Wood Heating Update

After a little grousing about wood stove regulations, our resident curmudgeon finds something to cheer about on the wood heating front.

| October/November 1994

  • 146 wood stove - main diagram
    Modern wood stoves combine an insulated firebox and engineered airflows to burn cleanly enough for EPA standards without using a catalytic combuster.
  • 146 wood heating 1 old fashioned woodcut
    Uncomplicated fireboxes like this one once performed double duty as wood heating appliances and cookstoves.

  • 146 wood stove - main diagram
  • 146 wood heating 1 old fashioned woodcut

For some years now, this writer has made no secret of a personal distaste for the cozy relationship that exists among the lobbyist/lawyers for a few left-wing environmentalist groups, the fortune 500 makers of catalytic wood smoke combusters, and EPA and state bureaucrats who are ever eager to expand their turf by widening the impact of federal environmental legislation. In "friendly" lawsuits, this cabal exploited federal and state clean air laws into slapping fuel-efficiency and smoke-emissions limits on all new stoves sold in the U.S. — and did it so quickly that the fragmented wood-burning stove industry couldn't mount an organized resistance and the average wood-burning consumer never had a chance to comment.  

The few U.S. wood stove makers that survived the end of the 70s wood heating boom elected to "join 'em, not fight 'em." They retooled and — overnight it seemed — began producing stoves equipped with catalytic combusters and automated draft controls that made them boxy, wheezy, unresponsive, cold burning, and overpriced compared to the free-breathing predecessors. They did burn clean — but offered a significant benefit in only a handful of inversion-prone Rocky Mountain valleys like Vail, Colorado, and Missoula, Montana, or Pacific Coast smog basins burdened with such cities as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland. Though the offending smoke came from only a few yuppie ski resorts, upscale suburbs, and college towns where burning wood was more an exercise in political correctness than a heating necessity, the restrictions were applied wholesale and nationwide. The vast majority of American wood burners are country folks living in areas of normal airflow where smoke doesn't concentrate to noticeable — to say nothing of harmful — levels. They lack big-city incomes, burn wood to save money, and they suddenly had no choice in a new stove but a $1,500 catalytic.

There was, however, a quiet voice of reason somewhere in the regulation process. EPA restrictions were reserved only for the new "airtight" stoves — the ones that can be closed up and restrict airflow so that a fire smolders, producing the thick, acrid smoke that reputedly pitted paint on the ski condos in Vail and on professorial Volvos in Missoula. In the small print, the regulations exempted free-breathing (nonairtight) heating stoves, open-draft fireplaces, fireplace stoves, and cookstoves. Also, less restrictive emission standards were applied to noncatalytic airtight stoves — exemplified by the so-called high-techs that use an insulated firebox and sophisticated draft systems to burn cleanly without catalytic converters and robotic air controls.

Last year we reported on the popularity of older low-tech and no-tech stoves that escaped the government regulations, though they are still liable to restriction by local zoning boards, health commissions, and vigilante smog patrols. The old-timers can be bought and sold as used appliances, are reasonably priced, and lack the performance restrictions of the new models, so they retain their appeal for experienced country wood burners. Indeed, EPA or no, old-line U.S. and Canadian stove foundries never really stopped making traditional cooking ranges, 19th century-style log burners, and potbellies in several sizes. And after being quietly peddled while the application of the EPA regulations settled, the old designs (as well as copies from Taiwan) are once again appearing in hardware stores.

Last year (the 1993/1994 heating season) saw another joint exercise between government regulators and the new stove industry. In central New England, the newspapers began headlining a new "clean air program" being promoted by the government: inefficient and dirty-burning old wood stoves were worth a $200 trade-in toward a new EPA Phase-2 stove. A local reporter pinned down an extension service staffer as to where the idea and the rebate money originated. "Well, ah...from the stove shops?" was the sheepish reply. The government was "...umm, just encouraging retirement of old stoves. We all want cleaner air, you know." In other words, some enterprising stove peddlers managed to press enough flesh to convince the regulators to (what is the term ?)...shill for them. Or maybe it was the bureaucrats' idea. It doesn't much matter. Nothing illegal, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

At last report, they were trying to extend the "program" to other regions of the country. Lotsa luck. To be fair, in everything but cost, the newest Phase-2 catalytics are a great improvement over the earliest models. And $200 is a nice discount off a $750 to $1,500 stove — even though you can find pre-EPA "toilets" (the trade name for Taiwan-made copies of popular domestic designs) for about $200 in the un-EPA-restricted used appliance market. I don't know an owner of a really fine quality, brightly enameled, 70s Scandinavian-built Jotul or Morso, Irish-made Waterford, or Vermont Castings Defiant who would consider trading in their excellent old iron for a piddling $200. As the owner of a 20-year-old Jotul Combi put it: "Hell, I wouldn't swap this stove even for money for a shiny new government stove and a year's supply of firewood, split and stacked in the cellar."

10/23/2007 4:22:16 PM

Boy, I've been looking for a clear article to help me understand the difference in desirability between catalytic and non-catalytic wood stoves. Thanks!!!!!!


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