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Sweepy Ever wonder just how clean the new, EPA-approved woodstoves are, compared to the old-technology stoves of yesteryear, or even to a diesel bus? Well, we did, so we put it to the test. Here's an excerpt from an article about the event as it appeared in our industry trade magazine. Since this web page is available to the general public, specific manufacturer and employee names have been edited out.


Hearth & Home

Volume XV No.2                                             January 1995

The Boss in the Showroom
Tom Oyen, owner of The Chimney Sweep

Smokeless in Seattle
A small town retailer wins a clean-burning battle. - By Dan Melcon

Author's note: Tom Oyen is one of the thousands of anonymous, hard working people who have built our industry. Basically an idiosyncratic chimney sweep turned iconoclast retailer, he is an intelligent, independent survivor who combines hands-on knowledge with a keen wit to promote his business.

Oyen hails from the Northwest corner of the country, at the far edge of the Pacific and the border of Canada. For the past 15 years he has held court from the Old Fairhaven district in the port town of Bellingham, Washington, where he is, if not the biggest, certainly the feistiest retailer.

Standing at his counter, Tom Oyen sips a cup of coffee and checks over a stovepipe order. With his other hand he is flicking a classic Zippo lighter from his extensive collection. The phone is cradled in his shoulder while he berates a supplier for screwing up a special order. He nods to a customer and gestures instructions to an employee. If people think Bill Clinton is hyperactive, they should see Tom Oyen on a fall morning.

While in many ways a typical day, this one will be special. In addition to taking three dozen calls from friends and customers (they're pretty much the same folks), Tom Oyen will sell three stoves and give away a door handle to an elderly lady on a fixed income "because she has been burning her hand," place product orders with four separate suppliers, put the finishing touches on one of his silly musical radio ads, run herd over his busy chimney sweeps and installers, and host an out-of-town visitor. He will also orchestrate a clean-burning showdown with the Northwest Air Pollution Authority (NWAPA).

It's been said that "All politics are local." Oyen is a testament to that belief. While having little involvement in, and no use for, trade organizations, he has made woodburning public education a personal crusade.

For 15 years he has made sure that each sweeping customer gets a report detailing safety and code violations, accompanied by the appropriate Oyen-produced illustrated flyer explaining how to make things right. Oyen has worked with building officials and insurance companies, given lectures sponsored by the local Fire Department, and appeared on numerous radio shows. This October day is the culmination of his efforts.

A Local Showdown
Today, Tom is hosting a clean-burning face-off in the parking lot behind his business. A joint effort by himself, the local air pollution authority, and the Washington State Department of Ecology, the demonstration will feature the best and worst of woodburning stoves and diesel engines.

The roots of today's challenge date back about five years, when Laura Curley, public information coordinator for the Northwest Air Pollution Authority, was to appear on a local radio show to discuss proper burning habits.

Having been a guest on past programs, Oyen was invited by the host to provide an industry perspective. He was astounded at the vehement anti-wood message Laura Curley was propounding (Oyen calls it "abolitionist stuff"). Her first statement, taken from a NWAPA brochure, was "unless you have no choice, don't heat with wood." Oyen decided someone needed to present an alternative perspective.

Over the next few years, Oyen and Curley repeated their debate on several occasions, both on and off the radio. They learned from each other, and began to develop a mutual respect. During one such debate, Oyen remembers making an impression with the question, "Given the limited supply of both oil and natural gas, not to mention our shared concern about the greenhouse effect, doesn't using a natural, renewable fuel like wood start to make sense?"

While not yet in complete agreement on the issue, by the fall of 1994 Tom Oyen and Laura Curley had similar agendas: educating people to burn wood properly, and promoting the benefits of new clean-technology woodstoves. When Curley called Oyen to tell him that the new diesel technology would put an end to his oft-repeated claim that no woodstove is as smelly as the experience of getting stuck behind his neighborhood school bus, they hatched a plan to publicly compare the emissions of diesel engines and woodburning stoves, old and new.

