Controversy over outdoor boilers in Utah

Smoky Outdoor BoilerUtah is moving quickly (voting today or tomorrow) to overturn legislation regulating outdoor boiler installation in an area with air quality problems. You can read all about it here.

There are questionable claims about boilers being cleaner-burning than indoor stoves, and differences in the ways stoves are measured for particulate output (indoor stoves are rated in grams per hour; boilers in pounds per million BTU).

Rather than addressing these issues, I’d like to talk about a problem that is being totally ignored — and that’s the quality of firewood and the burning methods used by many people with boilers. The sheer size of the firebox and the immense fire it contains invites poor practices.

Since a boiler may have a 2’ x 2’ loading door, many people assume it’s okay to burn large, unsplit rounds. Splitting into smaller pieces, even quarters, provides for a much cleaner fire.

A lot of people believe it’s standard practice to throw a few big, damp pieces in to “keep her going overnight.”

Many of us grew up in the “burn barrel” days where that’s how you disposed of much of your trash. To us, the outdoor boiler seems like a far better receptacle than that old rusty 55 gallon drum. A farmhouse I rented 20 years ago had a pit for burning trash. We stop short of realizing that better is still a long way from acceptable.

The biggest problem, I believe, is insufficiently dried wood. A man I spoke to in upstate New York told me his neighbor with a smelly, smoky Phase 2 boiler boasts that his oak woodpile is seasoned for a full six months. Large oak splits, 24” long are NOT going to season in six months.

This final issue — the “quality” of the firewood being burned — is where we’d like to shift the focus. Yes, there are horribly engineered boilers out there — but the Phase 2 boilers will smoke and stank when loaded with sub-par firewood, too.

Some people like their steak rare and some like it well done. Firewood is not like that — it is like undercooked chicken. Burning wood with a moisture content much above 20% is like eating a chewy, bloody piece of chicken. It’s not a good time for anyone.

While I don’t agree that boilers are cleaner than indoor stoves in any meaningful way that applies to most residential installations, I have seen many modern boilers that burn without smoke or smell when fed with quality seasoned firewood (kiln dried would be even better, but prohibitively expensive in such a large unit).

An inherent “flaw” in outdoor boilers — is simply that their firebox size invites misuse that can result in a problem for an entire neighborhood. With a good boiler, the problem may simply be not understanding the requirements for properly burning wood. Not dry enough, not split enough, not hot enough — and not letting it burn in cycles.

The NFA will continue to push for more efficient and cleaner burning stoves, but if we could get more people to understand and address the lack of knowledge in the nature of firewood fuel, we’d have a cleaner environment and happier neighbors.

You can buy a moisture meter for about $20.00. Go to your woodpile and split open the largest piece you can find. Probe it in the middle of a freshly-split side. 20% is the goal. Measure a few more pieces.

Understand that every 1% of moisture content represents a 1% loss in heat output (in BTUs).

I feel bad for the companies who have invested in developing and manufacturing these boilers. But it is apparently a product that many end-users don’t understand how to use. I hate to see the manufacturers suffer from the misuse of their products, but I suspect that’s the real issue here. I’d also hate to see government officials coming to inspect our wood piles.

It’s our job, as firewood producers and consumers, to educate our customers, friends and family on the properties of acceptable firewood. It is not damp, it is not moldy, it is not punky. It is lightweight and rings when two pieces are knocked together — and when measured with a moisture meter, registers 20% or less.

Please let me know your thoughts,

Scott Salveson
Executive Director, NFA