December 28, 2010

Outdoor biomass furnaces could be banned in Connecticut

Connecticut is a state looking for renewable energy sources, where wood is in abundant supply. But one method of heating with renewable fuel, outdoor wood furnaces, could be all but banned under terms of a bill to be introduced next General Assembly session.

State Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chair of the General Assembly's Environment Committee, said he has received so many complaints about the units, which resemble small metal sheds with round stacks, that he will introduce a bill to outlaw them for everyone but farmers.

"I was getting messages from homeowners who were extremely concerned about smoke that was coming into their homes from wood burning furnaces," Meyer said. The furnaces currently are banned by local regulation in 14 towns.

The Connecticut Farm Bureau will oppose Meyer's bill despite its plan to exempt farmers, said Steven Reviczky, executive director of the non-profit group representing about 4,000 farmers. He said wood harvesting itself is farming, and a ban would eliminate a market for locally-produced renewable energy.

Reviczky also said the exemption wouldn't cover farmers using outdoor furnaces to heat their houses. He called the proposed ban "applying a sledgehammer to the problem when a scalpel is what's required."

Current state law says outdoor wood furnaces must be located at least 200 feet from the nearest neighbor, and the smokestacks must be higher than the nearest roofline. A health advocacy group in North Haven said that in many cases, the smoke travels much farther than 200 feet before dispersing. Particulate pollution from wood smoke is linked to respiratory problems.

Meyer said that the 2005 state law "increasingly appears not to be relevant."

Outdoor wood furnaces, also known as hydronic heaters, aren't federally regulated in the way that wood stoves are. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires newer wood stoves to be equipped with devices such as catalytic converters to cut back particulates going out the stack.

For outdoor wood furnaces, the EPA only suggests standards for cleaner burning. Twenty-three models of outdoor furnace now meet those standards, said David Deegan, an EPA spokesman in Boston.

"EPA is considering federal standards that reflect today's best demonstrated technology," Deegan said. He said a proposal would be out in June.

Nancy Alderman, the head of the non-profit organization, Environment and Human Health Inc., said that people who lived near outdoor furnaces came to them a few years ago, saying they could not stop the units' use through normal policy channels and that they were suffering from respiratory illnesses.

"These people are sick, and most of them can't sell their houses," said Alderman, who has previously lobbied for a bill to ban the units. EHHI's report on outdoor wood furnaces concludes that the units emit smoky plumes that hang in the air and then fall, rather than blowing up and away. Alderman believes that the basic design of these units is flawed.

"An indoor wood stove or fireplace, you put wood in it and it burns completely and hot. It will smoke quite a bit until it gets hot, but then it dissipates. An outdoor wood furnace never gets as hot," she said. "It's always cycling on and off. It heats a water jacket and then it's on and off, on and off, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The state does not disagree with this characterization. Jaimeson Sinclair, a supervising engineer in the state Department of Environmental Protection's air bureau, said that the fire burns cooler in outdoor furnaces because its function is only to heat a jacket of water around it, which in turn transfers heat from the unit to the house or other building via pipes.

"The fire doesn't burn at its normal combustion temperature," he said. "The water is removing heat from the fire too quickly."

Sinclair said that since the 2005 law limiting the siting and chimney heights went into effect, his office has fielded 932 complaints and issued 80 notices of violation. Of those, 16 owners were asked to fix or stop using their units.

He said his office does not have easily accessible data on how many individual units the 932 complaints covered because in some cases multiple calls were about one furnace. One in Brooklyn generated more than 100 complaints.

But Sinclair said the outdoor furnaces can be appropriate if sited in the right place. "It depends on the topography of your neighborhood." Thr DEP offers several factsheets on outdoor furnaces.

The 14 towns that have banned outdoor wood furnaces are: Granby, Tolland, Hebron, Woodbridge, South Windsor, Portland, Norfolk, Ridgefield, Haddam, Cheshire, West Hartford, Hamden, North Haven, and Avon.

A vocal opponent to a full ban is state Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, who said he wants to preserve "a whole menu of options for people if they don't want to use oil." Hurlburt said the outdoor furnaces should be regulated, and that he is not sure regulations are strong enough now. But he said the complaints are far outweighed by the units operating without any complaint.

Even though the state does not have a list of how many outdoor furnaces are sold or operating, Hurlburg estimates it at a few thousand. He said that last year there were 120 units that were the subject of complaints. "At this point, I think a ban is a pretty strong tool, especially when you look at the fact that there are multiple thousand units," he said. "Banning them is overstepping what needs to be done."

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