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Neighbor's Wood Smoke Unbearable; Appears There's No Legal Recourse; What to Do?
Old 12-19-2020, 01:51 PM   #1
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Neighbor's Wood Smoke Unbearable; Appears There's No Legal Recourse; What to Do?

I RE'd July 2019 and DW and I moved to the Winchester, VA area that fall and bought a house in fairly new 300 house development. Our house is on one of the outter-most streets. Behind our backyard there are about 200 feet of woods. Outside our subdivision and 400 feet from our house and through this clump of woods is an old house and the family uses a wood-burning stove as its sole heat source (verified by the fire marshall).

In our development our house is the closest one to the wood burning house and during the heating season/winter we are exactly downwind from this house, as the winds come from the northwest. We are also in the Shenandoah Valley and as I have discovered, the Valley experiences frequent inversion layers where there are one to two day periods of no air movement.

Last year right after moving in and all through the winter we experienced a minor annoyance of wood smoke most days. It was also very windy most of the time. We never gave it much thought other than noting some evenings it really smelled. We did not try to identify the source and considered it normal for the area.

I also began having allergy symptoms and burning eyes and DW developed a cough last fall. Since I thought it was a dust issue, I opened windows periodically. We also noticed a continuous acrid sour odor in the house I could not identify or eliminate

This fall we experienced something very different and noticed most days the unbearable stench of acrid wood smoke so bad I could not go outside. My throat and eyes began to burn inside our home and then I noticed the smoke was infiltrating the house and that was the cause of the acrid smell I could not identify. The weather pattern is completely different this fall. It is still about half the time; a gentle breeze comes from the northwest most other days.

Two weeks ago I discovered the smoke was from the chimney of the old house 400 feet upwind from us. I could clearly see the chimney now that the trees were bare. It white smokes copious amounts all day and night and one day I could not see the house through the smoke. We get smoked out on breezy days and on most other days there's an inversion layer and the smoke stagnates around us. We get very little reprieve. We have realized we can not live under these conditions and fear for our health. DW developed fairly continuous and excruciating headaches this fall and I believe we just discovered why.

Now here is the worst part of our nightmare: Virginia offers no legal remedy, even though one should have free use of, and health on their property, and not to be denied this right by other's actions, even if they are legal. To my horror I did find in the current Code of Virginia the following, "No legislative body shall enact a law that limits the smoke output of a wood-burning appliance."

I contacted the county fire marshall and he verified I had no legal recourse and said all he can do is visit the person and explain how to properly use a wood stove. He did that (also said a smoke complaint was the reason for his visit) and followed up with me and said all was in order and they can continue to use the stove as they wish.

The smoke output did not diminish following the fire marshall's visit. I'm still not sure why it smokes constantly; from wood burner forums I looked at, the stove should burn almost smoke free except for morning wood loading and briefly as wood is added throughout the day. It appears they are chocking off the air to limit heat output. I did see the owner split a log and he ended up with a chunk so big he could hardly carry it inside and it appears to be sweet gum or tulip poplar (I heard the sound of a sledgehammer striking a wood wedge and pulled out my binoculars).

I did post my concerns on our neighborhood's Facebook page and no one replied saying they were affected (none of my neighbors within 10 houses of me participate in the group) and I noticed if I walk three houses down or up our street, the wood smoke smell disappears. It's the back of our house that gets the brunt of the smoke and the way our street curves, the houses around ours are fairly shielded from the smoke.

Unfortunately, over the last few days I have read several similar accounts of what we are going through and either the people stay and suffer or move.

As it is now, it appears we can no longer live in our home and have no idea what to do to get through this winter. This has become one of our worst nightmares and is consuming our lives at the moment. The Covid pandemic makes matters even worse. Any guidance appreciated; thanks.

