Burning a fire under furnace innovation: Impending regulations and tensions in the industry

Burning a fire under furnace innovation: Impending regulations and tensions in the industry

Lamppa Manufacturing welder Levi Niemi works on the fire chamber of a wood furnace. (Austin Keating)

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Business & Economics, Efficiency, Energy, Sustainability

TOWER, Minnesota – This small town of 500 is one of the two coldest places to live in the lower 48 states, according to average temperatures. It sits in a densely forested area just 30 miles away from the Canadian border, and 15 miles away from Embarrass, the other coldest lower-48th town. 

Citizens of Tower, a great many of whom descend from Finnish and Scandinavian settlers, are always prepared for the cold. Chimneys stretch from almost every home, and on an average day in February, thin wisps of lightly colored exhaust stream from many of the stacks, a signal they’re burning natural gas or propane in the below-freezing cold. Billowing smoke from burnt wood is a rare site, but a few chimneys are smoking. To save on utility bills, more will light-up as the cold sets in; diffusing clouds of micropollutants across the landscape, and inevitably, into neighbor’s noses.

At the edge of town, a 3rd generation Finnish stove and furnace maker, Daryl Lamppa, often shovels snow off the top of Lamppa Manufacturing Inc. When he does, he puts his head over his own wood-burning chimney and unflinchingly breathes in.

“Just as a joke, you know? Just cause it’s so clean,” the business-graduate-turned-engineer says.

He’s breathing in pollution – a mix of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and microparticles known to worsen and cause respiratory issues. But from a regulatory point of view, it’s the future of wood smoke – white water vapor and exhaust with so few particulates that it’s nearly indistinguishable from the modest wisps emitted by oil, propane or natural gas-fired heating devices.

The exhaust shoots up the chimney from the wood-burning Kuuma Vapor-Fire 100, designed by Lamppa and his father. It’s a furnace; a type of wood-heating device built to duct hot air to heat a whole home, usually from a basement. As of press time, it’s the only furnace to burn wood that’s been cut and then aged for a year, called “cord wood,” that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has certified as clean enough to be sold after 2020. Several other wood heating appliances that boil water to warm whole homes, called boilers, are also approved.

The EPA under President Obama’s administration enacted standards for residential wood-heating technology in 2015 that prohibit selling furnaces powerful enough to heat a whole house if they emit more than .95 pounds of particulate matter per million BTUs. The rule has caused three of Lamppa’s local competitors to take down their websites and close, rather than pay steep fines for each non-compliant device sold.

By 2020, phase two is scheduled to take effect and will require furnace manufacturers to lower their emissions 84% more. On April 16, the EPA filed a legal brief saying they intend on revising the 2020 emissions rules this Spring, likely granting the industry three extra years to design compliant appliances and other forms of relief. The House already passed legislation in March directing the EPA to extend the deadline, though the Senate so far hasn’t.

While Lamppa thinks the 2020 rule is fair and that he had ample time to refine his 30-year-old design to be EPA compliant since EPA first announced the standards in 2011, major U.S. furnace manufacturers that dwarf his company in sales have continually warned of an “economic disaster” for the industry.

Paul Williams of U.S. Stove, a top selling furnace manufacturer, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety in November 2017.

“People trust us and our products enough to have a live fire in their home. We take that responsibility seriously. We test our products for safety and durability, not just for emissions. We need more time to accomplish the task at hand,” Williams said in his testimony.

The Lamppas wrote to the subcommittee a month later, saying their small business was able to meet the deadline years early and had to spend much of their family savings to do it.

“To change the rules mid-stream would be incredibly unfair to Lamppa and any other companies that took the mandate and the timeline seriously,” they wrote.

“If we can do it, so can they,” Lamppa added later. “When I look at these results, I think these companies are going to have to completely rethink how they burn wood, redesign their furnaces, and retest again. When 2020 hits, a lot of them won’t be ready.”

As EPA moves to revise the 2020 emissions rules, it’s likely US Stove and other major manufacturers will have until 2023 to clean up their wood-burning appliances.

Furnace particulate matter
To be sold after 2020, the EPA requires manufacturers to design furnace technology that releases clean smoke, where test filters weigh below 0.15 pounds after a million BTUs are generated. So far, only one cord wood-burning furnace meets the standard, the Lamppa Vapor-Fire 100. A pellet-burning furnace called the AutoPellet Air would also meet the standard if the EPA accepted the European test method.

Dutch Dresser, founding director of Maine Energy Systems, sells another furnace that the EPA has certified to be sold up until 2020. His Austrian-designed and Maine-assembled AutoPellet Air furnace starts at $7,999. Since the AutoPellet Air uses low-moisture, pelletized wood, it has a natural emissions edge over furnaces that burn cord wood, as Lamppa’s does.

