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
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
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
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
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
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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