Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sample Wood Smoke Nuisance Regulations

This outdoor wood boilers in Morgan
County Utah was somehow found not
to be a nuisance by a County Judge. 
Updated: May 2022 - Many jurisdictions in the Western US have “burn bans” that disallow the use of wood or pellet stoves when air quality is very poor, often in conjunction with weather inversions.  Nuisance regulations, on the other hand, apply when one person is creating excessive smoke that bothers an immediate neighbor.  That person may be using an EPA certified stove, an old stove or an outdoor or indoor boiler.

In the US, wood smoke complaints are handled locally, and more often than not, local officials are at a loss to handle complaints effectively. There is also a range of standards by which excessive smoke is measured.  Lack of resolution between neighbors is all too common, due sometimes to a lack of a clear nuisance standard for that town or county, or simply due to a lack of the ability or willingness to enforce a nuisance standard.  

The Alliance for Green Heat and many in the wood heating community support strong nuisance regulations and urge local officials to train their staff to enforce them.  Often, the problem is less about the stove technology and more about poor operator behavior. Many stove owners do not understand that their energy solution should not be their neighbor's problem.  Reducing fossil fuel use is a great benefit of wood stoves, but when a single stove is too polluting, or there are simply too many stoves in a valley or town, solutions are needed.  Pellet stoves are often an excellent solution from a pollution standpoint.

In areas with frequent inversions and in urban areas, limiting the new installations of cordwood stoves is often a good solution.  And, not allowing the installation of uncertified, second hand stoves is also a good solution.  Requiring permits and professional installation can also help.  

Sometimes, standards are less important than the discretion and findings of a local health official.  In Massachusetts, for example, a City Commissioner of Public Health has wide discretion to order someone to stop burning wood, as a Commission did in June 2017 after local residents complained of smoke from a restaurant. The 6-page decision found that a $65,000 scrubber performed poorly and ordered the owner to stop burning wood and charcoal.

If a jurisdiction has no written standard or regulation and does not allow the kind of discretion a health commission in Massachusetts has, the sample provisions below offer an excellent starting point for the jurisdiction to adopt.  Most jurisdictions use "opacity" as a measure of smoke - meaning the ability to see through it.  An opacity of 20% or lower is often listed as acceptable, but not always.  In some regulations, a specific amount of start-up time is exempted, ranging from 6 to 20 minutes in these sample regulations. However, many wood stove experts say 20 - 30 minutes is often the time needed to get a fire without visible smoke.
The Ringellman chart or scale was developed in 1888 and is still sometimes used and referenced today.
The Ringellman scale was adapted by the US Bureau of Mines.
The Alliance for Green Heat has noticed an increase in complaints about wood smoke.  We know that in many cases excessive wood smoke results from burning unseasoned wood, caused in part by the shortage of seasoned firewood this year.  Too many people with wood stoves wait until the fall to order wood and too many firewood distributors try to pass off unseasoned wood as seasoned.

The proposed ban of stoves in Utah has also brought the issue of “responsible burning” to the forefront, with industry calling for EPA certified equipment to be exempt from any ban.  These nuisance provisions, with a few exceptions, make no distinction between the kind of device that is being used, and focus solely on how well the operator is using it. 


We have updated the links to current laws as much as possible, but check the actual language in the current law, not on our summary to be sure of how the law or regulation works.

No person shall cause or allow the emission of smoke exceeding twenty-percent opacity from any flue or chimney, except for a single fifteen-minute period for cold start-up. Any emission in excess hereof is hereby declared to be a nuisance and is prohibited.

Maine (2013)
A person who operates in a densely populated area an outdoor wood-burning device that produces visible emissions, measured as any opacity, totaling 12 minutes in any hour that cross onto land or buildings immediately adjacent to a dwelling or commercial building not owned by the owner of the outdoor wood-burning device creates a nuisance.

Massachusetts (2022)
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) regulations limit visible smoke (or "opacity") and prohibit air pollution that places people at risk, interferes with property uses, threatens natural resources, or creates nuisances, such as excessive odor and soot.

Oregon (2014)
Wood smoke in Oregon

* Existing sources outside special control areas. No person may emit any air contaminant for a period or periods aggregating more than three minutes in any one hour which is equal to or greater than 40% opacity.
* New sources in all areas and existing sources within special control areas: No person may emit any air contaminants for a period or periods aggregating more than three minutes in any one hour which is equal to or greater than 20% opacity.

Utah (2021)
* A nuisance is anything which is injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property. A nuisance may be the subject of an action.
* A nuisance under this part includes tobacco smoke that drifts into any residential unit a person rents, leases, or owns, from another residential or commercial unit. [There is no mention of wood smoke or opacity in the nuisance provisions of the Utah Code.]


