2010 April 5: MA Pittsfield (Berkshires): Outdoor furnaces spark controversy
Monday April 5, 2010 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.
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.
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.