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Family-run Iron Range furnace company hopes clean design will pay off

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Lamppa Manufacturing in Tower, Minn.
Daryl Lamppa sits in the little office at the front of his creamery-turned manufacturing plant on March 27, 2019, in Tower, Minn.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Something innovative is happening inside a cramped 85-year-old creamery in tiny Tower in northeastern Minnesota. 

Tower, Minn.
Tower, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

The squat, white exterior gives way to a busy manufacturing floor, where a handful of workers are welding together the most efficient — and cleanest — wood furnace that's ever been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Lamppa Manufacturing is preparing for an expansion, just as the federal government is about to tighten its regulations on the wood heaters it produces. But instead of slowing things down for Lamppa, the new rules could give the tiny Iron Range company a leg up on its competition — but only if the Trump administration leaves them in place. 

Darryl Lamppa designed the wood furnace that's now the cleanest of its kind in the country. But he traces his company's roots to his grandfather, who during the Depression built wood-burning stoves for the saunas of Finnish settlers in the north woods. 

"Everybody in that area, they wanted a Richard Lamppa sauna stove, because my grandpa was the head welder at the shipyards in Duluth when they were first welding down there," Daryl Lamppa said.

His grandpa made the sauna stoves in his spare time. He taught Daryl's father, who, in turn, taught him. 

Then, after a scare one winter when his own chimney caught on fire, Daryl and his dad began building wood furnaces, similar to the wood stoves his grandfather had built, but bigger, and used to heat an entire house instead of just one room. 

The Lamppas reasoned that if they could build a furnace that didn't emit any smoke and that burned efficiently, they'd also be able to get rid of the creosote — that black, sticky, highly flammable residue that can build up on the inside of chimneys — that caused the fire at Daryl's house.

"My dad was right: If you burn wood with no smoke, you get rid of the creosote and you more or less get rid of pollution. And what's better than that?" Lamppa said.

Lamppa Manufacturing in Tower, Minn.
Lamppa Manufacturing's Tower, Minn., headquarters is located inside an old creamery-turned wood furnace plant on March 27, 2019.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Lamppa, 70, is a wood-burning evangelist. He started tinkering with wood furnace designs nearly 50 years ago when he would deliver milk in the mornings and attend college at night. By the 1970s, he and his dad had put their designs to work, making sauna stoves and furnaces in the makeshift workshop at the creamery. 

Their timing was perfect. After the oil embargo earlier that decade, Americans by the millions started heating with wood. These days, about one in every 10 American homes has some kind of wood heater.

But in those early days, wood heaters weren't required to meet environmental regulations.

"That has left the country with a legacy of these very basic, smoky boxes," said John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat. "And we're still living with that legacy. The majority of wood stoves are old ones that are not regulated."

Those old devices emit a lot of pollution. In Minnesota, about half of all fine particulate pollution comes from wood combustion, which can cause bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory problems. 

In 1989 the EPA placed emissions standards on smaller wood stoves for the first time. But those regulations ignored wood boilers and furnaces, which heat entire homes. It wasn't until 2015 that the EPA placed regulations on those bigger devices. Next May, those regulations are scheduled to get even stricter. 

The new regulations will only apply to new wood-burning appliances and not to the millions of stoves, furnaces and boilers already installed in homes around the country. 

But much of the wood heating industry has fought back against those new regulations. They're claiming the new rules are too strict and too fast. 

The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association sued the government over the 2020 update. 

Lamppa Manufacturing in Tower, Minn.
Dave Karki welds an "airbox" for Lamppa Manufacturing's EPA-approved wood burning furnace, inside an 85-year old creamery in Tower, Minn., March 27, 2019.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

John Crouch, the organization's director of public affairs, said he agrees there needs to be a uniform federal regulation. "But it does need to be well thought out and attainable," he said.

When the new regulation goes into effect next spring, it will be illegal to sell a product that doesn't meet new standards. 

"So, that means that one day, you can sell whatever is in your warehouse, and the next day, if you haven't sold it, it's a boat anchor. You can't even give it away," Crouch said. "It's a fairly draconian rule."

The Trump administration is now considering whether it will relax the regulation and has proposed allowing retailers to sell less-efficient stoves for two more years. But a number of states, including Minnesota, argue that the new rules should be allowed to go into effect. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wrote a letter to the EPA in support of letting the May 2020 regulations take effect as written.

"We really do need to improve wood-burning practices, and this is a good first step," said Anne Jackson, an engineer at the state agency. "We are in full support of these standards as they were adopted in 2015, we're doing our best to implement them as they're written, and we'll look forward to EPA doing the right thing here, and not modifying the compliance deadline."

Jackson said companies have known since 2010 that the new standards were coming — and they've had time to prepare.

Lamppa Manufacturing in Tower, Minn.
Lamppa Manufacturing's Kuuma Vapor-Fire 100 was the first wood burning furnace to meet the EPA's Phase 2 certification, which goes into effect in May 2020. After the furnace was tested, the company installed it in its factory in Tower, Minn., to heat it. General Manager Dale Horihan said March 27, 2019, that the furnace exceeded the standard by 40 percent.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Daryl Lamppa said he thinks he should be rewarded for the time and money he's put into developing a cleaner stove that was the first to meet the tough new regulations. A second furnace company has also since met the EPA's 2020 standard.

"We figured someday that we could get this thing really going if we got something that nobody else has, and help the community," he said.

About 25,000 wood-burning furnaces are sold every year in the United States. Reaching even a 10 percent market share would have a huge impact for Lamppa — and Tower, Lamppa said.

To get there, the company plans to move into a new building next month. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board loaned the Tower Economic Development Authority $1.8 million to build the new factory. In the creamery building, the company can make about eight to 10 furnaces a week, Horihan said. But in the new building, Lamppa Manufacturing plans to increase that production significantly. 

"Two years ago, there were three employees," the company's general manager, Dale Horihan, said. "We've got nine right now. We really can't hire any more because we just don't have space."

Lamppa said whatever the EPA decides will have an impact on his business. But he hopes, either way, that by the end of the year he'll have 20 employees welding together those wood-burning furnaces.