Local Ordinances Regulating Outdoor Wood Boilers and Residential Wood Smoke in Wisconsin

Outdoor Wood Boilers (OWBs) are an increasingly popular form of residential heating furnace in Wisconsin. The OWB concept has features attractive to the homeowner. However, there is a potential for problems if the OWB is improperly designed, installed, or operated. There is also a potential for conflicts with neighbors when the OWB is too close to neighboring buildings, has a smokestack that is too short to disperse smoke away from neighbors, is too large for the heated building, or uses poor-quality fuel. The most frequent problems reported to state and local health departments about OWBs is that of nuisance smoke conflicting with neighbors and respiratory problems associated with chronic exposure to smoke.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) is frequently asked by local governing boards and local health boards for information when developing rules regulating OWBs. Neighbor-to-neighbor conflicts related to OWB use are most easily resolved when rules anticipating these conflicts are in place. In the absence of rules, health departments can provide information, but typically can intervene only in the worst or most obvious nuisance smoke cases.

OWB rules take a variety of forms. A few states have adopted state-wide OWB regulations that include provisions for setback from property lines, stack height, use of clean-burning technology for new installations, use of well-seasoned fuel, and limiting use to the winter heating season. Wisconsin does not have a state-wide rule. However, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has published a Model Ordinance for Outdoor Burning, with sections covering a range of outdoor burning practices. The DNR model ordinance has been adopted in its entirety or in part by many local municipalities in the state. Alternatively, some municipalities have chosen to regulate OWBs within zoning laws or fire codes.

In an attempt to understand where and how OWBs are regulated in Wisconsin, DHS compiled a list of local smoke and OWB-related ordinances (PDF, 604 KB) throughout the state using the Wisconsin Law Library internet portal in July 2012. Of 580 municipal governments (county level and smaller) listed on the Law Library portal, 228 (39%) have some form of ordinance potentially applicable to OWB use. Of these, 65/228 (29%) of the ordinances sought to license and regulate OWBs, and 60/228 (26%) ban OWB use within the jurisdiction. Many jurisdictions, 78/228 (34%), have a general nuisance smoke or air pollution ordinance that does not specifically mention OWBs. The remaining 25 ordinances fell under a variety of zoning, chimney, or building codes. In a few cases, municipal codes referenced a smoke or OWB-related rule, but the text was not accessible for review.  The list (PDF, 604 KB), compiled in July 2012, is not a complete list and will not be updated regularly. But it is a starting point intended to be used by municipalities considering enacting their own ordinances. The list provides links to existing local ordinances.

For more information on OWBs, see the DHS website on OWBs.

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Last Revised: August 26, 2016