Cleaner outdoor wood boilers touted

10/24/08 7:34AM By John Dillon
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(Host) With oil prices high and winter on the way, Vermonters are turning back to wood for heat.

But many outdoor wood heaters are smoky and inefficient. As a result, state environmental regulators have imposed tough standards to control the pollution.

On Thursday, government officials joined with the heater industry to unveil a new generation of cleaner-burning wood heaters.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The mountains above Waterbury were dusted with a touch of snow and a cold wind blew over the green at the state office complex.

Which made the warmth from the large outdoor heater all the more welcome.

(Breen) "If you can look in there, you can see - you see the little sparks! That's the gasses actually being combusted."

(Dillon) Jerry Breen is a regional manager for Greenwood, a wood heater manufacturer whose furnaces employ clean-burning technology.

As Breen explains, these are not your father's outdoor wood burners.

(Breen) "The industry's been around for about 20 years and there are 30 to 35 manufacturers of wood boilers. And over the years, they've been terribly inefficient. And not just inefficient, but real polluters, bad emissions."

(Dillon) The smoke produced by the older wood heaters contains high levels of particulates - tiny, toxic particles that can cause serious health problems. In response, Vermont environmental officials drafted new rules to control the pollution.

At about the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began encouraging the industry to develop cleaner burners. The combination of the voluntary effort and the regulatory pressure led to a new generation of wood heaters.

Robert Varney is regional administrator for the EPA. He says that the manufacturers are now making heaters that reduce emissions by up to 90 percent.

(Varney) "So this is achieving a huge public health benefit by using the existing market, a voluntary type approach. And then to have the states - on a state by state basis - adopt a model rule and modify for the specifics for each state so that you have some of those protections as well."

(Dillon) On the green in Waterbury, there's a slight whiff of firewood. But very little smoke is coming from the Greenwood heater.

Company rep Jerry Breen says the wood is burned through a two stage process. Stage one heats the logs and releases gases. In stage 2 the gases burn at temperatures up to 2-thousand degrees.

(Breen) "And that's where we're getting our efficiency and that's where we're getting our complete burn. We're completely burning the fuel. With an incomplete burn you end up with all the ash, all the residue and all the smoke.''

(Dillon) The Greenwood heater costs about $10,000 and - depending on the house -- uses five to 10 cords a year.

The state estimates that there are several thousand of the dirtier wood heaters in use around Vermont. Officials hope that people will replace them with the cleaner technology as soon as possible.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Waterbury.

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