2010 March 26: VT Montpelier: Burning wood in tough times annoys some
MONTPELIER, Vt.— When oil prices climbed, more people turned to wood to heat their homes, many using outdoor wood furnaces that to some are air-polluting nuisances.
From Vermont to Connecticut to Indiana, some neighbors have complained about smoke from these furnaces drifting into their yards and homes, in some cases triggering asthma attacks and lung problems. Several Vermont homeowners said the smoke has even set off smoke alarms in their own homes; at least two of those affected said they have had to move.
"Wood smoke is not benign but people think it is," said Philip Etter, environmental analyst with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. "They sort of grew up with it — because it smells nice in sort of a nostalgic sense — and they think it’s fine, but it’s not."
Residential wood smoke is toxic, with carcinogens and fine particulates that can get deep into lungs and cause lung and cardiovascular problems, he said.
The older furnaces generate at least 20 times more emissions than Environmental Protection Agency-certified wood stoves — and as much particulate matter as 50 to 500 diesel trucks, depending on the truck age and level of control — according to Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a nonprofit association of state air quality agencies in the Northeast.
While EPA regulates indoor wood stoves, it issues only voluntary guidelines for manufacturers of outdoor wood furnaces, which are also called boilers and hydronic heaters.
Typically the boilers are in sheds with short chimneys and heat water that is circulated through floors or radiators in a nearby residence. Some are used to heat water year-round.
Vermont was the first state to adopt emissions standards for wood boilers in 2007. Other New England states followed, including Massachusetts, with stricter limits. Last week, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire tightened their standards for new furnaces. Vermont is now offering furnace owners financial incentives to replace older, dirty units with new cleaner ones.
Connecticut lawmakers sought this year to ban use of the furnaces from April to October but the bill died in a legislative committee last month. Other regulations have been proposed in Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, while some communities are regulating themselves.
Because of the short smokestack, the smoke does not disperse well.
"These plumes can sit close to the ground and travel long distances," said Lisa Rector, a senior policy analyst at NESCAUM.
And even though Vermont requires that the furnaces be located 200 feet away from homes, she said smoke can get trapped in valleys. There also are concerns that some are being used to burn trash.
But many furnaces — set up correctly, far enough away from any house, in the right topography, with the high enough chimney and operated efficiently — may not prompt complaints.
Vermont, which has as many as 4,000 such furnaces, has received 90 complaints since 1995.
"If you have your own wood, you’re going to save a ton a money," said Mike DeKoeyer, owner of Appalachian Supply, in St. Johnsbury and Littleton, N.H. "You’re going to save at least 50 percent on your heating bill."
The furnaces cost from $9,000 to $12,000 before installation.
The new models, now the only ones that can be purchased in northern New England, are up to 90 percent cleaner and use up to 50 percent less wood, though they cost about $1,500 more than the older units.
"We feel that manufacturers should come to the table and get these kind of products out on the market because it’s important," said Rodney Tollefson, vice president of Central Boiler Inc., in Greenbush, Minn.
Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources plans to use $360,000 from a settlement in an emissions case to replace 60 to 75 older units, depending on their age and the problems they may be causing, Gov. Jim Douglas announced earlier this month.
That’s a big help for neighbors and for furnace owners, officials said.
"This is a way to solve a problem that doesn’t require such an adversarial means to such a solution," Rector said.
The American Lung Association hopes Vermont will go a step further. The group backs a bill passed by the Vermont Senate to raise change-out funding to at least $500,000. The measure would also require that all uncertified furnaces within 200 feet of homes, schools or health care facilities be retired by 2013.
"It’s a win-win for the neighbors, for the schools nearby, for the environmental quality and the people who own these outdoor boilers," said Sen. Virginia Lyons, chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, who introduced the bill.
On the Net: http://www.vtwoodsmoke.org
Associated Press writer Susan Haigh contributed to this report from Hartford, Conn.