Wood Heat More Popular, but There are Environmental Concerns


WASHINGTON (Dec. 17, 2013)—Bill Traver has sold wood stoves to customers in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia from his small shop in Hedgesville, W. Va., for nearly three decades, but over the past few years, he’s seen an increase in sales.

“It’s because people are finally getting away from gas and oil,” Traver said. “Because they can’t afford it.”

Traver’s store isn’t an exception. According to U.S. Census data, the use of wood heat in Maryland grew by 33 percent from 2000 to 2010. Much of that increase is due to the market - the recent economic downturn, combined with increased prices for oil and propane, has led to many customers switching to wood stoves and boilers for heat.

But as wood heating has grown, concerns over its emissions have grown, as well - so much, in fact, that in October, Maryland and six other states, along with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, sued the Environmental Protection Agency over certain high-emission wood boilers.

Wood-fired boilers are different from wood stoves, which heat wood inside the home. Boilers operate outside a home, using combustion to heat up water, which runs through pipes into the home to heat it.

But the trouble with older boilers and wood stoves comes from the soot, smoke and small particles they emit.

In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency placed regulations on stationary wood-burning devices like new wood stoves. Currently, those rules require catalytic stoves, which use a device to start combustion at lower temperatures, to emit less than 4.1 grams of particulates. Non-catalytic stoves must emit less than 7.5 grams.

Wood boilers, however, were exempted from the rules. That’s made it so even though cleaner boilers are available, the older, dirtier versions are still sold and used across the country.

Jonathan Kays, a natural resource extension specialist with the University of Maryland, said that even with the concerns over boilers, wood heat can still be a clean, cheap option, especially if residents in rural areas use newer, cleaner wood stoves.

“You know, renewable energy is focused on solar and wind and geothermal, but to take advantage of those, you have to have $20-or-$30,000,” Kays said. “But the average person could buy a wood stove for $2-or-$3,000 and could cut their heating bills in half or more. And that’s what’s happened. The wood is cheap.”

Kays added that wood also has a stable price due to its steady supply, meaning it won’t vary from year to year like other fuels such as propane or natural gas.

The cleanest-burning wood stoves on the market today emit about .4 grams of particulates per hour, but older versions of those stoves can emit up to 75 times that. Emissions from older wood boilers are far higher still, averaging about 161 grams of particulates per hour.

In its lawsuit, the states wrote that even though new, cleaner boilers have been developed in the past 25 years, older boilers still in use can cause significant damage to the environment, and that new regulations “will result in cleaner and healthier air in the States, benefitting the health and welfare of their citizens.”

Failure to regulate older wood heaters has had a big impact on Maryland’s environment. According to EPA data, residential wood burning accounts for nearly 15 percent of all of Maryland’s small particulate emissions, even though only 1.2 percent of residents use it as a primary heat source.

Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health who has studied the effects of air pollution, said that those emissions can also harm the health of nearby residents.

“Mostly, the effects are serious respiratory diseases,” Brauer said. “For people with asthma, it makes it worse. It can make infections more severe or harder for you to basically fight the infections...we also see ear infections, even emphysema.”

As an example of those detrimental effects, Brauer pointed to a 2013 study from Australia’s University of Tasmania that looked at a specific city that relied primarily on wood burning devices for heat. When over half of those devices were replaced by other fuel sources, respiratory-related deaths during the winter in the city decreased by 28 percent.

“So that’s really dramatic,” Brauer said. “And it’s a really well-done study, so it’s hard to poke any holes in it.”

For its part, the EPA has added recommendations requiring new boilers to emit less than 4.8 grams of particulates per hour in order to meet EPA certification. However, in most states, those recommendations are only voluntary.

Maryland has taken steps to fix the problem on a statewide level over the past few years. The state added a regulation in 2009 requiring small wood boilers sold in Maryland to meet the new EPA recommendations, but those requirements only address new units, not existing ones.

In order to clean up those boilers and older wood stoves, the state introduced a program in 2012 to provide rebates of $500 to $700 for residents to purchase new, cleaner wood stoves and pellet stoves to replace dirtier fuel sources.

Randy Mosier, chief of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Air Quality Planning Program, said the department still receives complaints, but since the new regulations have gone through, the situation has significantly improved.

“It’s been a decline,” Mosier said. “Especially since we’ve come out with our regulations since 2009 requiring that any units would have to meet those strict standards.”

As more states start to regulate wood heat like Maryland does, Mosier said technology should continue to improve and hopefully make his department’s job even easier.

Kays, the University of Maryland extension specialist, said those continual improvements in emissions, combined with lower costs, should make wood heat a solid option for the future.

“They’re heating homes. They’re saving a lot of money on energy costs,” Kays said. “It’s much more difficult in rural areas to get by, and with local wood and these low costs, this is a great way to get by.”

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