Measuring Opacity
The showdown is set for a Friday morning. In the parking lot are gathered a 1980 city bus, a new technology "Orion 5" bus, and a long haul truck with a new computer-assisted emissions control device. The local television station and papers are here, and two network film crews have made the 90-mile drive from Seattle. Also on hand are technicians from the State Department of Ecology, with state of the art equipment for measuring opacity.

Opacity tests show how much light is obscured by smoke or other particulates in the air. A clear pane of glass would register zero percent opacity, while a brick wall would score 100 percent. In addition to laws limiting emissions levels of all non-catalytic stoves to less than 4.5 grams per hour (versus the national 7.5 gram EPA standard), the state of Washington has additional air quality regulations, ranging from a ban on burning dead animals to exhaust opacity restrictions. Wood stove emissions are limited to 20 percent opacity.

Support from A Manufacturer
For the old-technology stove, Oyen has borrowed a 13-year-old airtight from one of his customers. To provide the wood and pellet stoves, he has engaged the help of one of his major suppliers.

The Manufacturer's sales manager, head of R&D and an assistant are on hand with two new clean-air solid fuel burners; a pellet stove and a non-catalytic woodburning stove. Though exempt from regulation, the pellet stove had achieved a record low emissions rating when tested to the EPA protocol. The woodstove is EPA-certified.

The Manufacturer's crew has less than an hour to set up before the media arrives. The Sales Manager is concerned about insufficient draft, because the temporary outdoor installation can only support eight feet of single wall pipe, and the air is damp and heavy. But the R&D men are not perturbed, having done this before. By the time the crowd assembles and the press conference begins, the fire can be seen burning actively through the crystal clear glass, the solid brass door sparkles, and only heat waves are emanating from the flue.

After an introduction and description of the testing equipment, and a brief opening statement by Larry Altose, air quality public information officer with the State Department of Ecology, the show begins.

The old bus registers 11 percent opacity, while the gleaming 1994 "Orion 5" scores an impressive 2 percent. The computer equipment on the long haul truck baffles the testing probe while the truck is at idle, so no accurate reading is available. Then, it is on to the solid fuel contenders.

The Moment of Truth
First to be tested is the old, uncertified woodstove from a now defunct local manufacturer. With the spin draft closed to simulate an all-night burn, the unit belches a thick column of dense smoke that registers 93.6 percent opacity. As the heavy smoke falls, those in attendance get a clear picture of the difference between the "hint of alder smoke in the autumn air," and the dangerous, nasty stuff that leaves a few people hacking.

To show how operating habits can affect emissions, the spin draft is then opened all the way for a few minutes, resulting in an opacity reading of 25.5 percent, a marked improvement but still in excess of Washington's legal limit.

Fuel has been added to the woodstove, but no one has touched the controls for an hour and a half. As the probe is lowered into the flue and the computer begins to display the digital readout, the R&D assistant crosses his fingers. He doesn't have to. The briskly burning fire registers only three percent opacity. Then the draft is shut down all the way for several minutes. The opacity rises, but only to six percent, an incredible improvement over the non-approved stove.

Last up is the pellet stove, which has been quietly running all morning. The digital display reads 0.0 for awhile, before it settles in at a remarkable 0.4 percent opacity, representing an 80 percent reduction over the new-technology bus.

The solid fuel contenders are declared the winners. The assembled group buzzes, and a government official is overheard telling reporters that he recommends EPA-approved appliances as an environmentally responsible heating option. Oyen thinks back to the days of "Unless you have no choice, don't heat with wood," and smiles.

A Positive Message
The dramatically improved performance of the new technology products makes an impression on all those present. And the message will be passed on to hundreds of thousands of Western Washington residents by the media. Acting on his own, Oyen had developed a relationship with local officials and implemented a program that presented clean-burning solid fuel appliances as a viable solution to a serious air quality problem.

There won't be much residual business from the event for Oyen. He had agreed that neither The Chimney Sweep nor the Manufacturer would be mentioned in pre-event publicity. Still, he feels good about his role. "Positive publicity is good for the entire solid fuel industry, so we will all benefit," he says. "Mostly, I'm glad we won."

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