Despite the technical hurdle of having to lower efficiency to bake moisture out of cord-wood, Lamppa was still able to pass all four stages of EPA testing. Dresser hasn’t put his device through the same testing because he doesn’t have to until 2020. For now, EPA is accepting European test results that weigh particulates differently. 

“Temporarily, the EPA is recognizing the European testing as suitable demonstration of compliance. What I would like them to do is continue recognizing it as suitable beyond 2020 or 2023 if current legislation passes,” Dresser says. 

A war against smoke

Daryl Lamppa wasn’t always interested in the family stove-making business. But when the Gulf War was in full swing and fossil fuel prices skyrocketed, he saw a business opportunity. Initially he set out not to make another heating stove, which are small and ill-equipped to heat a whole home consistently. Rather, he chose to design a wood-burning furnace, which along with boilers, are built to heat whole homes.

He bought a furnace from a manufacturer in Wisconsin to heat his new home, and swiftly took it offline after a dangerous chimney fire.

“I used to load that thing at night and sit down in the basement for hours on end, looking and worrying, and then after that happened, I said, ‘No more of this, boy,’” Lamppa says. “When you’re sitting there chewing your fingernails every night, you can’t relax.”

In reverse engineering the furnace, he found the problem: smoke. It was only used for a short amount of time before the furnace lined his brand-new chimney with a flammable resin called creosote. The substance eventually ignited, though the fire didn’t escape the chimney, it just forced flames and ash out of the stack, blanketing the snow around his home with black soot.

The experience convinced Lamppa to design a replacement furnace that would emit far less smoke. In 1982, he and his father filed a patent for their “Kuuma” design, which touted what Lamppa now calls gasification.

“The only way to get rid of the smoke is you have to burn all the (liquids and) gases. And that’s what we’re doing,” he says. “I haven’t had to clean my chimney in 30 years.”

Smoke coming from a chimney represents wasted energy. In contrast to his now-shuttered competitors who opted to expel smoke as it was made, Lamppa designs provide the right amount of air, temperature, and time to completely burn the energy contained in smoke while keeping the furnace at a constant 220-degree temperature. As the smoke burns, inhalable particulates settle into a bed of ashes inside the fire box.

What’s ultimately emitted is exhaust that carries the same CO2 that would be generated by burning the same amount of wood in a bonfire, though the reaction releases far fewer carbon monoxide and inhalable particles.

Lamppa says the fundamentals of his Kuuma design haven’t changed much over the 30 years since he first started manufacturing them. Like the sauna stoves he also makes, the wood burns in a Finnish fashion – from front-to-back rather than from bottom-to-top.

In the late ‘80s as they started to sell their new furnaces, the Lamppas and every other stove maker in the country were hit with a regulation: to bring the weight of particles emitted per hour by stoves down to 7 grams.  

At the time, only heating stove manufacturers had to clean up their emissions. The EPA left wood furnaces and water boilers capable of warming whole homes alone, all the way up to 2015. The Lamppas successfully cleaned up their line of stoves to avoid fines that caused 90 percent of stove manufacturers to go out of business, says John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat.

Furnaces and boilers were hit with new emission regulations for 2015 and 2020 along with stoves. Since stoves went through it before, Ackerly says almost all manufacturers that specialize in that technology are weathering the storm.

“This time around, in the stove side of things, nobody has gone out of business, and it’s not clear that anybody will. The boiler and furnace industry is different,” Ackerly says. “You did have some mom and pop kind of shops that didn’t have any real capacity to improve much, so there have been a bunch of those that have gone out of business.”

While Ackerly says he doesn’t like businesses shutting down, he argues it’s necessary. The rules were generated by the EPA in part as a response to a lawsuit by states that wanted an emissions standard for whole-home wood-heating technology.

“If you’re having a big fire in your house to keep your house warm, there should be some safety and emissions regulations,” Ackerly says.

“It’s one thing if you’re in the middle of nowhere and your boiler’s just cranking out smoke 24/7. But with a lot of these, if you’re in a valley, even the next farm or house is a mile away. These valleys have inversions and that still poses a pretty serious ambient air quality issue,” he adds.

Distribution of wood-fired furnace users

Regulations make wood heat more expensive

Since the 2015 rule went into effect, water boilers have drastically risen in price. Furnaces have too, but stove prices have remained fairly level. With the rise in prices, retailers are struggling to sell to the historic audience of wood heating – the rural middle class.

