Emission Standards for Wood Stoves Kindle Debate

Saturday, February 15, 2014
West Lebanon — New proposed standards from the EPA to improve public health by tightening emission limits for fine-particle pollution from wood smoke are drawing mixed reviews in the Twin States.

Some wood-stove retailers say new products now on the market aren’t the problem, and that the regulations would make wood stoves more expensive without making much difference in improving air quality.

“It’s just another attack on American business,” said Bill Mathewson, owner of Home Comfort Warehouse in White River Junction. “Our small industry has been a model of cooperation, going back to (1988) and the first regulations for wood stoves ...Back then it was the right thing to do.”

But others said the proposed new standards will provide health benefits for communities where residents suffer from respiratory and other health problems exacerbated by wood smoke.

“The impact is particularly great in some areas of Vermont,” Elaine O’Grady, director of the Air Quality and Climate Division of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said of wood smoke. She noted that Vermont is home to several towns in valleys “where the smoke doesn’t clear well.”

Small-particle pollution, a combination of wood smoke and liquid droplets much smaller than a human hair, can cause health problems, especially for people with respiratory ailments, young children and the elderly.

The EPA is proposing to limit particulate matter emissions from new wood stoves, fireplace inserts and pellet stoves that aren’t currently certified by the agency to 4.5 grams per hour, with the limit dropping to 1.3 grams five years later.

The rules that went into effect in 1988 set a standard of 7.5 grams per hour for models that don’t have a catalytic combustor, and 4.1 grams for models with one. But that lower number was also based on the expectation that the performance of the catalytic combustor-equipped models would deteriorate over time to emissions comparable to the noncatalytic standard, according to an EPA overview.

The 1988 standards also did not apply to open masonry fireplaces, wood-fired boilers and furnaces.

The new emission limits standards would not apply to existing stoves, but many of the other previously exempted wood-fired heaters, including boilers — a particularly contentious matter because they often burn 365 days a year to provide domestic hot water — that are built in the future would also fall under more stringent standards.

A spokesman for Vermont Castings Group, which has a foundry in Randolph and a manufacturing plant in Bethel, said the new standards could add as much as $500 to the cost of its best-selling medium-sized model, which retails for $2,699. That’s because stoves might need both a catalytic and non-catalytic component to comply, he said.

“We don’t object to the grams per hour limit. We do object to the new test protocol that they are prescribing,” said Jess Baldwin, the senior vice president of sales and customer service at Vermont Castings. He said changes to the test protocol involve both the type of wood used and how the test stoves are run to derive the emissions number.

“We have stoves that (emit) under 1 gram per hour under the current testing protocol, and while we have always supported clean-burning technology, because EPA is changing the test protocol, we think there are lots of problems. It’s not law yet, and there could be modifications,” he said.

Baldwin said he thinks it would be more productive to encourage replacement of millions of wood stoves that were built prior to the initial 1988 EPA regulations and are still in American homes.

“What the industry position is, and we subscribe to, is we are better off in getting those out of the marketplace and replacing them with the current technology or technology that doesn’t drive the cost of the stove out of the reach of the average customer,” he said.

But Tom Morrissey, president of Woodstock Soapstone Company in West Lebanon, said his company supports the EPA proposal. His company makes a soapstone hybrid of cast iron that sells for about $3,500, but has also developed a less expensive soapstone hybrid made primarily of steel.

“We think it’s a good reg,” Morrissey said, noting that it would cover a number of exempt or “underregulated” woodburning appliances. “It’s really bringing a whole group of products under the same regulatory umbrella, so we think that’s good.”

The new standards may be of special significance to the Twin States, where many homeowners rely on wood for heating, either entirely or as a supplement to a furnace.

A little more than 2 percent of American homes rely primarily on wood for heat, but the figures are much higher in Vermont (15 percent) and New Hampshire (8 percent), according to an analysis of Census data by the Alliance for Green Heat.

“There are advantages to burning wood,” Craig Wright, director of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services Air Resources Division, said recently.

“It’s a renewable and locally generated product,” he added. “The money stays in New Hampshire and it has a relatively lower cost.”

Wood is about half the price of fuel oil, and it’s all but free for those who split and stack wood from their own land.

Wright said New Hampshire’s air quality “is generally pretty good,” but Keene has been the subject of environmental air studies. In 2013, Keene experienced three days of air pollution, exacerbated by wood smoke, so toxic it rose above national standards.

“The (poor) levels we generally see … are unhealthy for sensitive groups, who already have respiratory problems, the young and the elderly,” he said.

O’Grady, of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said the EPA is supposed to update its findings every eight years, and that new emission limits were overdue.

“The 1988 standards are outdated,” O’Grady said.

Mathewson, of Home Comfort Warehouse, said the original EPA rules to curb wood-burning emissions were needed, but he thought the proposed revisions would have a “minuscule” impact while raising prices for new wood-burning stoves, he said.

He said the real problem was homeowners who did not take proper care of wood stoves with catalytic converters as well as there being too many older wood-burning stoves, which aren’t EPA-approved, still in use.

Mathewson, whose store sells about 250 stoves a year, ranging in price from $1,000 to $4,000, said he would like to ban the re-sale of non-compliant stoves, which is legal in New Hampshire.

The EPA plans a public hearing on the proposed new limits on Feb. 26 at its EPA New England region office in Boston. It’s at 5 Post Office Square, Suite 100. For more information, go to http://tinyurl.com/lbc9czp

John Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.