Monday, November 16, 2015

EPA takes step towards a “green label” for wood and pellet heaters

The EPA issued its long-awaited voluntary hangtag, which will help consumers identify the cleanest and most efficient burning wood and pellet heaters on the market. Manufacturers who make stoves and boilers that already meet the stricter 2020 emissions standards can use the hangtag.

The hangtag is a major step towards a “green” or “eco-label” for wood and pellet stoves for designating those stoves that emitted the least amount of smoke in the test lab. The efficiency of the stove must also be disclosed on the hangtag, which is usually more important information for consumers than emissions.

Most European countries have had eco-labels for stoves for many years that have helped drive the market to exceed the minimum emission and efficiency standards.  The EPA designed this hangtag “to provide an incentive to manufacturers to meet the federal 2020 standards early” but the main industry stove association, the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) is suing the EPA to prevent those stricter 2020 standards from taking effect.  It is still too early to tell if the big stove manufacturers may decline to use the hangtag because they may view it as a step toward the 2020 standards. Some companies are already taking steps to display the hangtag. 

The current emission standard for wood and pellet stoves is 4.5 grams per hour and the more stringent 2020 standard will be 2.0 grams per hour.  There are 76 models of pellet stoves on the EPA’s list of certified stoves and 48 of them are already under the 2 grams per hour limit, so 63% of pellet stove models already meet these 2020 standards and are eligible to display the consumer hangtag.  Eleven stoves, or 14% of all pellet stoves are already less than 1 gram per hour.

More than 2-dozen non-catalytic stoves and more than 2-dozen catalytic stoves are eligible to use the hangtag.  (Unlike pellet stoves, the emissions from wood stoves are not designed to estimate emissions from in-home use and homeowners will typically emit far more smoke than labs can achieve during a certification test.)

Among EPA certified wood and pellet boilers and furnaces, there are 72 models on the market and 38 of them meet the 2020 emissions standards and can use the hangtag.  Of those 38, only 5 of the models use cord wood achieve the 2020 standards but virtually all of the pellet units (33 out of 35) achieve the 2020 standards. Most of the certified pellet boilers are technologies imported from Europe and emit about one tenth of the emissions that certified cord wood boilers emit.

The development of the hangtag posed a number of concerns for the EPA, including whether they should list heat output in BTUs per hour, which is already included on the EPA’s list of certified stoves. The EPA decided to use a more general estimate of heat output, “Heating Area” in square feet,
estimated by the companies themselves, because BTU per hour claims have become too unreliable and prone to exaggeration.  In the past, the EPA did not require that test labs use actual efficiency numbers in heat output calculations and test labs have used a range of efficiency estimates to make stoves look more powerful that they actually are.

The hangtag also provides a box for companies to designate if they test with cordwood. For the first time ever, consumers can start to identify stoves that are designed and tested with the fuel that they will use.  No stove has been certified with cordwood yet and the ASTM cordwood test method is still in progress, but several companies are expected to test with cordwood in coming months.

The EPA is using the back of the hangtag to list important educational messages.  Among those messages is the strongest endorsement yet of certified pellets, a move that may irritate some pellet manufacturers who have been resisting getting their pellets certified.  The EPA says that “non-certified pellets may be high in ash content, low and energy output, and have impurities that could harm your families health.”  While some cheaper pellets have high ash content, low heat output and possibly even contain impurities, the quality of many uncertified pellet brands are on par with those that are certified and some of the highest quality pellets are not certified.  

The EPA’s willingness to strongly endorse pellet certification comes at a time when the main certifying body, the Pellet Fuel Institute (PFI), is also suing the EPA over pellet certification issues. 

The success of the EPA’s consumer hangtag, like many eco labels, may hinge on branding and how recognizable the hangtag is to consumers.  If the EPA, states, and non-profits put resources into promoting the hangtag, consumers will be more likely to ask for it and base their purchasing decisions on it.  The first companies to start using the hangtag could see a boost in their sales and it could put pressure on the mainstream companies to use the hangtag, if they aren’t already.

“This hangtag will help consumers not only choose cleaner stoves, but also to choose companies committed to making cleaner stoves and to releasing verified efficiency values to their consumers,” said John Ackerly, President of the Alliance for Green Heat.  “If the stove you buy today already meets the 2020 standards, the parts and service for that stove are more likely to be available 5-10 years from now, when you need it,” Ackerly added.

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Visit the EPA's page on the voluntary hang-tag.  For more on problems with EPA listings on Btu output per hour, the lack of disclosure of stove efficiencies, the EPA's 2020 emission standards for stoves and boilers and PFI pellet certification scheme.