2010 March 11: MN Stillwater: Stillwater neighbors balk, so resident’s boiler banned

2010 March 11: MN Stillwater: Stillwater neighbors balk, so resident’s boiler banned

A frugal resident installed a lawful outdoor wood burner to save home heating costs. Now, after a neighborhood outcry over smoke, haze and health concerns, the stove is illegal.
Updated: 03/11/2010 11:52:15 PM CST

After Jeff Shaleen lost his job last year at Andersen Corp. in Bayport, he began looking for ways to cut costs. At the top of his list was his heating bill, which ran about $250 a month in the winter.

So Shaleen worked out a deal for cheap wood with a friend who owns a tree service, then spent about $8,000 installing an outdoor wood-fired boiler behind his house in Stillwater. His heating bill dropped to about $45 a month, and he figures he has saved more than $1,000 this winter.

But Shaleen’s money-saving measure comes with a price: smoke billows from the stack of a small shed in his back yard at 916 Holcombe St.

After neighbors complained, city officials decided to put a damper on Shaleen’s plan. Outdoor wood boilers will be banned in the city starting later this month.

"They are a public nuisance because the smoke they produce is a public health concern," Community Development Director Bill Turnblad said. "I think the city council was surprised by the volume of negative responses from neighbors. They were particularly concerned about the asthma and respiratory complaints."

Outdoor wood boilers run all day and tend to smoke a lot, Turnblad said. He explained that when the fire reaches the desired temperature, it is smothered, and "smothered fire creates a lot of smoke."

A number of metro cities have restricted or banned wood burners, including Forest Lake, Oak Park Heights and Burnsville. Inver Grove Heights is considering an ordinance.

Officials


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from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency say they have been fielding more complaints about boilers this winter than in previous years, and they encourage people who call with complaints to contact their local officials. MPCA officials were researching a possible state emission standard for outdoor wood boilers but put those plans on hold when they learned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was considering a national standard, said John Seltz, supervisor of the MPCA’s air policy unit.

Environmentalists say the smoke from a boiler, especially an older, used model like the one Shaleen uses, can be overwhelming and irritating.

"They generate a lot of particulates in the air, which is our concern," Seltz said.

Outdoor boilers typically burn inefficiently and produce more smoke than other home-heating devices, said Kathy Norlien, a research scientist in the indoor-air unit of the Minnesota Department of Health. Studies show that outdoor wood boilers might emit more than 10 times the fine particulate matter that wood stoves emit because more wood is usually burned for longer periods of time and outdoor wood boilers burn less efficiently.

"They smolder for a long time," Norlien said.

Central Boiler, in Greenbush, Minn., is a leading manufacturer of outdoor wood boilers and built the 1999 model Shaleen installed. Rodney Tollefson, the company’s vice president, said newer models produce less smoke than older models like Shaleen’s.

The company promotes the boilers as environmentally friendly because they burn wood, a renewable resource, he said.

The company advises buyers in densely populated areas to make sure the height of the smokestack exceeds the peaks of the roofs of nearby homes. "I have never seen a situation where they can’t have a chimney high enough to resolve the situation," Tollefson said.

Other common suggestions for reducing irritation for neighbors include restricting chimney locations and requiring setbacks from neighboring properties.

Shaleen, 31, said he followed proper procedure, getting a permit from the city to install the wood boiler and having it inspected. He said he even put up a fence so passing motorists wouldn’t be able to see the boiler.

"You did everything right," city council member Jim Roush told Shaleen at a meeting this month. "This was uncharted territory for the city. Nobody really knew what the ramifications were. There was an overwhelming number of complaints."

"I went through all the hoops," Shaleen said. "I can’t believe they can do this to me after I spent the money and put in the lines, and now they say I can’t use it. What are they going to ban next? All wood-burning fireplaces?"

He said his boiler should have been "grandfathered in," and because city officials rejected that option, he wants reimbursement for purchasing and installing the unit. If the city doesn’t pay up, he said, he plans to take the city to court.

"I’d be happy with $15,000 to cover the time, materials, effort and what it’s going to take to get it out," he said.

Shaleen said that no longer using the boiler once the ordinance goes into effect is not an option for him. "If I do that, my lines will freeze," he said. "The city didn’t do their due diligence on it."

He said he has responded to neighbors’ complaints by extending the smokestack 10 feet — it’s now 21 feet above the shed roof — and buying "extra-dried wood" that smokes less.

But one of Shaleen’s neighbors complained that smoke was still a problem.

"It’s not good when you wake up in the morning and your lower house has a pungent wet poplar/pallet burning smell," Scott DeMars wrote in an e-mail to city officials dated Jan. 19. "Why should my family and 3-year-old twin boys have to put up with smoke smell and haze all day every other day living in the city of Stillwater?"

Mary Divine can be reached at 651-228-5443.

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