Saturday, January 17, 2015

Clearing the Air in Utah: A Wood Stove Compromise

Republican Governor Gary Herbert
directed his air quality staff to prepare
a draft rule banning wintertime stove use.
Utah Governor Herbert’s proposal to ban wintertime use of residential wood and pellet stoves started a debate on the wrong foot.  But it is vital that something is done and there are several ways that wood smoke can be reduced on the Wasatch Front around Salt Lake City.

[Update, Jan. 20: In a setback to the stove industry campaign, Salt Lake County voted to ban use of all stoves during both voluntary and mandatory air action days as of 2016.]

First, a phase out of all uncertified wood stoves is both realistic and effective.  A phase out would mean that stoves made before 1988 could not be legally used after a certain date, such as January 1st, 2017.  Before that date, the state could offer a tax credit to people who turn in their old stove and upgrade to an EPA-certified pellet stove or gas stove.  This would protect the investment of anyone who bought a new EPA-certified wood stove in the last 25 years.

A series of public hearing on the
proposed ban have elicited over-
whelming popular opposition.
Second, all existing stoves could be grandfathered, but there also could be a ban on installing new fireplaces or wood stoves in homes in the non-attainment area.  Pellet stoves could still be installed as they can’t spew excessive smoke like wood stoves can if they are not operated correctly. Many towns and valleys with bad inversions have stopped the new installation of fireplaces and wood stoves.

Third, as long as people can still buy and install wood stoves and fireplaces, Utah could require that they be among the cleanest in the country.  Next year the national standard will be 4.5 grams an hour for wood and pellet stoves.  On the Wasatch front, you could require new stoves not to emit more than 3 or even 2 grams an hour.  

No matter what strategy Utah chooses, the state must commit more resources to implement and enforce it – even in the unlikely event they choose a full seasonal ban.  There will need to be trained compliance officers responsible for educating homeowners, inspecting homes, issuing warnings and, as a last resort, fines.  Typically there will be a minority of people who create the most smoke.  If those people can’t or won’t operate their stoves in a way that doesn’t create excessive smoke, fines should be imposed, just as fines are imposed for excessively loud music or any number of other nuisances. 
In mountain valleys, wood smoke can
make up more than 50% of PM during
inversions.  In the Salt Lake area, its
less than 10%.

Most appliances are only regulated at the point of manufacture.  After we purchase them, we are free to use a refrigerator or washing machine as long as we want, and abuse them in any way if we so choose.  But for big emitters like cars and stoves, some measures to ensure ongoing pollution reduction can be warranted. For better or worse, many wood stoves last even longer than the best-made refrigerators or washing machines.  Consumers tend to want to upgrade all sorts of appliances far sooner than they want to upgrade their wood stove.  But the benefits of upgrading to a new stove are similar in that consumers are getting a far more efficient and cleaner device.  And some good, new wood stoves cost as little as $700 at big-box hardware stores.

We think the solution to reducing wood smoke involves phasing out old stoves and issuing periodic
Salt Lake City, during one of their
frequent wintertime inversions.
fines to people who can’t operate their EPA certified stoves in ways that don’t make them belch excessive smoke.  A compromise of limiting the seasonal ban to fewer counties in Utah and half the duration – Jan. 1 to Feb. 15th, instead of Nov. 1st to March 15th – is an option, but not a popular one.  It may not be an effective one, either.

As a society, we need to encourage the responsible use of renewable energy and support household energy security.  Pellet stoves are already an environmentally responsible way to heat homes.  Wood stoves can be, but are more complicated, especially in densely inhabited areas with inversions.  A wood stove is a far bigger emitter of pollution than a car, and we need to start thinking about them as such.  Just as many states require emission testing when a second hand car is sold, Oregon has begun requiring the removal of an old stove when a house gets sold.  These are the sorts of solutions that can also work in Utah.

Governor Herbert is ready to make some tough decisions in order to accomplish something everyone wants – cleaner air. This proposal goes too far, but there are many other measures that can work, while respecting the ability of responsible stove owners to use a renewable resource to heat their home.  Regardless, Governor Herbert needs to show that he is ready to provide some more funding and resources to enact and enforce changes.  Otherwise, all of this controversy just amounts to hot air.


You can submit comments to the Utah Air Quality Board until February 9.  For more info, click here.

For media coverage of the Utah public hearings, click here.

For the AGH position on the industry response to the proposed ban, click on this Facebook post.


  1. In this newsletter, I see no mention of the scientific evidence that wood smoke is harmful to inhale. Nor do I see any empathy for those who are physically suffering from inhaling wood smoke. How come? Isn't the ban on wood burning for these very reasons. Why divert the attention away from the main and most important issue of public health? Now that we know better, when is it responsible to burn wood?

  2. Any 'compromise' will compromise people's health and air quality. A 365 day a year ban is needed everywhere. Woodsmoke is highly toxic and does not belong in our air.

  3. In our newsletter, blog and website we often refer to the negative health impacts of excessive wood smoke. We propose a "compromise" here partially because it is vital we significantly reduce wood smoke and we think this would be a significant step forward. Natural gas also releases highly toxic chemical compounds and is even more pernicious because you can't smell it and people use it with impunity. It is a major contributor of ozone and is particularly dangerous for small children, the elderly and those with lung disease.

  4. Hi John Ackerly. I sure do agree with you about not using fuel to heat our indoor spaces. There IS a reason why burnt fuel is vented outside -- but how does venting it outdoors do us all any good??!

    Instead of falling back, (and not as comfortably as some would like to), on cushiony pillows of the status quo of wood and fuel, why not get up and stretch a bit. Then head off, with minds and hearts full of focus, drive, attention, love, and money looking for and finding ways to develop affordable, and advanced solar, wind and water electricity?

    When these electricities are finally and fully available to the weary public, the sun will come out, the birds will sing, and the flowers will bloom! Many people who were once torn between a hard rock and burning wood will be free at last!!

  5. Just wanted to remind (comment on why) people the point of heating any area, keep things from freezing and comfort. Heating a home or shop to 72 degrees F and not being there is a waste. I heat with wood and when I do not load the stove, it gets cold. Nothing freezes but generally, either I am not home or under blankets. The cost of heating a space (area) perfectly, is the problem - wasting energy/fuel. I still have a hard time thinking of how many homes are empty 90 percent of the time but heated or cooled.

  6. Setting down the fireplace inside the house can only be performed by the professional so that less smoke can take place, thanks for sharing such a great blog.
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