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Air: Local Ordinances Regulating Outdoor Wood Boilers and Residential Wood Smoke

Outdoor wood boilers (OWBs), sometimes called water stoves, are an increasingly popular and affordable way to heat homes in Wisconsin. Yet if they’re designed, installed, or operated incorrectly, they can cause air pollution and health harms.

Take these steps ensure your OWB is helping keep the air clear so everyone can breathe easier:

  • Install a smokestack that is as least 15 feet tall (and taller than nearby structures) to divert smoke away from neighbors.
  • Purchase an efficient Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-certified, clean-burning OWB to reduce wood smoke and particle pollution.
  • Place OWBs at least 300 to 500 feet from neighbors’ buildings.
  • Size your OWB for your heating needs.
  • Only burn dry, untreated wood.
  • Provide sufficient air to the fire—never let it smolder.
  • Close your windows and doors to keep smoke out of your home.

The most frequent complaint that state and local health departments receive about OWBs is that chronic smoke exposure causes respiratory problems in people who live near them.

Local ordinances

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) gets a lot of questions from local governing and health boards when they’re developing rules regulating the use of OWBs. Having rules like these is important when concerns arise over air pollution. If there aren’t rules in place, health departments can provide information but typically can’t intervene except in the most obvious cases.

These kinds of rules can take a variety of forms. A few states have adopted statewide OWB regulations that govern things like:

  • How far the boiler is from the property line.
  • The stack height.
  • The use of clean-burning technology for new installations.
  • The use of well-seasoned fuel.
  • When the boiler can be used.

Wisconsin doesn’t have a statewide rule. Yet the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources maintains a Summary of Regulations for Open Burning webpage, with sections covering a range of outdoor burning practices. These regulations have been adopted either in their entirety or in part by many local governments in Wisconsin. Some cities also have chosen to regulate OWBs through zoning laws or fire codes.

List of local ordinances

To understand where and how OWBs are regulated in Wisconsin, use this List of Local Ordinances Regulating Outdoor Wood Boilers and Residential Wood Smoke (PDF) on the Wisconsin Law Library internet portal. Of the 580 municipal governments (county level or smaller) listed on the portal, 39% have some form of ordinance in place that could apply to OWB use. Of these:

  • 29% license and regulate OWBs.
  • 26% ban their use completely.
  • 34% have a general nuisance smoke or air pollution ordinance that doesn’t specifically mention OWBs.
  • 11% fall under a variety of zoning, chimney, or building codes.

The list was compiled in 2012. It isn’t complete or updated regularly, but it’s a starting point local governments can use when thinking about enacting their own ordinances.

Learn more about outdoor wood boilers

Last revised April 18, 2023