Based on the public record of comments received by the borough, the primary causes of the concentrated, undispersed woodsmoke plaguing Woodriver Elementary School (University West area) appear to be generated by several nearby outdoor hydronic boilers. According to this and other public records, the two closest OWBs are owned by one individual who owns a group of houses & duplexes across from the school. One of these OWBs heats a duplex located across the street from the Woodriver school building, the other OWB heats a duplex across from the Woodriver playground and 300 ft from a private preschool. According to the public record, recess has been canceled at Woodriver due to smoke and children with asthma have been sent home from school, several in one day (interfering with learning), and smoke has been in classrooms and school halls. On one day 4 children had asthma attacks (11/18/2009). According to public testimony given to the FNSB school board on 10/19/2010, children with asthma are not allowed to go out to recess due to smoke, harming the children’s social development.
Chris Nickel’s outdoor wood burner was consuming 30 cords of wood a winter to heat his 4,000 square foot home off of Hurst Road, FDNM 9/2010. Daunted by that effort, Mr. Nickel tried burning coal, but it coated his yard with soot. With help from the Borough replacement program, Mr. Nickel now has a pellet stove to heat his home. Plus, he has more free time, a yard where his children can play, and increased property values and quality of life in his neighborhood.
OWBs and Outdoor Coal Boilers (OCB) are typically located outside the buildings they heat in small sheds with short smokestacks. Typically, they burn wood to heat liquid (water or water-antifreeze) that is piped to provide heat and hot water to occupied buildings such as homes, barns, and greenhouses. However, hydronic heaters may also be located indoors and may use other biomass as fuel (such as corn or wood pellets).
Hydronic heaters or OWBs are not a poor man’s stove, as the units cost $10,000 to $15,000 and there is the additional cost of plumbing them into the house. The units are pitched to residents as a way to save money. Some are installed without glycol in the recirculating fluid so they have to burn constantly in the winter to keep the lines from freezing, making winter vacations obsolete. Which is one way of saving money, for sure. OWBs may be hooked up to the hot water heater which accounts for smoke concerns year around. The OWB’s thermostat automatically dampens down the fire when the recirculating fluid gets up to temperature. So rather than burning hot, OWBs are renowned for smoldering and continually emitting smoke. Inefficient OWBs can consume a cord of wood a week throughout the winter. The realities of hauling, splitting, stacking, and drying that volume of wood fall by the wayside despite the best of intentions. Often 4-foot lengths of unsplit, fresh birch are fed into the firebox. Wet birch, which must be split or it may rot before it dries, smolders for hours. Fresh Alaskan birch is over 80% moisture, according to page 3 of this 1986 study by George Sampson and Tony Gasbarro. It is not uncommon for OWB owners to augment with coal, especially at night, because it is so much work loading the large volumes of wood required. Some OWB owners use their units as incinerators under the “if it fits, it burns” philosophy. Tires, railroad ties, plywood, treated lumber, wet leaves, plastic, household trash, and garbage may get put into these units, sending toxic soup out the stack into the public’s air.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a voluntary program with manufacturers to identify “qualified Phase 2” outdoor wood heaters for consumers. The newer Phase II designs include outdoor wood gassification furnaces which are about 90 percent cleaner than the “unqualified” models. Just because the unit is outside and designed to heat hydronically does not necessarily mean it burns inefficiently with abundant smoke. However, any stove loaded with wet wood will burn cool–and smoky–until the fire dries out the firewood and becomes hot enough to efficiently burn off the smoke, called “secondary” burn.
An aspect to research and document is air pollution produced per BTUs of heat produced across the spectrum of heating devices available for home and commercial use. However, that is beyond the scope of our current focus. For now we’ll just say, emissions from inefficiently-designed OWBs, poorly maintained OWBs, or OWBs loaded with wet wood blow the roof off right that scale.
If you’re shopping for a hydronic heater, consider your neighbors, and don’t.
The Cold Climate Housing Research Center conducted a study in 2008 of the various PM 2.5 emission sources in Fairbanks and how to achieve the greatest reductions. This study pinpointed that the greatest PM 2.5 reductions could be achieved through measures to reduce emissions from wood-fired hydronic boilers. Their study used as a top estimate that a single outdoor wood burner would “exposure” an average of 10 residents (pg 20). These estimates fail to adequately estimate the number of individuals affected by a single outdoor wood burner in a densely populated neighborhood or near a school. The study anticipates the need for “additional reductions” in PM 2.5 emissions which would be achieved “through the burn restriction at times when exceedances are forecasted.” (pg 21)
Burn bans with state support of local police enforcement have been implemented in recent years in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley, see FDNM article: “Trio of communities might offer insight into Fairbanks’ air pollution problem” 1/2010. Through these enforced bans, Juneau has moved into compliance on PM 10.
The 2009 Cold Climate Housing Research Center report on various PM 2.5 control options gave this chilling recommendation:
Additionally, by establishing the uniform emission limit prospectively, the FNSB will buffer itself from the potential of the existing inventory of non-complying, wood-fired hydronic heaters being dumped in the Fairbanks market prior to EPA’s effective date for mandatory certification.
It took one and a half years after the 2009 study report for the Borough to approve its Air Quality Ordinance (2010-28) (or here if not available from the Boro) in 6/2010. In that time, how many of these inefficient, highly polluting outdoor boilers were shipped to Alaska, installed in the Fairbanks nonattainment area and are now dumping PM 2.5 into the air around our neighborhoods and schools?
Consider alternative, low or zero emission heating systems, windows for passive solar uptake, and upgrading your home’s insulation. Emmitt Leffel of Alaska Thermal Imaging conduct home energy ratings and thermal imaging to identify heat loss and install high-efficiency heating and domestic hot water systems, (907)488-4332, email@example.com. Alaska Thermal Imaging can also help to identify indoor air pollution sources through combustion safety and ventilation testing. Other local businesses (check local Yellow Pages) can also help residents save money and keep warm in Interior Alaska without smoking out neighborhoods and schools.
As part of an effort to improve air quality in the borough, the FNSB is offering payments and/or tax credits now to residents who remove or exchange their woodstove or hydronic boiler or replace the chimney or catalytic converter to make their existing certified woodstove safer, more fuel-efficient, and cleaner burning. Contact the Borough Air Quality office for more information.
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