You can chuckle all you want about outdoor wood furnaces and whether they’re a subject the legislature should even bother with given that there are probably only a couple of thousand in the state.

Then you might want to get out of the line of fire.

“I’ve been here a long time,” said Bob Girard, assistant director of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s air enforcement program. “I’ve been in enforcement my whole career, and I can’t think of another circumstance or piece of equipment that generated so much controversy.”

There’s likely to be more this year, the third in a row, as those who would ban the furnaces take on those who see them as a renewable energy alternative to pricey oil.

“We don’t have natural gas,” said Scott Bradley, a rural Stafford resident who in 1997 was looking for that very alternative. What he had was plenty of wood, a renewable energy source, he and others unfailingly point out. Not only did he install an outdoor wood furnace, but he also started Mainline Heating and Supply to sell them. Business, he said, follows the price of oil.

“People need alternatives,” he said.

Like the nearby town of Woodstock’s highway department — faced with heating a new 10,000-square-foot garage. “We’re constantly picking up wood,” said John Navarro, director of public works. And, he added, actually paying to get rid of it. “It’s a way to dispose of some of it and get some heat out of it.”

What we’re talking about here is a wood-fueled furnace housed in its own little shed outside the building it services. The design involves heating water around the furnace and then moving that water through an underground pipe to connect with the building’s existing heat and/or hot water system.

Like any furnace, it cycles on and off as needed. That means there can be partially burned wood at any point which, when the furnace cycles back on, can produce heavy smoke — heavier than that produced by woodstoves or fireplaces. That heavy smoke vents out a smokestack, and that is the issue.

Smoke school

The most entrenched opponents want to ban wood-fueled furnaces, period, because of the particulates wood smoke puts in the air.

“Wood smoke is dangerous; it’s pretty clearly established in scientific literature,” said Meg Harvey, an epidemiologist in the state Department of Public Health. “There’s nasty stuff in wood smoke, and it can be harmful to health.”

In 2005, the legislature passed siting rules that said outdoor wood furnaces installed beginning that July had to be 200 feet from a neighboring structure not being heated by the furnace. The top of the stack had to be higher than all the roof peaks within 500 feet, but couldn’t be higher than 55 feet. They had to burn clean wood — no treated wood, trash, leaves or anything else. And fines for violations topped out at $90. Anything in place before the law went into effect was grandfathered — and that included the requirement to burn only clean wood.

Since 2005, DEEP has logged about 1,000 outdoor wood furnace complaints, many multiple for the same locations. But without enough staff to investigate, the department along with the departments of health and consumer protection, produced a guide to train local health departments in furnace issues.

Smoke school, Robert Miller, the Eastern Highlands Health District director called it. But he said that in his rural region, with the potential for many people to switch from oil to wood, the workload could be challenging. “We could certainly do it if we had the training resources, the staff and the money,” he said. “I’m a pragmatist; I don’t see that ever happening.”

But his and the other departments only deal with complaints — smoke and odors mainly. If an owner is not burning the proper wood, or overfilling the furnace — two practices widely believed to be prevalent — it may be putting out pollutants. But if no one complains, it may continue unchecked.

Connecticut has no emissions requirements for outdoor wood furnaces, as do many other states, including Massachusetts, which only allows the cleanest newest generation of furnace. The Environmental Protection Agency is considering national standards, but it’s unclear when, or if, that will happen.

A compromise ban?

Connecticut’s legislative efforts the past two years have focused on furnace bans, a hard-line stance that may soften this year, allowing the potential for compromise.

“We don’t have the votes to actually ban those furnaces,” said Environment Committee co-Chairman Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, who prefers a full ban. His strategy this year is to prohibit their use from May 1 through Oct. 31 — a low usage time when they mainly heat water and pools, but when their smoke tends to linger and people have their windows open. Farms that use them to run equipment likely would be exempt.

“That’s a compromise,” Meyer said.

But committee member Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, who represents part of the state’s heavily wooded northeast corner, where outdoor furnaces are most common and there are few gas lines to replace oil, is still feeling the frustration of last year’s battle.

“We could have had a compromise,” he said. “Instead advocates said ‘no’ and nobody is more protected than they were when the 2005 bill passed.

“The issue is fairness. If it can provide an alternative source of fuel to heat our homes and heat our water, why would we arbitrarily ban it?”

“When one restaurant sells undercooked chicken, we don’t shut down restaurants,” he said. “It’s really a broad tool that impacts many, many more law-abiding people who are doing the right thing.”

Horror stories

Joan Nichols, Farm Bureau government relations specialist and president of the Connecticut Professional Timber Producers Association, dispelled an often-cited argument that her industry supports furnace use because it creates business for them. She said, and others confirmed, that most people who have them already have wood.

Nichols suggested steep fines for violators — as much as $5,000 a day — and using the funds to help pay for equipment retrofits or to swap older furnaces for more efficient ones, as well as emission standards.

“Because we’ve come to this roadblock, we’re not coming up with a workable piece of legislation,” she said. “We have older units still being sold.”

The push for a blanket ban has come from Environment and Human Health Inc. and its president, Nancy Alderman. “Why is this so serious?” she asked. “Because people can’t escape.

“It’s extraordinary to me that we can’t do something to protect them.”

Alderman said 17 communities have banned the furnaces. Her health concerns are echoed by the Connecticut Association of Directors of Health and the Council on Environmental Quality, which this year in its legislative priorities called for a moratorium until new regulations, including maximum emissions levels, are in place.

“The most important point is most of these units are not burning cleanly,” said Karl Wagener, CEQ executive director. “So the fact that they’re burning a renewable fuel is almost a red herring.”

Furnace opponents roll out horror stories of homeowners like Beth Terra, who lives with her husband, four children and octogenarian parents on 27 acres in New Hartford, uphill from a neighbor who installed a furnace a few years ago.

“We just all keep getting sinus infections, continuous burning eyes, the kids have had to go on steroids,” Terra said. “We can’t even enjoy our property.”

She said they’ve installed air filters and new windows, but they haven’t helped. She’s documented the situation with photos and recalled a clerk at Walgreens as she picked them up saying: “Where do you live? Next to a factory?”

The other side has its own line-up. Kim and Judy Herkimer installed an outdoor wood furnace at their Cornwall Bridge home at the top of a hill on an 800-acre wildlife preserve with a ready supply of wood. Kim Herkimer calculates that he’s nearly recouped the $11,000 cost from no longer using oil heat and electric hot water.

“I researched this for a year-and-a-half before I even considered buying it,” he said. “I made sure it had a blower on it. With a little bit of air flow it burns a little hotter and little cleaner.”

Herkimer said part of his research was the wind patterns at his home to ensure his smoke wouldn’t affect his neighbors, something he thinks the state ought to require. “They’re using tape measures to the houses,” he said. “But you can’t put a tape measure on the wind.”

In the meantime, people like Alderman are gearing up for this next round of wrangling over legislation language. She concedes a ban is not likely, but she’ll take half-a-loaf.

“Absolutely,” she said. “And you say thank you.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.