Is banning outdoor boilers the answer?

Smoky Outdoor Wood BoilerLast week we reported that Ithaca, New York has banned the use of outdoor wood boilers. While we’re fully sympathetic to the very real issue of wood smoke from improperly operated (or designed) boilers — we think that there has to be a better way to mitigate the problem than by an outright ban on what could be a clean-burning solution. EPA Phase 2 rated boilers have been available for years, and the newest designs are showing remarkable results in limiting emissions output.

Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock did an excellent job describing the problem. She identifies older, ill-informed designs that promote a slow-burning fire. She notes that some people burn their trash in them, and that many burn green wood for a number of reasons, one being limited availability of properly seasoned wood.

Only one of these reasons includes the boiler. It’s already illegal to burn trash, and virtually every community in America would benefit from better practices in choosing and burning wood. Burning wood that’s properly seasoned/dried to 20% moisture content or less is essential to burning wood responsibly. Even at 20%, you’re still boiling off 10 lbs of water for every 50 lbs of wood. Many people prefer kiln-dried wood, generally under 15% moisture content.

Unfortunately, Itasca’s ban forbids replacing the old boilers with clean, high-efficiency units — the rationale being that people cannot be trusted to operate them properly or choose appropriate fuel. This is unfortunate.

Others would like to see the ban include indoor wood stoves as well. The outdoor boilers are an easier target because local ordinances can dictate what you may have in your yard, but not inside your house. Again, this suggests that significant air quality improvements could be made with educational efforts aimed at firewood burning practices, and perhaps some scrutiny of the local firewood market.

When properly implemented, wood heat is a very responsible use of an abundant and sustainable resource in many parts of the country.