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Science and Testing

The science of air pollution is very complex and technical. Below is a "Technical Primer" giving the basics to help to interpret the research and technical documents.  See the links below for associated documents regarding the science and testing, many specifically dealing with outdoor hydronic heaters.

Technical Primer

Particulate Matter (PM): PM is simply particles that get into the air and can get into our lungs when we breathe. Particles can be composed of sand, dust, flyash or organic chemicals that have condensed together. PM can be larger particles or very fine microscopic particles. The finest PM are called fine particles, or PM2.5, and consist of particles 2.5 microns and smaller. These fine particles are most able to penetrate deeply into lungs causing various health problems. The visible smoke from wood burning is mostly PM, with the vast majority being PM2.5.

Air Toxics: All the air we breathe contains some toxics in the form of various chemicals including volatiles (like solvents), heavy metals and particulate in various forms. All wood smoke contains toxics, the type and amounts depend on how completely and efficiently the wood is burned. In general, the hotter the fire, the less toxics are produced assuming an adequate oxygen supply.

Efficiency: A much used term with many interpretations. In the wood heating world, thermal efficiency is probably the most important because it is a measure of the how much of the potential heat in the fuel is transferred into useable heat. But even this term is more complicated than this simplistic definition because it can be calculated in different ways. The term "combustion efficiency" that you may see in ads for some wood combustion devices is vague and probably meaningless. It may mean that some stated percentage of wood is burned but it has no relationship to how much useable heat is produced. Be wary of all efficiency claims.

Emissions Standards: Emissions standards are the legal requirements governing air pollutants released into the atmosphere.  Emission standards are the legal requirements governing air pollutants released into the atmosphere.  Emission standards set quantitative limits on the permissible amount of specific air polluatns that may be released from specific sources over specific timeframes.  They are generally designed to achieve air quality standards and to protect human health.

  • Mass per unit time: Generally expressed in units such as grams per hour or pounds per hour of some pollutant such as PM. US EPA standards for indoor woodstoves are expressed in grams per hour.
  • Mass per energy input: This is the weight or mass of the pollutant per unit of energy in the fuel expressed as grams or pounds per BTU, mmBTU (million BTU), Joules or Megajoules. This type of standard does not consider thermal efficiency.
  • Mass per energy output: This type of standard considers the efficiency of the device and is expressed in units of mass per unit of useable energy produced by the device.
  • Concentration Standards: The most difficult to understand and often expressed as mass (lbs, grams or kilograms) per unit volume (cubic feet or cubic meters) or mass of exhaust gases. Chemical or toxic emission standards may be expressed in parts per million (ppm). These standards often require correction to a percentage oxygen or carbon dioxide in the exhaust gases.

Testing: "Stack testing" is done by drawing a sample of the exhaust gases out of the stack to determine the amount of contamination in the gases. The details of testing are extremely complicated and technical and there is a diversity of formal test methods for testing the various pollutants from a variety of devices. An explanation of stack testing is beyond the scope of this website but how air pollution testing is done and how the results are expressed are critical factors when trying to evaluate wood burning devices.

Ambient Monitoring: Ambient monitoring is testing the general outdoor air to determine the levels of air contamination. This type of testing, although equally technical, is done differently from stack testing. Ambient concentrations of pollutants are generally far less concentrated than the pollutants measured in the exhaust gases of stacks. Ambient monitoring may be done in an area away from specific sources of air pollution just to determine general air quality or it may be done near an air pollution source to try to determine the impacts of a specific source's emissions on ambient air quality. See Vermont's ambient monitoring website here for more information.

Air Pollution Modeling: Computer models can be used to estimate the impacts of pollutants emitted from sources of air pollution. Such information can be used to estimate whether or not pollutants from sources will cause pollutant levels that are a health concern or that exceed certain set standards. Detailed protocols have been established for the use of the various types of air pollution computer models. Predictions by such models are useful but are dependent on the data input to the model, such as stack height, emission rate and stack gas temperature. Weather conditions greatly influence the dispersion of pollutants and weather data can be input to many of the model programs to predict pollutant impacts under different weather conditions.

Science Links

An Assessment of Risk from Particulate Released from Outdoor Wood Boilers - Brown et al

European Biomass Boilers

Chemical Characterization of Fine Particle Emissions from Fireplace Combustion of Woods Grown in the Northeastern United States - Fine, Cass, Simoneit 2001

Design and Operating Factors Which Affect Emissions from Residential Wood-Fired Heaters: Review and Update - Paul E. Tiegs 1995

Domestic Wood Burning & PM 2.5 trace elements

Effect of Airflow Setting on the Organic Composition of Woodheater Emissions - Timothy Jordan & Andrew Seen  2005

Emission of PCDD/F, PCB, and HCB from Combustion of Firewood and Pellets in Residential Stoves and Boilers - Hedman, Naslund, Marklund 2006

Emission characteristics of modern and old-type residential boilers fired with wood logs and wood pellets - Linda S. Johansson et al 2003

EPA -Residential Wood Combustion Technology Review Vol 1. Report - Houck, Tiegs 1998

In-Field Fine Particulate Monitoring of an Outdoor Wood Boiler: Public Health Concerns - Johnson, NESCAUM 06 (pdf)  Full report

Low emissions from wood burning in an eco-labeled residential boiler - Maria Olsson et al. 2005

Model development for spatial variation of PM2.5 emissions from residential wood burning - Yong Q. Tiana et al. 2004

Modeling PM10 concentrations and carrying capacity associated with woodheater emissions in Launceston, Tasmania - Luhar, Galbally, Keywood 2006

NESCAUM Source Characterization of Outdoor Wood Furnaces Sept. 2008

NESCAUM Source Characterization of Outdoor Wood Furnaces - Appendix Sept. 2008

NESCAUM Report on Outdoor Wood Furnaces 2006

NY DEC Modelling Assessment

OWB Emissions Modeling - What's It All About? (ANR)

Air Pollution Dispersion Modeling for Outdoor Wood Boilers in a Complex Terrain Setting (ANR)

PCDD/F, PCB, HxCBz, PAH, and PM Emission Factors for Fireplace and Woodstove Combustion in the San Francisco Bay Region - Brian K. Gullet et al  2003

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon size distributions in aerosols from appliances of residential wood combustion as determined by direct thermal desorption-GC/MS - Michael D. Hays et al 2003

European Data

Technology Developments of boilers for domestic heating with wood fuels - Austria, April 2007

Heating Boiler for chipped wood - Austria 2002

Health Relevance of Aerosols from Biomass Combustion in Comparison to Diesel Soot Indicated by Cytotoxicity Tests - Switzerland

Swan labeled boilers for solid bio-fuels

Swan labeled boilers for solid bio-fuels - 2008

Wood Energy in Switzerland 1999

Review of European Small Boiler Regulation and Technology - Powerpoint