“I think the EPA is going about cleaning up the air the wrong way, because they allow all the existing stock of wood burning appliances to exist. And they have driven the costs for new and cleaner equipment so high,” says Scott Nichols, a boiler retailer in New England for Tarm Biomass.

Nichols doesn’t sell outdoor boilers, but rather an indoor variety of wood-fired water-heating boiler mostly manufactured in Europe. He says emissions standards in America are stricter than in Europe. He believes under the upcoming 2020 rule, retailers won’t be able to sell and install boilers that burn cord wood without a thermal storage component, which costs somewhere in the ballpark of $3,000. Boilers that burn pellets, he says, don’t necessarily need the costly addition.

“I’ve got customers who have boilers that are 40 years old, HS Tarm boilers that are 40 years old. And I couldn’t discount my new boiler packages enough for these people to switch in most cases to a newer boiler. And meanwhile I continue to sell parts,” Nichols added.

States and non-profits have offered various buyback programs aimed at the oldest wood heat technology. In Minnesota, the Environmental Initiative is wrapping up a program called “Stove Swap,” where they would discount a brand-new wood-heating device by hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars if a resident turned in a stove, furnace or boiler built before the early ‘90s.

According to the Initiative’s website, swapping out such old technology can be the equivalent of removing 700 cars from the road per year, in terms of the particulates and carbon monoxide that’s prevented from reaching the atmosphere. Likewise, towns across the wood-burning states, like Tower, Minnesota, have put bans on smoky outdoor boilers.

Nichols says the EPA regulations give states a standard to work with. Communities can welcome boilers back in if they are EPA certified, and air quality would remain safe.

“We’re in a very different market than we were 10 years ago when outdoor boilers were at the height of popularity and there were no regulations. At that time, outdoor boilers were nothing more than a barrel in the middle of a box full of water,” Nichols says.

Nichols says buyback programs help, but that they don’t come close to stopping a worrying trend: His residential customer base has shrunk, and so he’s expanded his offering for commercial customers and parts.

“You can imagine someone sort of spreading out over thin ice. The wider you go, the less likely you are to fall through the ice,” Nichols says.

The regulations, he says, are hitting at a difficult time. Fossil fuel prices have been relatively stable and low, which harms wood-heating sales.

“When oil goes up, we sell more boilers. When oil is cheap we don’t sell as many,” Nichols says. He adds that the rise in price for wood heating is driving many to invest in heat pumps that store heat and pipe it back into a home gradually. The technology is inexpensive and subsidized, but in most cases, it can’t be used as the main central heating source of a home as boilers and furnaces are.

“We’re going to try to take market share from the smaller pie that’s left and hope that over time there are more policies that favor what it is we do,” he concludes.

Furnace industry sues EPA

When Daryl Lamppa became the first person to get on the EPA’s list of furnaces approved to be sold after 2020, he likely made the job of lawyers of the industry group he chooses not to be a part of, the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, a little harder.

HPBA has publicly endorsed the less strict 2015 regulations as necessary, opposing a bill that would have repealed the rules wholesale. However, in a lawsuit HPBA brought against the EPA, the group contends it’s unreasonable to ask that furnace, boiler and stove manufacturers achieve stricter compliance by 2020.

“(But) we got proof that it’s possible to do it,” Lamppa says, adding that the $5,000 pricetag of his Kuuma furnace hasn’t changed much over the past 10 years as he’s made improvements.

Even though building compliant devices can be done, HPBA argues in public comments from 2014 that following through on the rules will cause prices to soar too much, driving potential customers to hold onto older and dirtier wood heaters.

“Unregulated woodstoves are undoubtedly the largest contributor of national emissions, and the largest emission reductions necessarily must result from targeting them,” HPBA writes.

Public comments from HPBA also point to several other arguments that may be taken to court. First however, both the EPA and HPBA need to submit finalized legal briefs, and since the EPA is revising its rules, those finalized briefs aren’t due until the Fall. Depending on what changes are actually made to the EPA rules, HPBA may tailor its case to a few contentious issues, like the test method. If the case goes to court, Ackerly says one possible outcome for HPBA would be a settlement agreement that puts part of the standards on hold until another rule is made.

But for now, Lamppa’s vendetta with smoke seems to be paying off. He’s fought smoke since before the EPA even thought about regulating whole-home wood heat. His motivation has always been for safety – he says he won’t burn wood in his home “if there’s smoke … it’s just not safe to me.”

As the only manufacturer with a corner on the post-2020 furnace market, his focus on safety for now is putting him ahead of his furnace-manufacturing competitors. He’s just broken ground on a new track of land in Tower for a whole new manufacturing facility. They’re jumping from one welding bay to four, anticipating high demand.

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