P.s: To those of you looking for a new location to live, please consider the possibility that what I noted above could happen to you and do your diligent research beforehand. I never could have imagined anything like this happening to anyone, but it does.
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Old 12-19-2020, 02:06 PM   #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NateW View Post
I did post my concerns on our neighborhood's Facebook page and no one replied saying they were affected (none of my neighbors within 10 houses of me participate in the group) and I noticed if I walk three houses down or up our street, the wood smoke smell disappears. It's the back of our house that gets the brunt of the smoke and the way our street curves, the houses around ours are fairly shielded from the smoke.
Just curious, have you actually talked to any of your direct neighbors, or those neighbors in the houses say within 5 houses of you on either side, to determine if they are experiencing the same thing?
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Old 12-19-2020, 02:09 PM   #3
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Air Purifier
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Old 12-19-2020, 02:13 PM   #4
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Since it's in the winter, most likely you won't have your windows open while they are burning. Have you tried a good air purifier in your home? When you are outside you could wear an N95 mask to filter out some of the smoke.

Quote:
Originally Posted by NateW View Post
Now here is the worst part of our nightmare: Virginia offers no legal remedy, even though one should have free use of, and health on their property, and not to be denied this right by other's actions, even if they are legal. To my horror I did find in the current Code of Virginia the following, "No legislative body shall enact a law that limits the smoke output of a wood-burning appliance."
Where does that bolded part come from, is that your opinion? The law is clear and you've verified it with probably the best authority that could have have that they are within their rights. I think you need to get over your assertion about what you think you are entitled to, since it won't get you anywhere.

The only other suggestion I have is to research how various wood types burn, and ask them to burn something less smoky instead, and offer to pay the difference. I think green wood tends to burn more smoky than wood that has aged a season.

I suppose you could try a huge fan, something like what you might see on sidelines of a football game in hot weather. Put it on the side of your house closest to them, and try to blow it back away, or maybe to one side.

Beyond that, just face up to it that you have to move. You may think on principle that you shouldn't have to, but are you willing to continue to harm your health on principle? I'd be angry too, but you also have to deal with reality.
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Old 12-19-2020, 02:21 PM   #5
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If you are smelling smoke inside your home with your windows closed, you may have a chimney downdraft problem. You should look into that.
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Old 12-19-2020, 02:30 PM   #6
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Or consider better windows, at least on the side that the smoke comes from.
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Old 12-19-2020, 02:38 PM   #7
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I’m sorry to say, but this problem is for you to solve on your property or look into relocating. That house was there first and is well within their right to do what they are doing unless there are laws to prevent it. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.
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Old 12-19-2020, 02:49 PM   #8
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I live in Colorado. We had lots of fires this year. The AQI numbers were off the chart. There would be ash on our car. It was thick. It smelled. You could feel it as you breathed. This was going to be happening for months on end.

I bought a purpleair monitor and installed it in the house. It was showing particulate counts of over 150 (over 50 is moderately bad, over 100 is bad, over 150 is very bad and so on).

So, we bought an at least MERV 13 air filter for our furnace and ran the furnace fan 24x7 when the smoke was bad outside. AQI numbers in the cabin - in the tens to low teens. Outside in the mid to upper 100's.

Basically, we turned our furnace blower into a whole house air purifier. We had to replace the filters every other week or so (they got very brown, very fast) - but we could breath freely.

We did the same thing at my father in laws house. He has COPD and was getting really affected by the smoke. It completely cleared up his house (normal size house - much larger than our cabin).

You might try that - just do keep an eye on the filter to see how often you might have to change it.
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Old 12-19-2020, 02:50 PM   #9
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Offer to buy them a new stove and higher-quality wood, is all I can think of. If it's any comfort, I am on your side about your right to breathe clean air. But I'm not the law.

Oh, and if you decide to sell, think hard before engaging the nearby neighbors. You wouldn't want a prospective buyer going door-to-door only to hear, "Oh, yeah! Those are the people who have to sell because they get the wood smoke so bad at their house!"
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Old 12-19-2020, 03:20 PM   #10
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I live in Colorado. We had lots of fires this year. The AQI numbers were off the chart. There would be ash on our car. It was thick. It smelled. You could feel it as you breathed. This was going to be happening for months on end.

