Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Basics of Wood Burning Stoves: A Case for Standards or Rating Systems?

Many people interested in better stoves know something about fire, smoke, health and new ideas.  However, to explain these on a more fundamental level that is understood by all can be difficult.  Therefore to explain the relationship between health and smoke, I turn to the late comedian Steve Allen who said that “Asthma doesn't seem to bother me any more unless I'm around cigars or dogs. The thing that would bother me most would be a dog smoking a cigar.”  For those who are promoting stoves innovations, I quote Mark Twain who says “The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” 

More seriously, I recently came across this nice brochure on space heating stoves that has been published by the California Environmental Protection Agency.  I was struck by this brochure because in a very simple way it publicizes the issue of smoke and health, the need for standards,  the basic principles of combustion and even the alternatives to wood stoves including gas and electricity.    These are many of the same issues that the clean cooking community today is attempting to communicate to the general public.  This brochure highlights the fact that improved heating stoves in the United States and other developed countries are now very efficient and burn very cleanly compared to past stoves.  But this was not always the case. 

Painting of Old Heating Stove in School
On a personal note, I can remember old coal stoves used to heat "temporary" small classrooms built to accommodate a sudden rise in student populations.  These "potbelly" coal heating stoves were similar to the wood burning stove in the picture.  At the time in western Pennsylvania coal was king and this was at the very end of the time period when people would heat with traditional coal stoves.  Was it smoky? Yes. Was it energy efficient? No. Did it give good even heat?  No.  Wast it durable? Yes. Was it safe? Yes. Was it cheap?  Yes.  Now of course schools are heated with modern systems. 

Even now there are legacy fireplaces and wood stoves that burn warmed air in the house which in turn draws in cold air from the outside.  Thus, the old traditional space heating stoves in developed countries are somewhat analogous to open cooking fires in developing countries.  The rather important exceptions are that the cooking fires and traditional cookstoves in developing countries typically are built of local materials by those who use them and they also do not have chimneys.

The old wood heating stoves produced and sold were both polluting and inefficient.  After the EPA developed and approved standards for space heating wood stoves in 1988 the manufacturers mostly fell into step and now the stoves meet the fairly strict standards and are sold advertising this fact in retail stores around the country.   During the initial years after the regulations took pace there were many stove manufacturers that went out of business probably because their products could not meet the new standards.  The regulations are not for the faint at heart, and I provide a link to compliance monitoring for them.  You will find that they are very exhaustive. However, one advantage of having such standards is that now programs are being implemented in some communities to change out old stoves for EPA certified new ones thus reducing emissions during cold weather.  These stove can also be inserted into fireplaces.  I just recently had one (a Vermont Castings Montpelier fireplace insert) installed and your can see a picture if it in the by clicking this link.

Burnside early 19th Century Coal/Wood Potbelly 
Stove in use in David's Auto-Credit: D. Barnes
By contrast, for cooking stoves in most developing countries, there are no established standards and no agreement on rating systems that would confirm that new stoves are efficient, durable, clean burning or safe.   One question is whether the establishment of standards or rating systems for typical cooking cycles like those used to rate gas mileage in cars could be the catalyst that leads to widespread development and adoption of stoves in developing countries, and also be the catalyst for improving stove performance.  After all, such stoves could be sold in stores accompanied by marketing campaigns that extol their virtues.  Donors and governments could promote these stove in their projects and be assured that they actually perform better that traditional stoves or open fires.  Communities could use local block grants or development funds to participate in programs to improve local health due to reduced pollution both indoors and outside.   Providing support to develop markets for approved stoves could be justified based on the both environmental and health grounds due to assured benefits. 

Today there is some possible movement on efforts to establish standards or at the very least a rating system for better stoves. Before getting started on the new better stove initiatives do we need to establish a framework for standards, protocols and rating systems.  Is this a good or bad idea?  

Take the poll and provide comments!   I know there are some strong feelings about this topic.  So let's hear them!!


