Don’t Forget the Neighbors

The U.S. EPA residential wood heater regulations that went into effect in 2015 are now creating the classic battle between industry and consumers.
By John Ackerly | October 27, 2018

The U.S. EPA residential wood heater regulations that went into effect in 2015 are now creating the classic battle between industry and consumers. Industry wants fewer regulations and more time to comply. Consumers of stoves want cheaper units, which seemingly puts them on the side of industry.  But we are all consumers of wood smoke, so we need to keep neighbors of homes with wood stoves part of the conversation.

As the mainstream residential wood stove and boiler industry rolls out its campaign to get three more years to comply with regulations that take effect in 2020, they omit any mention of the additional smoke that will be put into tens of thousands of neighborhoods across the country. Cheaper, higher-polluting stoves and boilers are not the answer.

Nearly a quarter of all stoves already meet the 2020 standard, and by this time in 2019, half of stoves could meet the 2020 standards. And, prices on stoves that already meet the 2020 standards are not going up by much. The steel tariffs are probably having a bigger impact on stove prices this year than EPA regulations.

For argument sake, let’s say the EPA regulations caused stove prices to rise 5 to 10 percent, which is certainly possible.  Is that worth it, to have cleaner stoves in our communities? The dilemma here is that folks buying stoves are much more likely to object to rising prices than their neighbors, who also have to live with higher particulate matter (PM). 

The Alliance for Green Heat was founded, in part, because wood heating is a great way for lower-income families to avoid fossil fuels and affordably heat their homes. So isn’t it inconsistent for us to support regulations that lead to slightly higher prices? There is a legitimate conflict that we grapple with day in and day out. And there is no easy answer.  All the safety and emission regulations on automobiles have led to higher prices, resulting in more lower-income families to a) not buy a car, b) postpone buying a newer, cleaner car, or c) keep buying second-hand cars. We expect a similar phenomenon with stoves, but it’s not a reason to keep building more polluting and less-safe stoves.
Last week, two major stove companies announced that they were nearly ready for the 2020 emission standards, adding to the list of companies that do not need any extension.  Pacific Energy and Blaze King are both older, reputable stove manufacturers that made complying with EPA regulations on time part of their business plan so that they could assure their retailers that they would have stoves to ship.  Pacific Energy specializes in noncatalytic stoves, which are harder to get below the 2 grams an hour for 2020, and Blaze King specializes in catalytic stoves.  

In a YouTube video, the stove industry keeps insisting that “the industry shares the same goals as regulators” but never mentions that part of the reason for the delay is that they are suing regulators to prevent some key provisions from ever taking effect. When industry says it needs three more years to comply with EPA standards, it is fairly representing what a lot of the industry wants. But it does not represent the best interest of consumers who would rather have cleaner, more efficient stoves and boilers even at a slightly higher price. And it certainly doesn’t represent the neighbors of consumers, who are also impacted.

Extending the deadline until 2023 will put hundreds of thousands of higher-emitting, lower-efficiency appliances in homes, and only a fraction of those homes will have exchanged the new stove for an old one. Domestic outdoor boilers and indoor furnaces need the extension most of all, but they are the appliance categories that need to be cleaned up the most, and will have the biggest impact on their communities. 

If we want residential wood and pellet heaters to take their rightful place alongside solar, wind and other renewables, we need a real commitment from industry to innovate for the future, not put all their resources into lawsuits and lobbyists to preserve the status quo for as long as possible. There are plenty of manufacturers who are innovating and getting cleaner.

I heated my house with various EPA certified catalytic and noncatalytic wood stoves for 25 years before I switched to pellet stoves. I know all too well how hard it is to keep a wood stove burning consistently without any visible smoke.  My neighbors are happy that I’ve switched to pellets.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat