2010 March 3: CT Weston: Smoke from outdoor wood furnaces burns neighbors

2010 March 3: CT Weston: Smoke from outdoor wood furnaces burns neighbors

Published: 11:39 p.m., Wednesday, March 3, 2010
(Page 1 of 3)

The day that someone in your neighborhood decides to install an outdoor wood furnace is the day that you will forever regret.

These smoke-belching devices will take away one of your basic rights —- the right to breath reasonably clean air. Unfortunately, that’s not a right listed in the U.S. Constitution, so when your neighbor fires up his outdoor wood furnace, you’re pretty much on your own.

Just ask Suzan Converse of Maple Street in Weston, who has lived in a cloud of wood smoke since she and her husband and two kids moved there five years ago.

"That’s why the previous owners moved —- and, of course, they didn’t tell us," she says.

But before we delve into her story, here’s a primer on outdoor wood furnaces, or OWFs, as they’re called in the trade.

The first thing that you must know is that they’re not wood stoves.

Looking like metal sheds with smokestacks, they are, in essence, a wood-burning firebox surrounded by a water jacket. When the wood burns, the fire heats up the water, which is pumped through the house to provide heat.

They’re also called outdoor wood boilers or OWBs, which is a more accurate name, since they heat water, not air. They also go by the name "outdoor wood-fired boiler," or OWFB.

Installations generally cost between $6,000 and $10,000, but after the initial investment, owners claim that their OWFs can offer significant savings. "I heat my home for $12 a month," gushed one owner on his YouTube posting.

That’s good news for him. Bad news for everyone else.

They’ve been banned outright in Washington state. They’ve also been outlawed in Granby, Tolland, Hebron, Woodbridge, South Windsor, Portland, Ridgefield, Norfolk and Haddam.

Why do these things belch so much smoke? The problem is their basic design, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Because of the water jacket, the firebox temperature never reaches the 1,000 degrees F level needed for complete combustion to take place. To make matters worse, there are frequent reports of owners —- particularly those who don’t have access to free wood —- burning household trash, further adding to the multi-layered fragrance that these devices spew out.

The DEP has fielded hundreds of complaints over OWF smoke in the last few years, as have municipal officials. The DEP says it received 458 OWF complaints in 2009.

The DEP also says that OWF manufacturers "are making inaccurate claims about their product’s environmental benefit and efficiency" in their advertisements.

"It really is shocking that you can’t smoke in a bar, but you can set up one of these outdoor furnaces," Converse said. "People are afraid to deal with this problem."

She says that the smoke from her across-the-street neighbor’s OWF seeps into her house, despite her best efforts at keeping her windows and doors closed. She can’t hang her wash on the line. Her kids can’t play outside. When spring arrives, she can’t open the windows. And she, along with her husband and two children, have suffered from various upper-respiratory illnesses from the omnipresent smoke.

To make matters worse, her neighbor with the OWF, Joseph Tassitano, doesn’t even have to comply with the state’s weak laws regarding OWFs because he’s "grandfathered in." This means that he doesn’t have to comply with the 200-foot setback requirement, nor the smokestack requirement, which required that the stack be higher than neighbor’s roofs.

Tassitano, who could not be reached for this story, either in person or by telephone, has a smokestack that’s a good deal shorter than the two-story homes on Maple Street, and his OWF is about 60 feet from the road.

On Monday, the General Assembly‘s Environment Committee will hear testimony on this issue, but Nancy Alderman, whose group, Environment and Human Health, has been battling OWFs for months, doesn’t have much faith that the Legislature will do anything meaningful.

"They’ll just say `you can’t use them during the summer,’ or "you have to use good wood’ and leave it at that —- they’re afraid to get anyone upset," Alderman said.

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