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  • by Ron Pihl

    So called “air tight stoves” from the seventies and early eighties make up a majority of the pollution from residential wood smoke. The western valleys we inhabit are prone to wintertime inversions. Without a moving weather system to clear out the air, particulate matter can easily accumulate to unhealthy levels. The EPA is especially concerned with fine particles known as PM 2.5 particulate matter 2.5 microns in size that can become lodged in the lungs, causing long term health threats. In an effort to decrease such dangerous particles in the air we breathe, the EPA set limits for wood stove emissions in 1988. Now, under pressure from state air agencies throughout the country, it is about to lower emission levels even further. Pellet stoves, masonry heaters, and outdoor boilers (previously exempted from regulations) will now be included in the EPA review. Details of the new wood burning regulations are expected out this spring for a 90-day comment period.

    A warming fire in your home is considered by many to be an essential ingredient of cold weather living. Lowering heating bills and dependence on fossil fuels may be the goal, but the payoffs compound themselves. Burning wood wisely – using dry, split wood, with high efficiency appliances is considered to be ‘carbon neutral’. During its lifecycle, wood traps carbon dioxide – a major greenhouse gas. Whether burned as fuel or decomposing naturally, that once-trapped carbon dioxide will find its way into the atmosphere. While the timeframe is certainly different, there is no net addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere from wood burning.

    Investing in an EPA Certified wood stove that meets or exceeds current EPA emission limits pays dividends beyond healthier air. Today’s stoves improved combustion technology and higher efficiencies mean you burn 20% – 30% less wood than with the old clunker.  Masonry heaters, though more costly, are one of the cleanest burning and most efficient ways to utilize cordwood and have been in existence for centuries. Pellet burning stoves have long been recognized for their low emissions. With a pellet burner you can sell off the chainsaw and get some weekends back!

    The Alliance for Green Heat, an independent non-profit organization that promotes the use of wood as a green heating alternative, has announced the selection of 14 finalists in the Next Generation Woodstove Design Challenge. The burn-in will take place in November of this year on the Mall in Washington D.C. The designs consist of especially efficient stoves with micro processors, state of the art hybrid stoves, and ironically, several ultra efficient masonry heaters designs from the 17th century—all of which offer high combustion efficiency and heat storage.

    So, whether looking backwards in history for the ultimate flame, embracing current technology, or waiting for the right smart phone app to light your fire, consumers have many choices when it comes to cleaning up their acts.

    Ron Pihl is the President of WarmStone Fireplaces and Designs in Livingston and a board member of the Northwest Hearth Products and Barbeque Association. Ron has been building masonry heaters in Montana since 1982.