Outdoor wood-burning furnaces spark hot debate
In an attempt to cut expenses as fuel oil, natural gas and electricity costs soar, some homeowners are turning to outdoor wood-burning furnaces (OWFs) as an alternative heating source. Although only a few of them are in use on the Vineyard, where there's smoke, there's ire.
A cloud of controversy surrounding the outdoor furnaces' unregulated impact on health and air quality has settled over one Tisbury neighborhood, forcing town officials to consider whether to impose some restrictions on them.
An OWF is a wood-fired boiler usually located in a small, insulated shed with a smoke stack. The furnace is used to heat water that is carried through underground pipes to heat a home or building, hot water, a swimming pool, or a hot tub.
An outdoor wood-burning furnace on Greenwood
Avenue in Vineyard Haven. Photo by Ezra Blair
The popularity of OWFs is growing, especially in rural communities. From 1999 to 2004, 77,500 OWFs were sold nationwide at an average cost of $5,500, according to one report. Although they are not available in stores on-Island, several Vineyarders own them, according to John Schilling, Tisbury 's fire chief.
Last month, Chief Schilling brought the OWF issue to the attention of Tisbury's board of selectmen after receiving complaints about smoke and fumes from Larry Gomez, owner of the Greenwood House Bed & Breakfast. He lives two doors down from Peter Goodale, who uses an OWF at his house on the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Franklin Street.
His complaints were the first and only ones known to Ken Barwick, Tisbury's building and zoning inspector. "I know of three that are operating in town of Tisbury, including the one on Greenwood Avenue. I have not heard anything from any of the neighbors in and around the neighborhoods where these other units are located," he said.
Mr. Gomez followed up with a formal complaint to the selectmen last month. He told them that not only was he unable to sit out on his patio or leave his windows open because of the smoke, but also he worried about the health hazards associated with it.
"These units are spilling out six of the major carcinogens that are listed by the EPA emissions control," he said. The particulates the OWFs produce are too fine for a mask to filter, he added.
Although Mr. Goodale said Mr. Gomez never complained to him directly, he agreed his neighbor had a legitimate complaint when he first started up his outdoor furnace in December. The initial heavy smoke was caused by the burn-off of oils used in the furnace's manufacture, Mr. Goodale said.
Having read up on OWFs himself, Mr. Goodale believes the dangerous emissions Mr. Gomez talks about are associated with misuse. "In a lot of places, people are burning everything. If you are burning clean, dry wood, the emissions should be minimized," Mr. Goodale said.
Although his dual-fuel furnace can burn oil or wood, he uses wood. The oil tank was filled once this winter, Mr. Goodale said, and although the furnace has an oil-fired burner, the tank's gauge has barely moved.
With a good supply of wood he estimates will last 10 to 15 years, Mr. Goodale feels he is contributing to energy conservation by using a renewable fuel source instead of oil or propane, not to mention saving money. He loads the furnace once in the morning and once in the evening, and it provides 100 percent of his home's heat and hot water.
In response to Mr. Gomez's complaints, Chief Schilling and Mr. Barwick checked regulations and found that the state has no building or fire code governing the use, placement, construction or design of OWFs.
An absence of EPA standards or a town ordinance left little recourse for the Tisbury selectmen as well. They tasked John Bugbee, town administrator, to research OWF issues and find examples of ordinances other towns have passed.
Mr. Gomez said he was disappointed by the selectmen's failure to take action. Last week, he took his complaints to Tisbury's board of health, which instructed Tom Pachico, a selectman who also serves as a health inspector, to investigate what regulatory steps might be taken.
"We are working on it. I am getting information together, and the board of health is going to make a decision later," Mr. Pachico said. "I sent a package to [State] Senator O'Leary's office and have had conversations with the Department of Environmental Protection. It all goes back to a judgment call on my commissioners' part."
In the meantime, Mr. Gomez said he does give Mr. Goodale credit for taking steps to improve the situation. At Mr. Barwick's suggestion, Mr. Goodale increased the height of the furnace's smokestack from 8 feet to about 30 feet to lessen smoke at ground-level.
He also installed an oil burner to pre-fire the unit so it does not smoke as much when it fires up. In the summer when he does not need to burn wood for heating, Mr. Goodale said, he may switch to using just the oil burner for heating hot water, eliminating the smoke in the season when neighbors are outdoors more often.
The improvements brought mixed reviews from Mr. Gomez, who said, "Visually it looks better, but from a breathing standpoint, what is still out there is the residue from the burning, the particulates in the air."
He suggested to the board of health that Tisbury should issue a moratorium on new OWFs first, and then turn attention to drafting an ordinance regulating the ones in operation.
Several states already have wrestled with the question of whether to impose OWF regulations at the state or local level. Connecticut, Vermont, and Washington, regulate OWFs by state laws, while California and New York regulate them through city, town, and village ordinances.
Regulatory attempts have met with mixed public reaction. At a recent health department hearing in La Crosse, Wisconsin, strong public opposition to a proposed ordinance to regulate OWFs led county officials to postpone their decision and consider deferring the matter back to the towns.
OWF ordinances that have been enacted in other states range from restrictions on setback distances, chimney height, terrain, type of fuel, and population density, to outright bans.
Last August, Eliot Spitzer, New York's Attorney General, released a report by the state's environmental protection bureau documenting air pollution and health problems associated with OWFs. Attorney Spitzer used the report as the foundation for a petition calling for the EPA to set limits on emissions from OWFs, joined by the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, and Vermont.
Although OWFs are advertised as a clean, economical heating source, the report said they may be among the dirtiest and least economical modes of residential heating, especially when users burn materials other than seasoned wood. Even when used properly, the report found OWFs emit about 12 times as much fine particulate matter as wood stoves certified by the EPA.
The report attributed possible short-term health problems such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing and shortness of breath, and long-term health problems such as asthma, heart and lung disease, and cancer, to the effects of pollution from OWFs.
However, despite such studies, public opinion about the furnaces remains divided.
If nothing else, Mr. Gomez said he hopes his complaints about OWFs start a dialogue in the community. "It may not be in your back yard today, but it might be tomorrow," he warned.