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Outdoor Wood Boilers: Lower Energy Bills, Higher Pollution

January 30, 2012

MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin has the nation's second-highest growth rate for outdoor wood-fired boilers (OWBs), which burn wood to heat water which is then pumped into the home to provide heat. Once used mainly in rural areas, OWBs now are being used in urban areas by homeowners trying to combat the rising cost of heating oil, natural gas, and LP gas.

The units burn wood, which generates smoke - and that's the problem, according to the state health officer, Dr. Henry Anderson.

"Wood smoke, just as tobacco smoke, is very irritating and individuals or children that are outside playing, who have asthma, will inhale these and it can trigger an attack."

The Wisconsin Asthma Coalition says OWBs generate more smoke than do other wood-burning appliances, and the lower combustion temperatures create smoke laden with particle pollution, which is dangerous for people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease, even inside their homes. More than half the state's population falls into a group that can suffer adverse health effects from inhaling the smoke, according to the Wisconsin Asthma Coalition.

Anderson agrees with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that OWBs need more regulation.

"The problem has been the communities really don't have their codes up to speed for a pollution source such as these."

Some communities have local ordinances which regulate OWBs, but most do not, and the DNR has available a model ordinance for communities interested in regulation.

Nearly all OWBs being sold in Wisconsin have a very short smokestack, which means the smoke stays closer to the ground. Anderson says people can contact their county health department if they're affected by a nearby OWB, but suggests discussing it first.

"Mostly, I would say you go and talk to your neighbor, and then see if there's some solution where they can put on a much higher stack so the smoke is up higher. The problem is if it's only 9 feet off the ground it can run right over into somebody's back yard."

OWBs sold for household use have no emission-control equipment, and since they're not regulated by the state, the DNR can't enforce air-quality rules on the homeowner.

Learn more about OWB's at

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI