With recurring concerns about the high cost of energy, many people heat their homes with firewood and pellets. Wood is abundant, renewable, and relatively inexpensive and can even keep a house warm when the power goes out.
On a chilly evening, there is nothing more relaxing than gathering around a warm, cozy fire that radiates rich, soothing heat. But particularly for areas with air quality concerns, like the Wastach Front and Cache Valley in Utah, residents should burn responsibly – which means using dry, seasoned wood in a low-emission hearth product.
For more than two decades, the stove industry has been an advocate for clean air and clean burning. The industry has been creating and manufacturing wood burning products that emit up to 90% less smoke compared to wood burners produced decades ago. Despite cleaner technologies, most wood fires are still built in traditional open fireplaces or older uncertified wood stoves and fireplace inserts manufactured and installed before 1992. Burning wood in these older wood heaters can produce significantly more smoke and pollute the air outdoors and inside the home.
On some winter days, the air along the Wasatch Front and in the Cache Valley violates the federal air quality standard for fine particulates. The meteorological phenomenon known as an “inversion” is to blame. Cold air settles between the mountain ranges, and without a storm or a strong wind, the air gets stuck. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality estimates that wood smoke is approximately 5% of this problem. Even if burning is completely banned, it won’t solve the valley’s brown cloud.
Notwithstanding this modest contribution from wood smoke, Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert has proposed a new regulation prohibiting the burning of all wood during Utah’s inversion season, including burning wood in low-emission hearth products certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It would apply to all or part of Salt Lake, Davis, Utah, Tooele, Box Elder, Cache and Weber Counties. The proposed wood burning ban would not only outlaw wood burning during extremely bad air quality days, but also would outlaw all burning in these counties, during the winter, even when there is no inversion.
All Utahns want clean air, but we believe the Governor’s proposed ban on all burning will not deliver that result and will instead punish those citizens who have invested in newer, cleaner-burning stoves. This ban will be a disincentive for people to upgrade to more environmentally responsible hearth products. Many other western communities have improved air quality and preserved homeowner rights to heat with wood or pellets by encouraging upgrades to cleaner technology. Exempting low-emission stoves and inserts from the first stage of a burn ban is a common-sense solution for cleaning the air and preserving basic freedoms.
Utah needs to do what almost all other western communities do in the winter: institute a mandatory two-stage burn program. Many large metropolitan areas like Seattle, Denver, Albuquerque, and Fresno have some version of this program. During Stage One, when an inversion first starts, local residents are required to stop using all open fireplaces and older uncertified wood stoves, but EPA-certified stoves and pellet stoves and masonry heaters may still be used as long as they emit no visible smoke. If the inversion lasts for several days and persists, then officials may declare Stage Two and restrict the use of even EPA-certified stoves and other cleaner burning devices.
Breathing clean air and burning wood responsibly to keep warm is important to many Utahns. The state can better meet the needs of all people by encouraging increased use of low-emission hearth products that give off up to 90% less pollution than older technology. These options include:
All wood stoves and wood fireplace inserts manufactured and sold today in the United States are required to meet strict emissions standards certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To meet this standard, stoves must prove emissions of less than 7.5 grams of particulate matter per hour. All EPA-certified wood stoves and fireplace inserts have a permanent label on the back that attests to compliance with the standard.
Pellet stoves and pellet fireplace inserts burn wood pellets made from recycled sawdust and are the lowest emission wood burners available. Because of their very low emissions, pellet stoves and pellet fireplace inserts are exempt from EPA certification.
Masonry heaters are high performance, very clean burning and substantially-sized wood burners that produce a tremendous amount of heat. Similar to pellet appliances, masonry heaters are exempt from EPA certification.
There are two types of EPA-certified wood stoves and fireplace inserts: catalytic and non-catalytic. Catalytic wood stoves and fireplace inserts have honeycombed chambers coated with a metal catalyst – usually platinum or palladium – that works to increase the rate of combustion. The catalytic combustor burns away gases and particulate that would normally be emitted into the air. Catalytic wood stoves provide the ability for people to burn wood at lower temperatures for longer periods of time. With non-catalytic wood stoves, combustion occurs in the firebox. These stoves are generally less expensive than catalytic wood stoves and require less maintenance.