GORHAM — As the weather cools, the smell of wood smoke is filling the air across Maine, along with fine particles inhaled into the lungs of those who live nearby.

Despite its tradition and appeal, heating with wood sends tons of particulate airborne, contributing to respiratory illness. That’s why the federal government has slowly been limiting emissions for a range of wood heaters, tightening the design standards in 1988, 2015, and now, for 2020.

The results can be seen on the assembly line at the Jotul North America factory here, where workers are making one of the cleanest-burning wood stoves ever put into production. They’ve just begun shipping to dealers across the United States and Canada.

Isaiah Connors sprays paint onto a clean-burning wood stove on an assembly line at the Jotul facility in Gorham. Jotul has been been a big player in the debate over tougher emissions standards, and has made a new model that burns cleanly with patent-pending technology. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It took three years to design and test the updated version of Jotul’s popular F 500 Oslo, one reason why it costs $600 more than the previous model. Many people buy wood stoves to save money, so will they balk at the new $3,499 retail price?

“Price is a consideration,” said Bret Watson, Jotul’s president and chief executive. “But do buyers want the cleanest-burning wood stove on the planet? We’re certainly going to find out.”

That’s a burning question in the industry. This is the last heating season retailers can sell stoves that don’t meet the stringent 2020 rule. The pending deadline has hearth shops responding by discounting pre-2020 stoves by as much as 40 percent, to reduce inventory. They’re also worrying about whether customers will hesitate to buy stoves that not only cost more, but in some cases, are more complicated to operate.

It’s a concern shared by Steve Richard, a mile away from the factory at the Frost & Flame hearth shop. Richard has been in the business 30 years and features Jotul among his top sellers.

Would he recommend that a customer buy a pre-2020 stove now, or wait for the new models?

“If it were me,” Richard said, ” I would buy something right now from a reputable dealer, knowing the stove’s been performing well for years. I’m a little skeptical of new things coming out. It’s like buying a new car in the first model year.”

That thought is echoed by Matt Mazzeo at Mazzeo’s Stoves & Fireplaces in Rockland. Many of the new models rely on catalytic combustors – similar to the pollution control devices in cars – to clean emissions to 2020 standards. The jury is still out, he said, on whether some of the new stoves will draft as well as their predecessors, or to what extent owners will have to wait for their heaters to get hot enough to close the bypass damper and engage the combustor.

For instance: Mazzeo sells Hearthstone’s popular Castleton 8030. The soapstone heater sold for $2,449 last year, but is no longer available. It has been replaced by a model that contains a catalytic combustor and costs $400 more, although emissions are slashed by more than 75 percent.

Some models may just be going away. Mazzeo said a customer was looking for a Morso 7600, a spherical, modern-looking stove from Denmark. That model isn’t being imported anymore, he said.

“I tell some customers, get the pre-2020 products while you can still get them,” Mazzeo said. “Next year, some of the stoves just can’t be made to be 2020-compliant.”

The Environmental Protection Agency began issuing performance standards for new wood stoves in 1988, when a typical stove might belch 15 or more grams per hour of particulate. The smoke limit set in 2015 was 4.5 grams per hour. Next May, it ratchets down to 2 grams.

In some cases, it’s just not economical to update older stoves. Jotul has gone from 14 wood stove models to focusing on six of its best sellers.

POPULARITY OF HEATING WITH WOOD

It’s not surprising that many people burn wood in Maine, the most forested state in the nation.

Roughly 13 percent of Maine homes burn wood as their primary heat source, according to U.S. Census figures. That’s a higher percentage than anything except heating oil, which is the primary source for six out of 10 homes.

But wood heat stats are hard to nail down. A cold winter or a spike in oil prices can compel Mainers to fire up rarely used stoves, making wood heat an important, if fluid, secondary heating source.

Wood heat penetration also is influenced by geography and economy. Basically, the farther away you get from a Starbucks, the more likely you are to see smoke curling from a home’s chimney. Wood is the primary heat source for nearly 30 percent of homes in Piscataquis County, where firewood is plentiful and the median income ranks last in Maine, Census figures show.

