January 5

Air-pollution solution could be as easy as funding woodsheds

The wood you put in a wood stove needs to be dry. In that respect, many of us are all wet.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Joe Osmond installs fire bricks into a Jotul stove built at the company’s Gorham factory. Stove makers say stricter emissions standards aren’t likely to improve air quality unless owners of older stoves can be enticed to switch to cleaner burning units.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Staff photo illustration/Michael Fisher

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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.”

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