When Smoke Gets In Your Skies

January 19, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — It could be illegal to install an outdoor furnace or boiler to heat a home or business within the city starting tomorrow.

Commissioners are likely to ban those devices, which burn wood, wood pellets, corn and other renewable energy sources, because the city sees the boilers as being unhealthy.

"It's a renewable energy source and we want renewable energy sources, but not at any cost," said Mayor George Heartwell.

Four city departments, including the fire department, reported the current technology for outdoor furnaces and boilers is "rudimentary" and the devices have a number of adverse effects on air quality, fire safety, public health and quality of life in the neighborhoods.

Assistant City Planning Director Elizabeth Byron said outdoor furnaces produce too much smoke and odor, and aren't regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. She said the state's Department of Environmental Quality is concerned about the boilers because the amounts of emissions from these products vary widely. The DEQ reported that boilers create more pollution than indoor wood stoves because the outdoor furnaces burn wood at lower temperatures.

But Central Boiler, a leading supplier of outdoor furnaces based in Greenbush, Minn., said tests conducted by the EPA found emissions coming from the boilers were similar to those of indoor stoves. The firm also said burning wood doesn't add more carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere as fossil fuels do, and having a boiler outside of a home should result in fewer house fires.

Byron, though, said Central Boiler also reported that these furnaces "would not be the best choice in densely populated areas."

Byron told commissioners the excessive amount of smoke produced by the boilers is the main complaint other governments have received about outdoor furnaces. And because of the immediate health impact of particulate emissions on people with respiratory diseases, she said these devices must be kept away from residential neighborhoods.

First Ward Commissioner James Jendrasiak said outdoor furnaces are a new technology and improvements could lower smoke emissions in the immediate future. He suggested that the city find another way to regulate the devices instead of an outright ban.

"It could be a good thing," he said of the outdoor furnaces. "A total prohibition could be restrictive."

But commissioners are leaning toward prohibiting the use of such furnaces within the city, and without a public hearing on the issue. Should they do that, the ban would go into effect tomorrow. Third Ward Commission Elias Lumpkins said if future models reduce smoke emissions the city could amend its ban.

Outdoor boilers use wood to heat water that is pumped through underground pipes to a home's existing heating system, such as a forced-air furnace, radiant baseboards or radiant floors. A boiler can be located up to 500 feet away from a house.

The city's Environmental Protection Services Department would enforce the ban. But Byron pointed out that little enforcement activity is expected, as a potential user must get a construction permit for an outdoor furnace and a permit would be denied.

Byron said she was aware of two boilers operating within city limits. One was installed illegally and was removed, while the other is being investigated. She said if any others are legally operating in the city, those units would be allowed to continue operating.    

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