Unknown said...

Hi Doug

You certainly make a good argument for standards and rating systems, but I think you perhaps overlook a key question: whether standards should be set at a country level or globally. The poll seems to touch on this with the option "individual programs can establish their own standards...", but that begs the question of what a 'program' is.

I don't believe we need some sort of global standard (the US EPA standards work perfectly at a country level, and would NOT necessarily be appropriate in, for example the UK), but equally I don't believe that "Joe Bloggs Enterprises" can realistically establish their own standard.

In my opinion best practice on approaches to testing protocols in a range of settings can and should be established; and then 'programs' should work to build local capacity to introduce and administer standards which encourage industrial development along a typical 'Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Cost' (BATNEEC) path.

In my opinion there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution to the standards question.

Thanks for the great blog.


Mathilde Brix said...

Dear Doug

Thank you for an interesting blog.

I would like to share what I find is a very interesting efficient cook stove project in relation to implementation approach and in relation to monitoring systems. The project is being implemented in Cambodia by the French NGO GERES. Standardization, certification, quality control and monitoring have according to GERES played a crucial role in securing the overall success of the project.

A quick project description:

GERES has taken a value chain approach to stove dissemination. The rationale behind the project was to target the producer segment and to help artisans produce a higher quality and more fuel efficient stove than the one they were already producing which could then be sold via existing distribution channels at a higher price. The stove is in demand by users because of higher fuel efficiency. The selling price of the stove has been fixed in such a way that the outlay by users could be recouped due to fuel savings within one to three months. By working the cost structure back from the customer to the producer, the margin for middlemen and producers has been established. This has resulted in a commercialized business case that is beneficial to all actors in the stove chain from producer to customer.

The project started 10 years ago. Sales grew exponentially between 2003 and 2009 and currently around 25.000 stoves are sold every month. Around 160.000 families are using the improved stove. This represents a cost saving for those families of 2.5 million USD and a CO2 saving of 770.000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent over the course of the project’s lifetime. The saved CO2 is being sold as carbon credits on the voluntary market under the voluntary carbon standard feeding funding back into the project.

According to the project implementer themselves (GERES) standards, certification, quality control and monitoring systems have played a very central role in achieving success for the stove project. For example:
- Product and process standards have been introduced in the producer segment to secure the quality consistency and energy efficiency of the stove.
- Each producer has his/hers own unique logo making it possible to trace back individual stoves to a certain producer.
- Certification labels are issued on the basis of observed sales and only once the stock has been monitored and the stoves are living up to the set standards.
- A system of stamping the stoves with the month and year of production has been put in place to enable accurate records of average lifespan of the stoves.
- Producers of the stove are also required to fill out sales log books to document production and sales. This makes it possible for GERES to keep track of how many stoves are being produced and sold every month.

The certification system acts both as a quality control measure and as a monitoring tool to document production and sales rates, usage rates, stove lifetime and the stove shelf time (the time it takes from the stove is produced until it is being used in the households). Being able to collect this type of data is necessary to make the documentations needed to obtain carbon financing.

In the particular case described here the individual program has established its own standards and standard systems have been developed and expanded as the program scaled up. There is quite a lot of documentation on this project and by looking at verification and monitoring reports (for this and other best practice projects) it may be possible to identify indicators, measurement approaches etc. that could inspire a wider M&E framework.

And then of cause there is a difference between using an artisanal approach to stove dissemination and mass manufacturing and distribution of stoves but that is another discussion. Maybe different M&E frameworks need to be developed for different project implementation approaches? I will leave that up in the air for discussion.

Have a good weekend!
Best regards,

Douglas F. Barnes..... said...

Many thanks for this excellent update of the work in Cambodia. It is nice to get a pratical view in a specific project context.

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Slow combustion heaters said...

Rating system is very useful and I think that we need to establish a framework for standards,protocols and rating systems.