Wood fireplaces and stoves banned in new buildings

New regulations OK'd this week by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are part of an ongoing effort to wean residents off wood fires.|

In its continuing effort to make breathing easier, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is again clamping down on wood fireplaces and stoves, banning them in all new buildings and requiring more efficient, clean-burning devices where wood fuel is the only source of heat.

The new regulations, approved this week, build on existing rules in an ongoing endeavor to wean residents inside the nine-county air district off polluting wood fires, whether used for heat or ambiance.

The aim of the regulations, first approved in 2008, is to limit emissions of the fine particles in smoke produced by combustion of wood and other solid fuels and wood products, such as pellets. This particulate matter can find its way into a person’s lungs and bloodstream and is linked to greater risk of heart attack, stroke, asthma, respiratory distress and other lung conditions, including cancer, according to the American Lung Association.

“It has a myriad of health impacts, like cigarette smoke,” air district spokeswoman Kristine Roselius said.

And it’s the No. 1 source of air pollution during the winter months, the air district said.

“It’s nasty,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a member of the air district board of directors, which unanimously approved the rule amendments Wednesday. “And it’s a lot more nasty than most people realize.”

An estimated 1.4 million fireplaces and uncertified fireplaces in the Bay Area produce about a third of the particulate matter in the air in the winter, the air district said.

The Bay Area air district takes in most of Sonoma County, including Windsor, Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma and Sebastopol. It also includes unincorporated parts of Sonoma County roughly bounded on the west by Occidental and on the north by Windsor.

District regulations approved in 2008 required all new construction and remodels to use only wood stoves or other clean-burning wood products that met standards set by the Environmental Protection Administration.

It also established winter Spare the Air Days on which wood burning was prohibited, except in cases where someone had no other source of heat. Such curtailments on burning are triggered by stagnant atmospheric conditions called inversions that hold pollution close to the earth’s surface, affecting even healthy adults and children, but especially those who may be vulnerable because of compromised immune systems, youth or age, the Lung Association says.

The new amendments, which take effect Nov. 1, 2016, tighten the “sole source of heat” exemption by requiring individuals without other heating options to acquire an EPA-certified wood stove if they don’t already have one. They also must register the device with the air district.

The district board also approved a $3 million grant program to help offset the cost to homeowners of swapping out polluting stoves and fireplaces with gas, propane or electric heaters - or at least EPA-certified wood-burning devices, where no other heating option is available.

New inserts and heating devices can cost thousands of dollars, though they generally heat far more efficiently than old-fashioned wood heaters and are less expensive to operate, Zane and others said.

The grant system, still being developed, is intended to cover at least 50 percent of the cost of new heaters. Low-income residents and those in areas with high levels of smoke will have funding priority, district personnel said.

Additional revisions to the wood-burning rules include replacement of uncertified wood-burning devices or fireplaces in remodels large enough to require a local building permit or cost more than $15,000.

Home sales and rental contracts also must include disclosure about the health hazards of fine particulate matter from wood smoke.

Effective Nov. 1, 2018, rental properties in natural gas service areas must have an alternative heating device other than wood burning.

The Lung Association was among more than a dozen health organizations that lauded the new rules, local spokeswoman Jenny Bard said.

“We have been involved on this issue for two decades, and we receive calls every winter from residents whose health is impacted by their neighbors’ wood burning,” the association said. “This is a serious health issue, and we appreciate the Air District’s leadership to reduce exposures.”

But hearth and heating product retailers said the elimination of wood-burning devices in new construction was unnecessary given the increasingly efficient, high-tech products available, some with emissions far below the federal standard.

Eleanor Butchart, owner of On Fire! on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa, attended Wednesday’s meeting and said she was disappointed that industry members were not included in the discussions leading up to the refinements. She said wood fuels are a renewable source of energy, and said modern, efficient products are extremely popular, contributing to sales that, at her shop alone, have put about 2,000 uncertified wood products out of commission over the past five years.

But Roselius, with the air district, said the cleanliness and efficiency with which newer wood heaters operate depends on use of appropriate fuels, like completely dry wood, and proper operation.

“We are moving toward cleaner heating options in the Bay Area, and that is to protect public health,” she said.

Zane noted that the district had dispensed with a highly unpopular proposal floated last April that would have required wood stoves and fireplaces be upgraded to gas, propane or electric heaters, or EPA-certified wood devices, whenever a home was sold or changed hands.

Limiting fireplace use “has not necessarily been the most popular policy in the history of mankind,” she said. “We all love to stoke up the fireplace on Christmas. But at the same time we do have to realize that we live in a community and we need to take care of one another.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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