Getting Woodstoves From Here To There—In Utah and US

The wood heating community recently experienced two upheavals, one in Utah with a proposed ban on wintertime stove use, and the other the release of new national stove regulations. Industry agrees with the goals of each, but not the way to get there.
By John Ackerly | March 03, 2015

This February, the wood heating community experienced two major upheavals, one in a state where the governor proposed banning wintertime stove use and the other, of course, being the release of new national stove regulations for the first time since 1988.  In both cases, industry agreed with the goals—cleaner stoves and cleaner air—but opposed the way government is getting there.

In terms of execution and outcome, the Utah and federal regulations could not have been more different.  The Utah government’s drastic proposal to ban stove use came out of the blue, while the EPA took nearly 10 years of slowly grinding bureaucratic wheels.  Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Utah proposal went up in flames.  In a somewhat embarrassing defeat for a well-intentioned idea, industry easily rode a wave of conservative outrage forcing the governor back to the drawing board.

What drove the drastic proposal in Utah was pretty simple.  It was the need to reduce terrible pollution in the Salt Lake area, which is prone to inversions.  The state calculated that a complete ban would take fewer resources to enforce than the other options.

Despite the turtle-like speed of EPA, there too the lack of resources made them lean on industry to undertake much of the necessary testing and studies. Funding for the EPA has been cut back, and this issue isn’t a high enough EPA priority to justify the expenses necessary to rewrite a major rule.  The lack of resources seemed to just make everything go slower and slower.  For instance, the initial voluntary program for outdoor wood boilers took 10 years instead of 3 years to finalize.  The compliance desk at EPA doesn’t even have a full-time person, which causes bottlenecks.

Despite the long delay, my organization, the Alliance for Green Heat, thinks the EPA did a pretty good job balancing all the different interests in its new standards for stoves.  The EPA is supposed to write the rule based on BSER (best system of emission reduction) while simultaneously ensuring it’s cost effective and doesn’t unduly burden small businesses.  And they are also supposed to be driven by health-based data.  All these policy values conflict with each other, and ultimately allow the EPA the flexibility to make compromises based on good ideas, good business sense—and Congressional pressure. 

While most people believe stoves can and should pollute our air less, a big chunk of America doesn’t agree with the goal of requiring stoves to be cleaner, or that people should be told when they can burn stoves and when they can’t.  The EPA rule is seen by many as simple over-regulation that will drive up prices of stoves that are already clean enough and doing nothing to address all the old, unregulated stoves.  But if most of us want to see steps taken to reduce smoke output from old or improperly used stoves, how do we get from here to there? 

One solution tossed about is a large federally funded changeout program that would give rebates or tax credits to remove millions of old stoves and replace them with cleaner ones.  But there is little momentum or political will for that kind of funding, and even the stove industry doesn’t seem willing to put resources into trying to get Congress or the administration to fund something like this.

We think a solution in Utah and elsewhere in the U.S. where wood smoke is too high could be sunset rules requiring homeowners to stop using old, uncertified stoves after a certain date, such as 2018.  This is already being done in several counties in Washington state, and we will have to watch that closely to see how well it works.

The EPA’s rule had some very creative provisions, which no one saw coming, and which may define the legacy of the rule.  Everyone was watching for the emission standards that would kick in 2020 and the delayed implementation for warm air furnaces.  But a provision that we think may have a huge impact, despite receiving little media attention, is the optional cordwood certification test. 

Moving the fleet of U.S. stoves from being tested with crib wood (2-by-4s and 4-by-4s) to regular cordwood is key to the future of cleaner wood heating.  Instead of mandating any cordwood test standard, the EPA made it optional for now, and set the level at 2.5 grams per hour.  Some stoves can already pass that, but watch this issue over the next months and years.  The EPA could never set a cordwood standard that low if it were mandatory, but by making it optional, it may stick and turn out to be one of the most important legacies of this law.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat