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On some winter days, the air along the Wasatch Front, and in some outlying counties, violates the federal air quality standard for fine particulates. This type of problem is actually quite common in western communities from El Paso and Denver to Seattle and Los Angeles. It is a function of strong temperature inversions that trap the air from human activities such as vehicle traffic, factories, and refineries. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality estimates that wood smoke contributes approximately 5% of this wintertime problem.
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).
Currently, when air quality in Wasatch Front communities begins to worsen, air quality regulators will declare a “voluntary no-burn period.” If an inversion fails to break up and the level of fine particulates increases to a specified threshold, they will institute a “mandatory no-burn period.” The current program doesn’t differentiate between new EPA stoves and old uncertified wood stoves and fireplaces, regardless of whether it’s a voluntary or mandatory day.
Last year, Salt Lake and Davis counties had 18 voluntary no-burn days and 31 mandatory no-burn days. However under the Governor’s proposal, there would be no burning from November 1st through March 15th. This ban would be the equivalent to 135 consecutive days of “mandatory no burn period” restrictions for all solid fuel appliances (i.e. fireplaces, pellet stoves and wood stoves, including EPA-certified appliances) regardless of the weather or air quality.
No, the current proposal would not differentiate between solid fuel appliances (i.e. fireplaces, pellet stoves and wood stoves) regardless of how clean and efficient the appliance is. These restrictions also would remain in effect for 135 consecutive days, regardless of wind, snow, weather and inversion conditions.
Pre-1992 wood stoves have limited controls on smoke emissions. In contrast, modern, EPA-certified wood burning appliances can be up to 90% cleaner burning than open fireplaces or old wood stoves. They use either a catalytic converter or a sophisticated system of air mixing to achieve a cleaner burn. EPA data shows that replacing twenty old wood stoves with twenty EPA-certified wood stoves will prevent the emission of one ton of particulate matter into the environment each year – an example of the dramatic clean air improvements attributable to technology advancements.
A pellet stove burns small, compressed pellets made from ground, dried wood and other biomass wastes. Pellet stoves use a fan to force air into the fire, just like a carburetor in an auto engine. Another cleaner-burning option is a masonry heater, which depends on carefully engineered passages made with very high temperature ceramic to absorb the heat from a small, hot fire. This feature allows a masonry heater to store heat from a fire within its masonry structure and release heat into the home even after the fire burns out.
Recent years have seen a proliferation of cleaner-burning, more energy-efficient hearth products that emit significantly lower levels of particulate matter. To help differentiate these newer, more environmentally-friendly appliances from older ones, EPA has initiated a program to certify freestanding stoves, fireplace inserts and built-in fireplaces that meet stringent air quality and energy efficiency requirements. All EPA-certified wood stoves and fireplace inserts have a permanent label on the back that attests to compliance with the standard.
Other hearth products – including pellet stoves and masonry heaters – are so clean they are exempt from EPA certification.
We’ve got a few questions for the interest group that cooked up this “statistic.” Are you comparing particles emitted per mile traveled by an SUV vs. particles from a pound of wood burned in a fireplace? Or particles emitted per unit of energy in the gasoline powering the SUV vs. particles emitted from the same energy in the wood? Or is it particles emitted by a typical SUV trip vs. particles emitted by a typical fireplace session? What’s the make and model of the SUV? What size engine and what kind of emissions control technology does it use? And why are you comparing against an open fireplace rather than a cleaner burning EPA-certified wood or pellet stove?
Clearly, the assumptions in this claim are stacked against wood burning. So, let’s look at something more objective: the annual emission inventory developed by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. According to this government data, cars and trucks are responsible for 155 times more particulate matter and 41 times more fine particles in Utah’s air than wood burning. And when you consider other forms of pollution, cars and trucks in Utah emit 93 times more carbon dioxide, 1,285 times more nitrogen oxides, 42 times more sulfur oxides and 65 times more volatile organic compounds than wood burning.
Besides examining particle emissions, a comparison between wood stoves and gas furnaces should also take into consideration that:
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 burning 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 woodstoves, but EPA-certified stoves and pellet stoves may still be used as long as they emit no visible smoke. However if the inversion persists, then officials may declare State Two and restrict the use of even EPA-certified stoves and other cleaner burning devices.
Homeowners should always strive to do the most responsible job of wood burning possible. If you need to heat a lot of space, and/or burn often, consider switching to an EPA-certified wood stove, a pellet stove, or a masonry heater. If your family only burns occasionally, be sure to pay attention to the status of the no-burn program and always use either dry wood or, in a fireplace, manufactured fire logs.
Most importantly, if you value responsible wood burning, take an active role in defeating Utah’s total burn ban proposal. If this proposal passes, you will not be permitted to burn anything, anytime, in the winter in the impacted counties. Get involved now!