I bought a purpleair monitor and installed it in the house. It was showing particulate counts of over 150 (over 50 is moderately bad, over 100 is bad, over 150 is very bad and so on).

So, we bought an at least MERV 13 air filter for our furnace and ran the furnace fan 24x7 when the smoke was bad outside. AQI numbers in the cabin - in the tens to low teens. Outside in the mid to upper 100's.

Basically, we turned our furnace blower into a whole house air purifier. We had to replace the filters every other week or so (they got very brown, very fast) - but we could breath freely.

We did the same thing at my father in laws house. He has COPD and was getting really affected by the smoke. It completely cleared up his house (normal size house - much larger than our cabin).

You might try that - just do keep an eye on the filter to see how often you might have to change it.
This is what I would do. Checking the seals on the windows may also help, but a good filtering system should improve the indoor air quality.
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Old 12-19-2020, 03:21 PM   #11
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First, I understand your frustration. Second, I think that you need to recognize that that family has the right to burn wood and since the fire marshall reported all was in order then there probably isn't very much that you can force them to do. While my guess is that they burn wood because that is all that they can afford, it might be that they burn wood because that seems to them to be their only option.

I think I would have a chat with a local woodstove company and see if what you describe is very common and if they have any ideas on any possible solutions. Is their chimney tall enough?

Quote:
...In order to function properly and safely, each part of your fireplace and chimney system should be installed or built correctly. ... The chimney must also be at least two feet taller than any trees, dormers, and roofs within ten feet. If the chimney does not meet these height requirements, problems will occur. ...
Also where you said:
Quote:
...My throat and eyes began to burn inside our home and then I noticed the smoke was infiltrating the house and that was the cause of the acrid smell I could not identify. ...
... it doesn't make any sense to me that if your doors and windows are all closed that smoke will be infiltrating your house... you may want to talk with a HVAC contractor about that.

Also, perhaps you should talk with the health department or environmental quality... while they may have the legal right to burn wood at the same time they don't have the right to polute. I wonder if their woodstove is in comformance with the requisite standards if it is producing that much smoke. We have a modern woodstove and when we burn wood there is very little noticeable odor when standing outside.

You might try going over and talking with them and seeing if they are at all empathetic and might be willing to work with you to try to find a solution. A new woodstove would probably be cheaper than moving.
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Old 12-19-2020, 03:23 PM   #12
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Sounds like they don't really know how to burn properly. Very little smoke should come out of a properly burning wood stove. Probably burning semi green wood and closing the air intake way down on the stove to keep it smoldering and not getting too hot in the house. It is also unsafe for them as they are risking chimney fires.
Not sure how to address it with them directly without causing a riff.
I really feel for you as that would annoy the hell out of me.
We live in the woods of NH and have a wood stove ourselves but I bought a new one that is much more efficient with a secondary burn chamber etc.
We burn about 1 chord of wood per winter but use baseboard hot water as our primary heat source. If I run a wood stove constantly my house gets too hot and I end up having to open windows which kind of defeats the purpose when it is 0 degrees out.
Neighbors are far enough away and I actually enjoy the mellow smell of wood burning when outside in the winter.
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Old 12-19-2020, 03:25 PM   #13
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I guess you will be moving?
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Old 12-19-2020, 03:33 PM   #14
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moved to a...fairly new 300 house development
I wonder what your smoky neighbors think of the development?

Bad situation for you, for sure...but as you have illustrated, there is nothing you can really do about it.
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Old 12-19-2020, 03:45 PM   #15
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First, that really sucks. I feel very bad for you. I’ve found myself in similar situations in the past, but nothing so bad as yours. Second, there’s been some good ideas already about using your HVAC to limit the issue inside your house. In that regard, I’m wondering if an HVAC person could create positive pressure in your house. I know I’ve worked in buildings where the doors won’t even shut due to positive pressure. Of course you’d have to filter the air coming in to create that pressure, but it would keep all other air out.

