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Outdoor wood furnaces like this one are becoming popular as people seek to reduce high heating-oil bills. Local governments are also seeking to regulate them because of the low-lying smoke they generate in their neighborhood. (Staff Photo/Lohr McKinstry)

PORT HENRY — Some people have found a way to bring down their heating costs without worrying about the price of fuel oil.

Outdoor wood furnaces that pipe hot-water heat into homes are becoming incredibly popular with homeowners — and the wood they burn is much cheaper than oil.

But the smoke sometimes creates friction between neighbors, who say the units are a health hazard when emissions drift across property lines, forcing them to breathe the smoke-filled air.



REGULATIONS

The complaints from those who live next door to the outdoor furnaces often prompt municipalities to consider regulating them.

That’s what happened in Chesterfield, Town Supervisor Gerald Morrow said.

“We had complaints of smoke going into neighbors’ windows. We found there are no state regulations on outside wood furnaces.

The Chesterfield Town Planning Board reviewed a local law, Morrow said, and the town adopted it on May 1.

He said he reviewed regulations imposed by towns in several states and came up with a local law that was right for Chesterfield.

Essex County Associate Planner Garret Dague said so far Chesterfield is only the only Essex County community to regulate outdoor wood furnaces. The Village of Port Henry is considering regulation, as are some other towns.

In Clinton County, the Town of Peru has placed a moratorium on any new outdoor wood furnaces while it considers adopting regulations for them. Franklin County municipalities, including the Village of Malone, say they haven’t adopted any regulations yet.



SHORTER CHIMNEYS

Dague said he hasn’t seen many of the furnaces in Chesterfield, but four or five are visible from Route 9 in Lewis.

“The new ones are supposed to be more efficient. Some of the ones I’ve seen are very smoky. I think that’s the main issue with them, because of the height of their chimneys.”

Most outdoor wood furnaces have chimneys only six to 10 feet high, compared with 20 to 50 feet for a house. That means most of the smoke from the furnace stays in the neighborhood, instead of being carried upward with wind currents.



POLLUTION

Wood smoke contains dust and soot particulates that include carcinogens, and federal regulators are working with furnace manufacturers to make the next generation of outdoor furnaces much cleaner.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesman John Millet said the agency wants better wood furnaces.

“They can be cleaner. We’re looking at a range of about 70 percent cleaner.”

That means a more efficient combustion process, Millet said, and redesigned units are hitting the market now.

An outdoor wood-fired boiler is actually a small shed, with a firebox inside that heats water piped to a home for heating.

The older furnaces burn at low efficiency, as low as 50 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The low efficiency is also what creates so much smoke.

“One (furnace) can put out as much air pollution in the form of fine particulate matter as four idling diesel trucks,” air-quality consultant Paul Miller said. “If you have two or three of these things in your neighborhood, you have a truck stop.”

Outdoor wood boilers have been banned in some places, including Washington state.



VILLAGE WEIGHS LOW

Port Henry Village Mayor Gary Cooke said they’re considering a local law that would regulate outdoor wood furnaces.

He said the problem he sees with outdoor furnaces is that the chimneys on many of them are too short.

“The smoke from the furnace stays at a lower level. That’s bad. If the furnace was fitted with a longer chimney it would put the smoke at the rooftop level. That would be preferable.”

He said the older furnaces do not burn cleanly.

“In looking at these furnaces, they smolder when they’re not generating heat. That creates smoke. I like the idea of burning wood, but an indoor wood stove is much more efficient. We should encourage people to do this correctly.”

Port Henry resident Carl Gifaldi was one of the first in the village to install an outdoor wood boiler.

He said he estimates he’s reducing his heating bill by two-thirds, but it’s a lot more work to run an outdoor furnace.

“There’s a lot of (wood) handling involved. It can be quite an exercise.”

Each cord of wood weighs about 5,000 pounds, he said.



PERMIT REQUIRED

Chesterfield Town Supervisor Gerald Morrow said the town considered imposing a six-month moratorium on new furnaces, then decided to pass a local law now because many people wanted to install them over the summer.

The furnaces will be able to be operated only from Sept. 1 to May 31 in the town’s hamlet areas, which also applies to owners who heat their water with the furnaces.

“People open their windows for fresh air in the summer, and all of a sudden smoke is blowing into their house,” Morrow said. “Which is more important, the health of the neighbor or heating your water?”

The installation and use of an outdoor furnace will require a $30 permit in Chesterfield, the same as wood stoves do now, but anyone with an existing furnace won’t be required to pay the fee.

The Town of Chesterfield Outdoor Furnace Local Law allows only wood and untreated lumber to be burned in an outdoor wood furnace and imposes a 200-foot setback and chimney-spark-arrester requirements.

If the furnace is not 200 foot away from neighbors, a chimney extension is required, Morrow said.

“There were such short stacks the smoke was rolling along the ground. If they’re within the setback, what they have to do is put their chimney higher than the nearest roof next to them.”

Local vendors of the furnaces said they understood the need to regulate them, Morrow said.

He estimated about 50 of the furnaces are in use now in Chesterfield.

“I’m sure there will be a lot more in the future,” Morrow said. “They are popular.”



E-mail Lohr McKinstry at:

lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com

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