No person shall cause or allow a visible emission from any wood-burning device in any building or structure that exceeds No. 1 on the Ringlemann Chart or 20 percent opacity for a period or periods aggregating more than three consecutive minutes in any one hour period. Visible emissions created during a fifteen-minute start-up period are exempt from this regulation.


* Certified wood heaters may be operated during a no-burn period provided that no visible emissions are produced after a twenty (20) minute period following start up or refueling.
* During a period in which the Director has not declared a no-burn, no person shall operate a solid fuel heating device in a manner which produces emission into the atmosphere if the emissions exceed 30 % opacity twenty (20) minutes or longer after ignition or refueling of the solid fuel burning device. Visible emission opacity shall be determined by an observer certified by the Director.

Smoke shall not exceed an average of 20% opacity for any 2-minute period during an hour or average of 40% for 6 minutes after start-up.

The emission into the open air of visible smoke from any residential indoor non-wood pellet-burning appliance or any non EPA-Phase II certified wood burning appliance or fireplace used for home- heating purposes in such manner or in such amounts as to endanger or tend to endanger the health, comfort, safety or welfare of any reasonable person, or to cause unreasonable injury or damage to property or which could cause annoyance or discomfort in the area of the emission, is prohibited.

Eugene, OR (2021)
* During a green or yellow advisory, no person in charge of property shall operate or allow to be operated a solid-fuel space-heating device which discharges emissions that are of an opacity greater than 40 percent. This provision does not apply to the emissions during the building of a new fire, for a period or periods aggregating no more than ten minutes in any four-hour period.
* Upon a determination that a person has violated section 6.255 of this code, the city manager may impose upon the violator and any other person in charge of the property, an administrative penalty not greater than $500.

Fort Collins, CO
* After the first 15-minutes of start-up, smoke from the chimney must be at or less than 20% opacity (smoke should be barely visible looking at it with your back to the sun).
* Violation of City Code can result in a summons to appear in municipal court resulting in a fine of up to $1,000 and 180 days in jail.

Juneau, AK (2008)
No person may operate a solid fuel-fired heating device in such a manner that visible emissions reduce visibility through the exhaust for more than 15 minutes in any one hour by 50% opacity or greater.

St. Louis, MO (2021)
"The emission or escape into the ambient (outside) air within the City from any source or sources whatsoever of smoke, ashes, dust, soot, cinders, dirt, grime, acids, fumes, gases, vapors, odors, or any other substances or elements in such amounts as are detrimental to, or endanger the health, comfort, safety, welfare, property, or the normal conduct of business shall constitute a public nuisance, and it is considered unlawful for any person to cause, permit, or maintain any such public nuisance.  The Commissioner of Health and or his or her designee operating as Delegated Agents of the State of Missouri, may give additional consideration to the presence of emissions that cause severe annoyance or discomfort, or are offensive and objectionable to a significant number of citizens as determined by the Commissioner of Health and or his or her designee within the City of St. Louis Department of Health."

* State law limits the density of smoke from indoor fires to ensure that people use clean burning techniques. This requirement is called the 20 percent smoke opacity limit. Opacity means how much your view through the smoke is blocked.
* 100 percent opacity means you can't see anything through the smoke. 20 percent opacity means there is very little smoke and you can see almost perfectly through it. If you use dry enough fuel, the right equipment, and give your fire the right amount of air, there should be no visible smoke from your chimney or stove pipe--only heat waves.
* There are two exceptions to the opacity rule which allow you limited time for denser smoke:
• Starting the fire. You have up to 20 minutes every four hours.
• Stoking the fire. You have up to six consecutive minutes in any one-hour period.


  1. This post presents another example of why wood heat is anything but "green." The blog post seems to suggest that smoke pollution is somehow okay if it is below what wood burning industry supporters consider "excessive." What they really need to understand is children and their families, - everyone - should be able to breathe air free of any amount of toxic wood heat pollution. They must not be expected to put up with it until it becomes "excessive." The so-called "20%" opacity level shown in the first picture should be considered unacceptable in a residential area - and so should any amount of wood smoke pollution above zero. Hopefully as clean renewable energy sources develop further they will soon make the harmful practice of residential wood burning obsolete.

    1. Burning wood is far FAR cleaner than the radioactive fly ash coming out of coal power plants, and is still far cleaner than Fracking which contaminates ground water like crazy. Its also cheaper, which helps low wage family's and is reliable. People have burned wood for heating since the dawn of mankind. Its a key to our civilization and without it we would all be living in wigwams, heck, probably tree's.

