The Impact of Government Regulations

By combining test protocol innovation with stove technology innovation, we may produce a new breed of stoves that can propel them into the 21st century.
By John Ackerly | June 26, 2019

In the April issue of Hearth & Home Magazine, its longtime editor and publisher Richard Wright contemplated why there seems to be a lack of innovation in wood heaters these days. Wright thought the stricter 2020 U.S. EPA regulations were to blame, since companies were forced to spend so much time and money on R&D to meet the new emission limits.

This floored me.  I had assumed that if companies were required to meet stricter emission regulations, they would have to innovate. But here’s the rub: What defines innovation, and what is just tweaking current designs? To make it more complex, are there tweaks or innovation that make stoves cleaner in the lab, but perform worse for consumer over time? 

One thing most industry members agree on is that the 1988 EPA emission regulations forced profound and beneficial technological innovation. That is what good regulations should do. Some experts go as far to say that those regulations saved the industry from itself, and gave the technology a new lease on life. Why wouldn’t the second round of EPA regulations, enacted in 2015, have some of the same impact?

I believe that the 2015 regulations taking full effect in 2020 will result in innovation, but that much of that innovation will take years to evolve, and we will need to wait and see what holds up in the hands of consumers. Each category— wood stoves, pellet stoves, wood boilers, pellet boilers and wood furnaces—will all see different types of innovation. The best will hopefully be affordable and durable, and is perceived to be a real step forward by consumers. Consumers care more about efficiency than emissions, and they also care about ease of use and convenience.

Let’s take the case of pellet stoves. We’re already seeing that the new EPA regulations resulting in far more efficient pellet stoves. Did that take innovation? Or was it just adding more heat exchange? It may be more of the latter, but the bottom line is very positive for consumers.

With wood stoves, we are seeing many more companies adding catalysts along with traditional secondary combustion, resulting in “hybrid” stoves.  And this is where the jury will remain out for years to come. How will a new class of catalytic stoves hold up?  Most experts have pointed to faulty design, where the flame impinges on the catalyst. But the big, untold story here is the erratic and often faulty fabrication of the catalysts themselves. If they don’t hold up, even the best catalytic and hybrid stoves will underperform. And, there are some consumers who just don’t engage the catalyst, even if it’s working well.

Wright wrote that “many manufacturers spent over $1 million getting ready for 2020, and they had no time remaining to develop something innovative” for the 2019 season. His assumption seems to be that companies can do one thing or another, but merging innovation with preparing for stricter emission standards is not so easy. Wright may be looking for other types of innovation, outside of the basic performance of a stove.

He says, “Innovative products are what drive industries forward.” We couldn’t agree more. In the hearth field, the most innovative products would renew the social license of stoves.  It would give not just stove retailers something new to talk about, but also gives mainstream magazines and newspapers something to write about. 

Our bet was that automated wood stoves would be the innovation that gives society something new to talk about, and drive down emissions in hands of homeowners. These days, all sorts of automation is common, invisible and expected. Not so with wood stoves. Many, if not most, consumers will initially be wary of them, and the goal of designers may be to hide it.

We are still bullish on automated stoves, but as Wright noted, companies may still be able to cut emissions from 4.5 grams to 2 grams an hour simply by tweaking existing technology, matched with expert lab technicians who conduct the certification testing. Why innovate if tweaking existing designs can get below 2 grams an hour?

Other than automation, the next real wave of innovation will be in test methods—not driving standards below 2 grams an hour. Part of the reason innovation may be stalling is that stove design has become too dependent on outmoded certification test methods, and stove designers are too familiar with how to maximize their numbers from these old test methods. We need new test methods that will give rise to new stove innovation. That method should use cordwood and reflect how stoves are used in homes.

The Integrated Duty Cycle methods being developed by NESCAUM (Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management) provide much of that innovation needed in our test methods. Within 10 years, all stoves should be required to test with cordwood. By combining test protocol innovation with stove technology innovation, we may produce a new breed of stoves that can propel them into the 21st century.  And then, we will all have something new to talk about.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat