Winter’s not messing around this year, and with the heating season off to a frigid start, here’s a multiple-choice question about wood heat and air pollution.
What’s the best way to cut the smoke and lung-damaging particles coming from dirty-burning wood stoves?
A. Force stove makers to produce super-clean machines, even if it adds hundreds of dollars to the price.
B. Give people up to $2,000 to trade old, inefficient wood stoves for new, cleaner-burning models.
C. Give folks $200 to build a woodshed.
Yes, it’s a trick question. Stove makers and government regulators have been fighting over the first two answers. (On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency enacted the tougher wood-fired heater standards, effective beginning in 2015.)
I’m picking the woodshed. After 30 years of feeding wood stoves, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of burning dry, seasoned wood. But these days, maybe the basics are being overshadowed by our fascination with the latest technology.
Look at what’s going on.
Millions of wood stoves pressed into service in the early years of the “energy crisis” are very inefficient and collectively belch out tons of air pollution. In 1988, the federal Environmental Protection Agency set emission standards for most new stoves. In 1995, Washington state set its own, lower limit. Most stove makers now meet or beat that standard.
But the EPA isn’t satisfied. It wants to cut emission limits in 2019 to a fraction of the already-low Washington state numbers.
Some stove makers are pushing back. They’re complaining that they’ll have to use technology that will increase the price of a stove and make it harder to operate and maintain. One of them is Maine’s own Jotul North America, which assembles and designs stoves in Gorham.
Jotul’s answer is to give people a financial incentive to junk their old stove for a new one. (A new Jotul, of course.) Its dealers conducted a successful change-out program last summer, using $300 of Jotul money and $300 from a federal credit that expired last month.
Change-out or buyback programs aren’t new. They’ve been organized over the years in places where wood smoke settles on still, cold nights, such as river valleys. And unlike the Jotul offer, most rely almost totally on hefty doses of government money.
In Massachusetts, a $100,000 pilot program last year ran out of cash in 12 days. An $800,000 sequel this year, funded largely by fines against out-of-state coal burning plants, offered low-income residents $2,000 rebates and other residents $1,000 for trading in their old models.
Critics say these programs are expensive and reach only a small fraction of polluting stoves. They also fail to target the worse offenders, and can end up giving free money to people who were inclined to buy a new stove, anyway.
There’s another problem. Even when the new stoves meet or exceed the Washington state standard, they can be sending smoke and soot particles into the air at levels that are way above the design standards.
I got an unusual insight into this recently when I visited Jotul’s research and development lab.
The lab is certified by the EPA for testing wood stove emissions. Few people realize it, but these tests that determine the all-important emissions rating for a stove aren’t performed with firewood. They’re fueled by specified lengths of Douglas fir, nailed together with spacers into a “crib.” This government-approved wood also is dried to a low moisture content.
I understand why. There has to be a standard to make the test fair for everybody. But this reminds me of the EPA testing procedure for automobile gas mileage. As they say, “your actual mileage may vary.”
With a car, fuel economy suffers when you put the pedal to the metal on the interstate. With a wood stove, air quality suffers when you push down on the draft control for a long, low fire.
But gasoline is gasoline. Not so with a cord of firewood. With wood heat, what you burn is as important as how you operate the stove.
I’m a keen observer of what people burn.
From early spring to late fall, I ride my bicycle around my suburban community. I notice what people are doing with firewood in their yards.
I ride by the house of a guy who suffers from Firewood Pile OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Neatly stacked rows are bookended between trees, like New England stone walls.
I see where well-meaning people run a narrow tarp or plywood strips over the top, like a hat that somehow can keep wind-driven weather off the stacks.
I notice other piles draped with tattered tarps, as if just the intention of providing a snug cover will keep the wood dry.
I see piles in the driveway delivered after Labor Day. They can’t possibly dry in time.
Once the winter begins, it’s easy to see the result of poorly seasoned wood and low-burning fires. The thick, dark plume coming from one chimney near my house looks like the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel are having a tough time picking a new pope.
Much of this is understandable. Properly seasoned firewood has a moisture content of less than 20 percent. That means, at a minimum, buying green wood in the early spring, stacking it out in the summer heat and drying winds, and putting it under cover by the first day of autumn. But the sad truth is, many Mainers simply don’t have $400 to $600 in April for heat they don’t need until October.
This dilemma has many people in denial about just how green their firewood is. Want a reality check? Look in the firebox. If you see steam and bubbles at the log end, if you hear a hissing sound, that’s money going up the flue, along with air pollution and creosote-forming gases.
Low burns also are understandable. Folks want their precious pile to last as long as possible. Ideally, they’d load the stove before Halloween and the same logs would still be burning around the time the first pitch gets hurled at Fenway.
Dry, seasoned wood, by contrast, starts right up. Given adequate air, the fire burns high and hot. When you go outside and look at the chimney plume, there’s not much to see.
All this brings me back around to the woodshed. The Internet is full of shed designs, if anyone needs inspiration. Short of storing wood in a barn or a roomy garage, building a woodshed could be the most cost-effective way to clean the air.
Hey, Massachusetts, how many woodsheds could the Commonwealth build with $900,000?
Hey, regulators, how about working with the states on targeted loan programs that let people buy firewood in early spring and pay for it in the fall?
Hey, stove makers, how about sponsoring service organizations for a campaign to build woodsheds for low-income residents?
Dry, seasoned wood. It has to be part of the clean-air solution. No matter how you stack it.
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]