Larry LaRue

Wood stove replacement discounts: What’s the catch? There isn’t one in Pierce County

When 81-year-old Nelson Williams went looking for ways to cut down on his heating bill — and maybe improve the air quality in his aging home — he found a solution that dealt with both.

His wife, Harriet, wasn’t having it.

“Skeptical? Yes, I was,” she said. “I thought it might be some outfit that tried to con senior citizens.”

Turned out, it was just the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department working in conjunction with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The deal did, indeed, seem too good to believe.

“When people first hear about it and call, they’re incredibly skeptical,” said Jennifer Halverson Kuehn, a Health Department promotion coordinator. “They listen and ask, ‘And then what?’ They want to know the consequences. There are none.”

The Pierce County Wood Stove Recycle Program works like this:

If you live inside the Tacoma-Pierce County Smoke Reduction Zone and have a non-certified wood stove — or any pre-1995 stove — you qualify.

If you can bring that stove to the Health Department site, you’ll get a $350 rebate. If you need to have it removed, the department will send a contractor to do that — and still give you $200.

If you want to replace that wood stove with a cleaner heating device, the program will pay $1,500 of the cost. (There are six heating options offered.)

The Williams, who have lived in their Tacoma home since 1967, proceeded cautiously. They had a wood stove in their basement, and an oil-burning furnace.

“The wood stove was smoky, and the cost of oil just kept rising,” Nelson Williams said. “At one point, our bill was about $500 a month. That’s what sent me looking for a change in the first place.”

The recycling program removed the Williams’ wood stove and, through one of 11 contractors it works with, had an electric heat pump installed last May.

“That cost about $3,000, so they paid half up front,” Nelson Williams said.

His wife has become a believer.

“We paid for the new system with lower bills the first 10 months,” she said. “We were saving $100 or more each month — and the air was cleaner. You could smell the difference in this old house.”

The program, which began in 2007, has removed about 2,700 wood stoves from Pierce County homes. About 1,000 of them have come out in the past two years.

“There are approximately 20,000 wood stoves that qualify in the area,” Halverson Kuehn said. “As it stands, the program ends at the end of June. Until then, we can help anyone who qualifies.”

In February, Tacoma and Pierce County were removed from the federal government’s watch list of worst air pollution areas. But that doesn’t mean officials can breathe easy. In fact, to escape the list, they had to agree to a 10-year plan that includes continued efforts to replace uncertified wood stoves and fireplace inserts.

Next week happens to be National Public Health Week, and the Health Department is trying to get attention for all its programs, including wood stove recycling

Among those who went with that option last year were John and Jeannetta Charity-Cole, who bought an east Tacoma two-story home in 2013.

“That first summer, it was so hot upstairs we slept on a pallet downstairs with fans all over the place,” Jeannetta said. “We had a wood stove that didn’t work and a baseboard heating system that didn’t really heat the house in the winter. We had little space heaters running all the time,”

Through the county’s program, they qualified to have their wood stove removed and a new heating and cooling system installed.

That wasn’t all.

When the Health Department recognized the family qualified for a separate program through Tacoma Public Utilities, it sent Jeannetta there. TPU’s program deals with home insulation and weatherization.

“We had single-pane windows and qualified to have 16 double-paned glass windows installed,” Jeannetta said. “It didn’t cost us a thing. We qualified for insulation, too.”

The oddest thing about the whole process, she said, was the response of her neighbors. While the work was being done, all of them were curious what was going on.

“They couldn’t believe me when I said it didn’t cost anything,” she said. “I couldn’t get any of them to even apply to see if they qualified.”

Halverson Kuehn has been fighting that same fight for years.

“The toughest aspect of it has been convincing people there’s no catch,” she said.

“There really isn’t one.”