Will EPA Regulations Drive More Wood Stove Innovation?

Without innovation, wood stoves may be on a long-term trajectory of losing market share to gas stoves, heat pumps, pellet stoves and other options.
By John Ackerly | January 04, 2018

A recent U.S. DOE press release stated that the technology revolution has bypassed the wood stove industry. The first round of U.S. EPA regulations in 1988 required all manufacturers to adopt innovations, or go belly up. Most agree that those regulations were a good thing for industry, which was facing public backlash, and potentially far more strict regulations from various states.

Can the second round of EPA regulations, coming into effect in 2020, bring about the next big wave of innovation? Many insiders say no, that wood stoves have advanced as much as they can, and there is no reliable way to further drive down emission standards. To us, that is short-sighted.  We need positive, forward-thinking leadership.

The narrative around wood stoves needs changing, and industry leaders need to be part of that. It’s not enough to say smoky stoves are the result of poor operation, and all we need to do is better educate operators. This is almost an admission that stoves will continue to be polluting, and aren’t up to the task. It’s not enough to say that the problem is just the old stoves, and we shouldn’t worry about how clean new stoves should be. We all know that even new stoves can be problematic.

A key issue is that wood stove sales volumes aren’t enough for major R&D programs. And there is not as much creative pressure on the stove industry as there is on industries making common consumer appliances, such as mobile phones, watches and cars. Those industries are selling millions or tens of millions of units a year, whereas usually, fewer than 200,000 wood stoves are sold per year.  In addition, the volume of wood stoves sales is declining, leaving manufacturers with less resources and incentives to innovate. And, many consumers do not have higher expectations for wood stoves—but they should.

If the 2020 deadline comes and goes without much fanfare, and results only in fewer stove models, smaller fireboxes and slightly higher price tags, we think the industry will have missed a big opportunity. It needs to embrace innovation and change, and think more broadly about how a stove operates under 2 grams an hour not just in the lab, but in homes. 

For example, an Idaho company is coming out with a stove designed to burn pressed logs, and could occupy a small, exciting niche in the marketplace that could grow. But if they or another company combines the pressed log concept with automated controls, the result would be a stove manually loaded with oversized pellets that could have PM and CO emissions and efficiencies closer to pellet stoves than wood stoves. This is just one concept, and there are lots more to explore. The point is that this industry needs leaders who can play even a little bit of the role that Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk plays: Give the public a vision for how your product is perfectly suited for the future, whether it’s an automobile or a wood stove.

We think the next logical step is to finish the job that the bimetallic coil started.  We need to automate air controls through cheap sensors and electronics, taking that job away from operators. This is the way of the future, which virtually all modern combustion appliances have embraced. The longer it takes to catch on in the stove industry, the harder it will be to recapture market share and change the narrative around wood stoves.

Automation of wood stoves simply involves bringing technologies that have long been used in advanced wood boilers in the basement up to the living room.  It opens the possibility of stoves performing in the real world much closer to how they performed in the lab. The challenge is doing this without raising the price too much, and being able to market these stoves to a wide population of wood-heated households.

Without such innovation, wood stoves may be on a long-term trajectory of losing market share to gas stoves, heat pumps, pellet stoves and other options. In many communities that experience frequent inversions, the number of wood stoves needs to shrink, and slowly, jurisdictions appear to be more willing to adopt regulations that are less friendly toward wood stoves. 

The Wood Stove Design Challenge we launched in 2013 will be back on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in mid-November. The focus is on automated stoves, stoves that make electricity, pairing stoves with solar panels and testing with cordwood. It’s a place to share ideas, introduce and test prototypes and showcase strategies that could herald a cleaner future for wood stoves. Up to 20 teams will compete to prove that their stove design should be part of a cleaner, more modern wood heating future.  It’s free and open to the public, and we hope to see you there.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat
[email protected]