But the stoves often favored in rural Maine are becoming less available. Retailers don’t want to be stuck with any of the 2015-certified models after May 15, because unless they win a last-minute reprieve from the EPA, the old-tech units can’t be sold after that date.

That has led retailers such as Paris Farmers Union to offer deals on pre-2020 stock. The chain was advertising 40 percent off all in-stock wood heaters in a flier last month.

“We have to move them out,” said Brian Stevens, the chain’s retail store operations manager.

Folks in rural Maine tend to be more interested in affordable, easy-to-use wood stoves than the latest, most-efficient burners. Hardware and agricultural chains are known for carrying those models, notably the big, cabinet-style units like the Ashley BEC 95. Those are no longer for sale and Stevens wasn’t sure what was replacing them.

“Our customers are looking for a good product at a good price,” Steven said. “Wood heat for them is a primary heat source. A lot of people who shop with us install their own stoves. They’ve had stoves their whole life.”

TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGES

Burning wood in a steel or iron box doesn’t sound complicated. But  squeezing out a maximum amount of smoke has become increasingly technical and costly.

Non-catalytic stoves typically have baffles inside that take gases on a long, hot journey and introduce them to secondary combustion before going up the stack. That design has less to maintain, but is limited in its cleaning capacity.

Catalytic stoves pass the smoky exhaust through a coated metal or ceramic honeycomb, where gases and particles burn. But they typically need a damper to bypass the catalyst when starting and reloading the stove. These stoves can be more efficient and cleaner, but must be operated correctly and maintained. Surveys show many people don’t do that, defeating the technology.

This updated version of Jotul’s F 500 Oslo, the V3, combines both approaches in a novel way. It has a catalytic combustor, but its patent-pending Fusion technology doesn’t require a bypass damper. The model is EPA-certified overall at 0.5 grams. But it also can achieve very low figures when a fire is first started. That’s considered a breakthrough in the industry, because start-up is when both pollution and complaints tend to be greatest.

“The first hour is when people create nuisance smoke for their neighbors,” Watson said.

The attributes of the new combustor are a topic of conversation in online forums, where wood-heat wonks dissect the latest information.

“I’m very concerned it doesn’t have a bypass,” one poster on Hearth.com wrote last spring. “That’s very weird. The catalyst is unique and pretty large, wonder what it costs to replace that V3 cat?”

After another poster said they’d like to try the stove, a third person responded:

“Me too, after lot of other guinea pigs go first! I’ve been one of the first to use a newly designed stove in the past. It’s not going to happen again.”

MARKET RESPONSES

But Jotul has confidence in its new technology.

In Jotul’s test lab recently, Watson and his research and development manager, Roger Purinton, showed off the innards. Most combustors are round, but this one is rectangular and made of a special bi-metallic mesh that allows 97 percent of the air to flow through it. That lets wood ignite without a bypass damper. To convey confidence to customers, Jotul is offering a 10-year warranty on the combustor.

Next to the display, a V3 test model was burning.  It’s a big heater that can take 24-inch logs and burn up to 12 hours. No smoke was visible at the top of the hooded stack.

As winter approaches, dealers are placing orders. The Jotul factory and its 106 employees are busy building the new F 500, as well as the Jotul 602, an elegant, small stove first designed in Norway in the 1930s and now numbering 1 million sold. Purinton figured out how to meet 2020 standards on the classic, without a catalyst or a big price jump.

Workers were rolling carts containing 28 pieces of cast iron that will become an F 500 in a matter of hours. They’re able to build 20 a day. Watching the activity, Watson said he was pleased that 400 stoves are on order. They’re headed to dealers as display models, and to get them comfortable with how the stove performs.

The next step will be getting customers comfortable with smarter wood stoves that cost more, but pollute way less.

“The market may need time to adjust yet.” Watson said. “This is our industry’s reality.”

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