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Tackling the wood smoke problem in your community

Some communities suffer from serious winter air pollution from residential wood heating but their leadership may be uncertain how they can reduce it without causing a big fight that pits neighbor against neighbor.

The amount of air pollution from wood burning can be reduced substantially, but it can’t be done instantly and it can’t be done just by town council without buy-in from the public and the local businesses that support people’s use of wood fuel.

There are three essential elements that must all be present to reduce emissions:

* advanced technology, EPA certified, appliances,
* correctly prepared and fully seasoned firewood, and
* appliance operators who use good burn techniques.

The right appliance, good fuel and an informed user all work together to reduce smoke emissions. The reason we have complaints about nuisance wood smoke and see thick plumes of smoke from some people’s chimneys is because these three things are not present.

Let’s take a hypothetical community with a wood smoke problem to see how its residents and community leaders can work together to solve it.

The first step is to acknowledge there is a problem by publicizing some complaints about nuisance wood smoke and the general poor air quality on some days. Articles in the local newspapers and in the newsletters from the town council are inexpensive ways to get the word out. There is nothing like a photo of a smoke haze over town or a huge plume from a chimney to show there is a problem. The town council could also host public information sessions to introduce the subject. A questionnaire could be circulated to gauge public opinion on the subject.

In this community, as in virtually all others, only a minority of the people who burn wood at home use up-to-date EPA certified appliances, so one of the long-term strategies is to encourage everyone to upgrade their equipment as soon as they can. A series of incentives can be offered to ease the expense involved in upgrading:

* Calculations showing the annual fuel savings from increased efficiency of advanced technology equipment could be publicized. Most people are not aware this one step could cut fuelwood consumption by up to a third.
* Low or no interest loans could be offered in which the loan is repaid from the first few years of savings. Perhaps local banks could offer loan programs of this type.
* There may be subsidies available to help low-income households upgrade their systems. Some types of home renovation grants can be applied to the upgrading of heating systems.
* Local stove dealers and their suppliers could offer limited-time discounts on new appliances in what have become called ‘wood stove changeout’ programs. Various community partners can collaborate to make the campaign a success.
* A by-law could be enacted making it illegal to use conventional wood burners during moderate air pollution alert days. When a serious air pollution alert is called, all wood burning could be prohibited. An exception could be offered to householders who have no other heating option but wood. This two-stage bylaw has three main objectives. First, to reduce pollution to improve air quality. Second, to send a message to the public that wood smoke pollution is a serious problem. And third, to provide an incentive to upgrade from conventional to advanced technology equipment.
* Another element of the by-law could be a requirement that conventional wood burning equipment must be removed or upgraded to advanced technology upon a change of ownership of a property.

Using all of these strategies over a period of years would accelerate the rate of changeout of old smoky wood burning systems and go a long way to cutting wood smoke emissions. They aren’t enough on their own, though, because we still need to deal with the other two essential ingredients: good fuel and good user technique. Plus, we have to help those people who are afflicted by a neighbor who by ignorance or negligence makes a lot of smoke.

The first step in dealing with people who make a lot of smoke is to get across the idea that a blue-grey smoke plume pouring from a chimney is a sign of incompetence on the part of the homeowner. Over a period of time the objective is to create a consensus that visible smoke at the top of a chimney is considered anti-social behavior. Yes, we are talking here about shaming people who frequently or continuously make thick plumes of smoke.

The town council could invite people who are seriously bothered by a neighbor’s smoke to submit a complaint. A letter could be sent by council’s bylaw officer asking the offender to clean up his/her act. A date and time stamped photograph of the house and smoke plume could serve as proof. The wood smoke by-law could contain a clause empowering council to levy a fine for repeat offences. Obviously, all these tactics need to be used incrementally and in moderation.

A wood heat workshop, co-hosted by local partners, could be presented at least once each winter to offer advice to those who heat with wood and to update the public on progress in tackling the smoke problem. The local partners could include town council, the fire department, wood heat retailers, chimney sweeps, firewood suppliers, and insurance brokers. These workshops can be fun and entertaining, with such creative options as a raffle for a cord of wood or other valuable products and services, or a firewood clinic in which people bring in a sample of their firewood to have its moisture tested.

To promote public acceptance of the project’s objectives, a number of principles should be followed by the community leaders who spearhead the wood smoke project.

* Treat people with respect. Understand that people who heat with wood take pride in their ability to keep their families warm through their hard work and ingenuity.
* Treat wood burning as an essential part of many family’s lives, one that needs to be improved, not eliminated.
* All ignorance is not necessarily wilful ignorance. Lots of people genuinely do not know how to burn wood well. At least initially, assume that what they need is help to do better, not abuse or condescension.
* Don’t expect instant results. Reducing wood smoke involves as much social change as technological change. Put together a five year plan and review progress as it is implemented.

The most important step is the first one, which is to make a commitment to reduce wood heat-related air pollution. There is now solid evidence showing that wood smoke can be reduced when communities get serious about solving their air quality problem.

Editorial Notes: From the website: The woodpile is a forum for discussion of the future of residential wood heating in an era of energy price and supply uncertainty and concerns over the health impacts of wood smoke. To state our views up front: Although we heat with wood, we don’t like wood smoke and want to do everything we can to reduce it. One of our interests is to engage those who express anti-wood burning views and promote anti-wood burning policies to help them see that an anti-wood smoke stance is likely to be more productive in the long run. Plus they’ll have us as allies. Having spent much of our working lives in the wood burning field, we know the technical and policy issues and, being wood burners ourselves, we know why people heat with wood and what can be done to help them burn wood better.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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