      Furthermore, the amount of "pollution" wild fires, which are a naturally occurring and necessary function in nature, emit FAR more pollution than all of human wood burning combined for the last decade.

      Your air is clean, you may not think its clean. But it is. In China, the rivers are blood red, 75% of the native inland aquatic species are extinct, the sun doesn't shine AT ALL for days or weeks at a time, and people have to wear respirators 24/7. But guess what? China has jobs, and we dont.

      But at least we will have clean air, right? Not that future generations will be able to enjoy it, because America will be a third world country thanks to people such as yourself. Just like Africa, clean pristine natural environment, and nobody there can ever enjoy it because they live on less than 50 cents a day.

    2. Environment Canada says our winter air is NOT clean. We are advised to stay indoors and NOT exercise. I will NOT reply anonymously. When it comes to climate.. using forests for fuel IS like putting gasoline on a fire. Here in Quebec the spring snow pack melts so much faster with a disgusting layer of soggy wood smoke soot on the top. I KNOW, in my younger and foolish days having worked as a chimney sweep. Wouldn`t it be nice to think that we have progressed since the dawn of mankind. Wait... we have! Now we can rape the forests with chain-saws, harvesters, skidders, 4-wheelers, pick-up trucks and use wood-splitters. We can also sell 10 million tons of wood pellets/year to the EU so they can poison their children as well. Thanks to the last U.S. administration; only 3% of the nations forests are protected. We are no better here in Canada and it fills me with shame. Wood smoke also fills our winter skies with smog warnings (smoke, let`s face it) that persist for the better part of the winter in the east. Make sure to not go cross-country skiing in Vermont unless you bring your oxygen mask!
      How about using wood to build a vestibule, beef up insulation value (wood has a great R-value), put on a sweater, use a 200 watt electric blanket, install a heat pump and leave the trees standing! Quebec and Vermont winter air has become TOO toxic since the ice storm. This nonsense about "clean" burning EPA wood stoves is utter BS. The children will suffer most from ignorant, arrogant, sinister, evil, foul, toxic wood smoking chimney owners. Those who live by the smoke... DIE by the smoke. Consider shortening your chimney so that it does not exit the house.Then... fully enjoy ALL of that lovely aroma instead of poisoning your neighborhood and countryside. Isn`t it time YOU stopped smoking?

  2. What really gets me is why would any wood stove, even EPA approved, be so special that in crowded areas with access to gas, burners are allowed to put out so much particulate, from whatever, 1000 to 1 or all the way down to 10 to 1, as compared to a gas furnace. Why are wood burners so special that those who can easily afford gas are still allowed to burn wood? And the rest of us are using gas and paying for all the health costs while burners get to pollute?

    1. We agree that densely inhabited urban areas could be more proactive in banning the new installs of wood stoves. Pellet stoves are better in those areas.

  3. All those examples show how weak current regulations are. We need better, more effective laws, and in many areas prohibition.

  4. The OWB being used in this picture was an older model and not up to the recent EPA certifications. The man using it didn't care how it affected his neighbors. He didn't care if it made his neighbors sick. And when told it was making his neighbors sick he said he didn't care and burned more and more frequently. He was a bully burner, and all he cared about was saving a buck. Innocent people should be protected from people like this one.

  5. The problem with using opacity as a smoke measurement technique (in addition to the training needed to judge 20% from 40%) is that measurements must be made in a portion of the plume where there is no condensed water vapor (steam). On cold winter days (0 F or below), a typical wood stove plume is nearly completely obscured by steam, making opacity measurements impossible. There is a need for better measurement methods.

  6. Interesting how many places have the caution that wood smoke should NOT be a nuisance to others. Obviously this is a complaint based system which thus puts the responsibility on others not the wood burners to complain, allowing the whole issue to fester needlessly. In matters of health, officials should demand best technology, and sorry, wood just doesn't meet the standards in crowded areas. Rural places, who cares!

  7. neighbors smoke from him burning wet unseasened wood the smoke comes in my house i have breathing problems its effecting my health i need help

  8. I live in a residential neighborhood in southern California. I have a neighbor that runs a barbecue smoker 3 or more nights a week, year around . I'm really sick of breathing the acrid wood smoke. Keeping the windows closed doesn't even keep it out of my house, and I have tried to locate where it is coming from with no success, because they only run the smoker after dark. I'm 68 yrs old, I've lived in my house over 30 years, and the wood smokers became popular 10 or 15 yrs ago. I wish they were against the law where houses were closer than a 1,000 ft apart !