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Editorial: State on right track with outdoor wood boiler regulations

Editorial: State on right track with outdoor wood boiler regulations

Boilers provide great heat relatively cheaply, but burn too dirty

Owners of outdoor wood boilers are fired up about regulations the state Department of Environmental Conservation is working on that would restrict their use of the money-saving alternative heating systems.

The boilers are used in place of gas- or oil-fired furnaces for steam or hot-water heating systems. As a story in the last Sunday’s Gazette indicated, they work great and produce considerable savings, but they also generate air pollution. And because their stacks are shorter than the average chimney, only six to 10 feet high, the pollution doesn’t dissipate well. So it can create not just aesthetic issues but serious respiratory problems for users as well as neighbors. (Burning wood produces lots of carbon monoxide and benzene, which is bad news for people with asthma and other respiratory woes. And that’s just clean wood; tossing a piece of varnished or chemically treated wood or other waste material on the fire makes the emissions even more toxic. Doing so is illegal, but virtually impossible to enforce. Thus, it’s virtually an honor system.)

A number of communities across the state, including some in this region, have imposed moratoriums on new boilers, as well as regulations governing setback requirements and stack height, among other things. The regulations under development by the DEC would reportedly mirror some of these. They would obviously add to the cost of some installations while rendering others illegal, which is why people have been bombarding DEC and newspapers including this one with letters of protest.

But the regulations are needed. The federal Environmental Protection Agency passed voluntary guidelines for manufacturers a couple of years ago, and some of the furnaces now on the market burn cleaner as a result. But not all. And cleaner really isn’t clean enough: The units still produce about three times more smoke and up to three times as much fine particulate matter as traditional wood stoves (equipped with catalytic converters).

Proponents of these furnaces like to say that wood was around as a heat source long before heating oil and natural gas, and that’s certainly true. But there were a lot fewer people around in those days and air pollution wasn’t yet a twinkle in some industrialist’s eye. Even in a relatively sparsely populated, rural area, one or two wood boilers can make a huge difference in air quality. The sooner the state regulates them, the better.

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