combined extraction and heat plant installations, reporting a “flurry of sales of big systems” recently and Mr Gareppo sees this business “growing with new government incentives”. He also reports more wood processors taking an alternative route and converting waste to fuel for sale.

“We’ve had lots of enquiries for our briquetters and chippers,” he said.

Nederman said its 2010 acquisition of Dantherm Filtration also enabled it to develop “end to end” integrated extraction systems.

“We expect the trend to complete closed-loop systems, combining extraction with briquette production, or use of waste as fuel on site, to grow, as it allows companies to realise full value from the material,” said a spokesperson. “We’ll undertake an initial cost benefit analysis to see if such an approach is worth them pursuing.”

Challenging new dust limit proposed

Sector specialists predict that sheer economics – the need to reduce exposure to energy and waste disposal cost inflation as well as cash in on eco grants – will bring even more attention to bear on extraction in the years ahead. Likely to concentrate minds further are proposed new EU hardwood dust exposure limits. Currently the limit for hardwood and softwood dust is 5mg/m³. The proposal, under the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, is that the occupational exposure limit for hardwood is cut to 3mg/m³. Some even recommend 1mg/m³.

One company described this as a “bombshell” and, others, including the British Woodworking Federation, have questioned the wisdom of addressing the issue in the current economic climate. Besides the prospective cost and complexity of adapting to and policing a lower limit, there is also concern over how hardwood dust can be distinguished from softwood.

The Health & Safety Executive stresses that the directive is still “purely a proposal” and it is appealing for feedback on it from the UK timber industry so its views are taken into account by the European Commission (contact But, one extraction company thought the “safe money” was on a 3mg/m³ OEL directive, which could be implemented from 2014-15.

If the tougher rule is introduced, older extraction equipment is expected to struggle. Suppliers say latest systems could cope, but a lower limit would put even more onus on wood processors to operate and maintain them effectively. Mr Matuska said it could also entail them adapting working practices, training and processing machinery and using different dust measuring methodology. The dust extraction sector, said another supplier, will have to gird itself for the calls.