As for selling the house, you will have a disclosure issue. You now are fully aware of this issue and denying it will put you at risk financially when the sellers find out. If it comes to selling, try to find someone who smokes in their house. They’ll not likely care.

Last, contact the EPA. I understand that the city/state has a law that prevents action against wood burning stoves, but that doesn’t mean the person can pollute. There must be some limit to what an individual can disburse into the air. Another aspect is the smoke. It seems like they are burning wood that is unsuitable for the stove. While it may be true that no laws can be made against the individual, a reasonable question would be that the law does not protect individuals from burning contrary to the manufacture’s instructions/requirements. I’ve never had a wood stove, but any fire pit I’ve bought says to burn seasoned hardwood.

Unfortunately, all I have to offer are random thoughts. I wish you well in dealing with this. Unfortunately, I think you’re going to end up moving or at least becoming a snowbird.
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Old 12-19-2020, 04:03 PM   #16
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I live in Colorado. We had lots of fires this year. The AQI numbers were off the chart. There would be ash on our car. It was thick. It smelled. You could feel it as you breathed. This was going to be happening for months on end.

I bought a purpleair monitor and installed it in the house. It was showing particulate counts of over 150 (over 50 is moderately bad, over 100 is bad, over 150 is very bad and so on).

So, we bought an at least MERV 13 air filter for our furnace and ran the furnace fan 24x7 when the smoke was bad outside. AQI numbers in the cabin - in the tens to low teens. Outside in the mid to upper 100's.

Basically, we turned our furnace blower into a whole house air purifier. We had to replace the filters every other week or so (they got very brown, very fast) - but we could breath freely.

We did the same thing at my father in laws house. He has COPD and was getting really affected by the smoke. It completely cleared up his house (normal size house - much larger than our cabin).

You might try that - just do keep an eye on the filter to see how often you might have to change it.
That's a really great idea. Here in California we have tons of wildfires (or arson) every year now and the stink is awful. An air purifier helps but using the HVAC fan would be far superior I'm sure. I currently have a MERV 8 filter but I might buy a couple of better grade ones for the next time we have problems.
Thanks.
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Old 12-19-2020, 04:10 PM   #17
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If you try to reduce the problem, one thing to work on is to have a positive pressure in the home. It is a little troublesome, because any air you introduce to raise the pressure in the home needs to be very well filtered and heated, or at least your regular furnace will end up heating it. It would be wise to seal it up well, that will reduce, needed inflow air, filter requirements, heating and fan noise.
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Old 12-19-2020, 04:30 PM   #18
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OP - Sounds like air is coming in your house bring in the smoke smell.
Do you have a fireplace ? as they are bad for this.

Basically your furnace burns air in the house and sends it up the chimney, then since your house now is low pressure, air comes in via tiny cracks/crevices.

You could go around the house and find the air leak spots, and seal them. Possibly even call your Utility company for an energy audit, and it may help find the leaks. Basically you want to weather proof your place.

Then quite possibly provide a fresh air intake for the furnace, so it burns less of the household air, and creates less of a negative pressure. You could filter this air so it does not smell.
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Old 12-19-2020, 04:31 PM   #19
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You'd want to invite a few HVAC and Energy Audit specialists over to appraise the situation. A number of things contribute to this problem. Some of it you can remedy, but be wary of pi$$ing away money for various fixes that may not work.

Areas of infiltration include the rim joists, air supply for high efficiency system, chimney, exhaust stack, windows, basement windows, crawl space ventilators, and roof ventilation soffit, roof exhaust, gables).

For the offender, it sounds like there will eventually be a creosote fire.

For you, the air cleaner systems being mentioned would mitigate the inside problem right away. Maybe have another installed on the HVAC too.
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Old 12-19-2020, 04:32 PM   #20
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This issue is basically one of we all share the world type problems.
Suppose some country only used solar power, so now it's air would be pure and clean.. until the air from any other country using cars and coal/gas/oil power plants blew into their country.
We all share the air.
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