About nine years ago, April and Greg Bodette of Glover decided to get an outdoor wood boiler. They’d previously used a wood stove to heat their house, but the smoke and dust was a major drawback: They believed the stove contributed to their allergies.
“We seemed to have colds a lot, and three out of the five of us have allergies, so it was horrible,” April Bodette said. “We still wanted to burn wood, though, which is less expensive.”
Their health problems improved dramatically when they got the outside furnace, she said. If they moved, the one thing she’d really want to take is the furnace. “I love it.”
But apparently no renewable energy source — not even wood, Vermont’s old standby — is without its downside.
In Newfane, Gary and Ellen Roffman don’t go outside much, particularly on overcast days. And much of the time they don’t let their nine-year-old daughter go out to play; they take her to a playground or somewhere away from home.
The problem is a neighbor’s outdoor wood boiler, which is roughly 200 feet from their house. The heating system has been operated legally, though under a new law passed by the Legislature this year, its days could be numbered.
“We can’t even work in our yard a lot of days because the smoke is so bad,” Gary Roffman said. “Some days, even when the windows are closed, the smoke kind of seeps into the house. The really bad days are when it’s humid out, or raw, and it keeps the smoke close to the ground and it doesn’t dissipate.”
He said they haven’t suffered serious health problems, but he believes that’s because they don’t go outside a lot. If they do, they cough.
For the last 10 years, the Roffmans have limited their time outdoors because they’ve had no recourse. Their neighbors have pooh-poohed their concerns, he said, and though they have considered moving they don’t want their daughter to have to change schools. They also believe their property value is significantly lowered by the neighbors’ outdoor wood furnace. “We’d have to say (to a potential buyer) you realize you’re going to be next to one of these things.”
Their situation could be remedied by S.239, a bill that regulates older outdoor wood boilers that were grandfathered in as emissions standards became more stringent. Gov. Jim Douglas signed the bill earlier this month.
The new regulation is basically complaint driven.
“It’s for all the wood boilers that don’t currently meet our standards,” said Tony Klein, chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “It’s strictly a voluntary retirement program.”
Outdoor wood boilers within 200 feet of health care facilities, schools, and other public places, however, must be replaced. “If it’s the hospital stuff, they don’t have a choice; they have to get rid of it,” Klein said.
But those that are a nuisance to neighbors will be inspected on a case-by-case basis.
The Agency will examine outdoor boilers only if two legitimate formal complaints are lodged. If inspectors conclude the situation is dire enough, the agency would offer financial help to replace the heating system.
The legislation sets aside money from an air pollution case involving American Electric Service Corporation, which gives Vermont $360,000 a year for five years, Klein said.
“I would imagine it’s going to be used to try and mitigate the worst of the worst,” he said.
Although the program is voluntary, “if you’ve got Joe Vermonter out there who hasn’t got a pot to piss in,” why wouldn’t he take advantage of the chance to get a new boiler that would be paid for by the state and burn wood far more efficiently? Klein said. “If it’s really egregious, you get a new rig, and it will use less fuel. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to do that?”
The Roffmans are hopeful the new regulation will help to mitigate their situation.
Greg Bodette finds it problematic. “This is kind of scary,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to buy a new furnace.”
How much financial help a person would get would, again, be a case-by-case decision, Klein said.
Jaret Judd, who works at the Farmyard Store in Derby, which sells the units, said an outdoor boiler costs around $11,000.
Greg Bodette said one of the main reasons he likes the outside boiler is that it eliminates the possibility of a chimney fire. Everybody who burns wood goes to bed at night and worries about a chimney fire, he said.
Safety is a huge issue, although both cost and health are also factors. “If I had to buy oil, I’d be spending between $4,000 and $5,000 a year,” he said.
The advantage of using an outdoor wood boiler is clear, he said. “All of your wood mess is outdoors, no bugs in the house, no dust, no ash. You can use bigger wood, lower quality wood.”
He said he took his woodstove out five years ago and replaced it with an outside wood boiler. It heats his home, his hot water, and his sugarhouse with a single unit. “Anyone with asthma or breathing problems, the dust, the smoke, the mold, is outside.”
Good for the homeowner, but not necessarily a boon for the neighbors. There have been complaints in Glover about an outside furnace, although not the Bodettes’, said Town Clerk Donna Sweeney.
Phil Etter, an environmental analyst at the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, said the emissions from outside wood boilers can be serious. “First of all, wood smoke is hazardous,” he said. “It contains particulate matter. It does cause lung problems. People who think that wood smoke is natural and safe are incorrect.”
He said he hears complaints about smoke alarms going off inside neighbors’ homes because of a wood boiler.
The new law should address the most egregious nuisance cases, he said. Estimates are hard to come by, Etter said, but there are probably roughly 4,000 outside boilers in the state. “Most of those are older ones,” he said. “The new style ones have only come onto the market in the past few years. The newest ones are going quite well.”
“The whole northern tier of states is having serious problems,” Etter said. “Maryland has a regulation. New York has just proposed a regulation. We firmly believe that burning wood can be done cleanly. There’s such an incredible push to find alternative energy sources. Everyone is looking at what they call biomass, which is mainly wood. But wood produces fine particulates. If we get too much wood-burning, it’s going to degrade our air quality.”
The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has a Web site called vtwoodsmoke.org, which has posted information about outside wood boilers. It says that older models tend to cause dense smoke that affects neighbors who complain about nuisance and health problems.
According to the Web site, most of the old boilers are equipped with very short stacks that disperse smoke poorly. Often, the furnaces are also used to heat hot water or swimming pools in the summer when neighbors have their windows open and “are trying to enjoy the outdoors.”
The American Lung Association has been fighting against use of uncertified outdoor wood boilers for a number of years, said Rebecca Ryan director of health promotion and public policy for the organization.
Ryan says the association applauded ANR’s new emission standards several years ago, but “we were disappointed when the old units were grandfathered.”
“Even more troublesome was that many were installed before the 1997 regulations requiring setback distances from the nearest residence, school or health care facility and a certain stack height,” Ryan said. “So neighbors living near outdoor wood boilers continued to inhale dangerous pollution from wood smoke; some exhausted all options, including lawsuits; some gave up and moved away, but most quietly suffered.
“It’s not perfect, but S.239 will eliminate tons of air pollution and a major health hazard for neighbors who are sick and tired of inhaling dangerous toxins,” Ryan said. “One person’s heating source should not be another person’s health hazard.”
The Northeastern Vermont Development Association is working with towns to adjust zoning regulations to take state rules into consideration. “In general, communities are wondering if they’re regulated, and they are by the state,” said Laurie Stillwell at NVDA.
Outdoor wood boilers are fine if they are sited properly, if the smokestacks are tall enough, and if people burn the right kind of wood, Stillwell said.
Fuels that can legally be burned are regulated by the state.
Jim Ferguson at the Troy Planning Commission said his town is adjusting its zoning to the new regulations. “We won’t allow them in the village of North Troy and the hamlet of Troy,” he said. “Our previous zoning regulations didn’t have anything about outdoor boilers.”
He said the units aren’t suitable for certain locations, particularly densely populated areas.
The most efficient, and safest, wood-burning units are pellet stoves, Etter said.
There are pros and cons to every alternative energy source, Etter said, and it’s important to evaluate them. “I’m not sure we all have the insights to see the future clearly.”