Back in 1977, a friend of mechanical engineer Donald Lewis asked him to evaluate three dehumidification dry kilns. The friend, who owned a sawmill, was confused by the three completely different and contradictory approaches that the European-manufactured kilns took to accomplish the same tasks … such as dry a certain amount of pine in a certain period of time. Though he’d never even seen a kiln before, Don is a mechanical engineer and was then working in refrigeration and air conditioning.
“I was in the midst of installing a heat recovery system at the University of Maine swimming pool, but for some reason I was thinking about dehumidifiers when he happened to call,” recalled Don, “and in looking at them, I thought we could do a better job, and it all kind of fell into place.”
“I built a prototype for him, and it worked real well. His lumber broker mentioned it to other people, and all of a sudden, in 1978, we were in the dry kiln business. We ended up building about 20 of them over the first couple of years.”
By we, Don means himself and business partner Samuel Nyer. They combined their names and fortunes to create Nyle Dry Kiln Systems and opened their business in Brewer, Maine, just across the river from Bangor. In developing the kiln, Don’s early research showed there was a need for a kiln that went to higher temperatures. 125 degrees Fahrenheit was the highest up to that point, and Don patented a system to go to 160 degrees!
What’s so important about drying wood?
“When you see a trailer truckload of lumber going down the highway,” Don explained, “there are ten tons of water in those trees from when they were cut down. You need to get the moisture level down to about six percent to make furniture out of it. Plus, your kiln needs to be hot enough to crystallize the pitch; otherwise, when you go to sand it, it gums up the belts. To accomplish this, most conventional kilns operate like a clothes dryer does at home, drawing air in, heating it up, and exhausting it and water vapor to the outside as it’s created. This uses huge amounts of energy per pound of water. With the Nyle dehumidifier system, energy is used over and over again.”
Here’s how the Nyle system works. Inside a chamber, a fan circulates air — starting out at 80 or 90 degrees — around the lumber. As the air passes over the lumber, the water evaporates. and the humidity goes up. Some of that humid air is then drawn over the cold coils of a refrigeration system, where it condenses and drains away as liquid water. Unlike an air conditioner that ejects the heat out, Nyle recovers the energy and reuses it over and over again. It uses less energy, and there is less pollution.
“We reduce energy consumption and operating cost.” Ron explained, “There is no boiler to maintain, so we’ve simplified the operation of the kiln, and capital costs are usually less.”
Initially, the company also faced competition from other dehumidifier dry kilns. The European kilns, according to Don, weren’t very well made and were poorly installed. A lot of the foreign units failed, but domestic competition appeared just as Nyle was starting up. A Canadian company went into the dehumidifier dry kiln business, and an English company set up an American plant. But both other companies failed in the late 80s and early 90s, which surprisingly was not a boon for Nyle.
“That left us alone in the market up against all the conventional drying kilns,” explained Don. “Let’s say you’re a mill owner and you’re thinking about putting in a dry kiln. Thirty companies come and tell you dehumidification is a bad idea, and here we are, the one guy with our kind of system. You actually sell more if there are other companies supporting your idea.”
Here’s how Don explained the economics behind the recent success of small sawmills. “Let’s say you own a 100 acre woodlot, and you cut one tree per acre per year. And out of those trees you make roughly 100,000 board feet of lumber. You can sell that lumber for an average of $2 per board foot … that’s $200,000 dollars! The cost involved in owning a woodlot, gas, oil and electricity to dry the wood, the amortization of your equipment — kiln and saw — would certainly be less than $100,000. I had one customer … a husband, wife and son … who had several of our kilns and a couple of portable mills. The wood was all cut off their own land, and they were selling between $250 and $300 thousand dollars worth of lumber a year. And their out-of-pocket costs were certainly less than $50,000. It’s hard work, cutting trees down … no matter what you do. But they are making a good living.”