EDITORIALS

New EPA wood stove standards? Sure, but get them right

Smoke from forest fires in northwest Quebec in July created hazy conditions in northern Maine, obscuring hills looking westward over the St. John Valley.
Smoke from forest fires in northwest Quebec in July created hazy conditions in northern Maine, obscuring hills looking westward over the St. John Valley.
Posted April 11, 2014, at 12:39 p.m.

The next time you think about getting the wood stove going, check to see what the stove’s emission limit is. Odds are the stove is old, and the number of grams of smoke per hour it emits isn’t as low as it could be. An unnecessary and potentially dangerous number of particulates in the smoke, which contains carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and the carcinogens benzene and formaldehyde, could be lodging in your lungs.

There are legitimate health and ecological reasons for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require wood stoves and heaters to burn more efficiently. Based on standards set in 1988, stove models with a catalytic combustor cannot emit more than 4.1 grams of smoke per hour, and those without a catalytic combustor cannot emit more than 7.5 grams per hour.

The new rule proposed by the EPA would hold all newly built catalytic and noncatalytic models to a standard of 4.5 grams per hour at first and then 1.3 grams per hour after five years. Or, manufacturers could follow a three-step transition period over eight years, to get to the 1.3 emission rate.

The majority of stoves being made today already boast emission rates lower than 4.5 grams per hour; it makes sense to adjust the standards to propel manufacturers that are behind on the trend. Wood smoke is linked to heart attacks and stroke, and it can worsen lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s good for industry to show it embraces healthier and more environmentally friendly practices.

But the EPA’s plan needs to be improved.

The administration of Gov. Paul LePage, along with Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, have aired concerns that the new standards would cause people to hold onto their stoves because they wouldn’t be able to pay for the cleaner, more costly models. Regardless of whether there is solid evidence that the rule would make it prohibitively expensive for homeowners to purchase more efficient stoves, there is certainly a clear need to do more to encourage them to replace old stoves.

Buyback programs have worked. Last year, Jotul stove dealers across North America participated in a stove change-out program that encouraged people to trade older wood stoves for newer, cleaner ones; it exchanged 1,406 stoves. If upgraded stoves are going to come on the market, it makes sense to get the old ones off the market — and get the people who need efficient stoves the most to actually buy them. A buyback program could also help quell fears among manufacturers that an increase in retail prices would hurt sales.

In addition, the EPA needs to adjust its proposal to account for the reality of stove manufacturing and testing.

The proposed rule doesn’t delineate between catalytic and noncatalytic stoves. And even if all wood stoves could produce the desired 1.3 emission result, there’s a danger in assuming those emissions could be accurately tested in the way the EPA is proposing.

“The method is not repeatable or reproducible to levels below 4.5,” said Roger Purinton, product development manager in the research and development department at Jotul, in Gorham. The EPA will need to adjust the proposed testing algorithm, the emission goals, or both, to ensure the rule is realistic.

The EPA has started an important conversation about the efficiency of wood stoves. In addition to updating regulations on particulate matter emissions, it also wants to require the reporting of carbon monoxide emissions and overall heating efficiency, which will be helpful for consumers and could increase competition among manufacturers. But it will have to make several changes to the proposed rule to gain our wholehearted support.

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