Iron Range wood-furnace factory needs room to grow
TOWER — They say Iron Range Finns are usually a reserved bunch, but Daryl Lamppa talks about his Kuuma wood burning furnaces with the zeal of a traveling street preacher selling the Good Book.
Lamppa is convinced his tiny company makes the absolute best wood furnace in North America. They burn cleaner, steadier, longer and cheaper than any other wood furnace, he says, and he has the numbers to prove it.
"I think we're on the verge of really something big here, not just for us, but for Tower," Lamppa said in his cramped office in the old creamery where his company has been making wood stoves for nearly four decades. "Nobody can touch what we have here."
When the News Tribune talked to Lamppa in 2011, he was smiling over the federal government's proposed standard for wood-burning air pollution, a rule causing heartburn for most of his competitors. The Environmental Protection Agency was getting ready to impose a limit of .93 pounds of particulate matter — soot and ashes — for every million BTUs produced.
Lamppa was smiling because his furnaces already were tested at far less than a half-pound of soot per million BTUs, well within the limit.
Many wood furnaces and stoves burn inefficiently, belching smoke, creosote and particulate matter up the chimney along with toxic chemicals. That particulate matter builds up to cause smog, sometimes to levels unhealthy for people.
When the new EPA regulation went into effect in 2015, several long-standing wood furnace makers simply shut down. Alpha American Company near McGregor stopped selling its Yukon furnaces in the U.S. because it couldn't certify that they meet the EPA limits. (The company still sells furnaces in some Canadian provinces.) Charmaster, based just outside Grand Rapids, appears to have shut down operations, its website defunct and phone unanswered.
Now, the EPA is getting ready to tighten the soot limit even more, down to just 0.15 pounds of particulate starting in 2020. Data posted on websites of the remaining manufacturers still selling wood furnaces in the U.S. show six of the seven currently don't meet the 2020 limit.
Lamppa is betting that the Trump administration won't stall the strict new rules. And he's predicting that most other fwo furnace manufacturers simply won't be able to hit the new numbers.
And he's smiling broader than ever because his stoves are already there. It took three years of hounding Environmental Protection Agency staff, about $200,000 spent and intervention from U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan to push it through the federal bureaucracy. But Lamppa's Kuuma Vapor-Fire 100 wood furnace is the first and only certified by an independent testing lab as more than meeting the 2020 EPA regulation.
Each of the furnaces now carries an EPA-certified label.
"The industry said nobody could do it. But we're at 0.093 pounds ... we beat it by 40 percent," Lamppa said. "A little company in Tower, Minn., showed them it could be done."
Growing at home
The company had its roots in Embarrass, where Richard Lamppa, a blacksmith for the federal Works Progress Administration, used his Finnish heritage to make wood stoves for saunas during the 1930s.
Richard's son Herb Lamppa, now 87 (a longtime county commissioner), joined Richard. Now Herb's son, Daryl, 67, is leading the way. The fourth-generation Lamppa is involved now with Daryl's son, Garrett, as the chief bookkeeper and website developer.
Lamppa sees the 2020 EPA certification as the pivot point for the company's first big growth spurt since the family started making indoor wood furnaces in Tower in 1977.
The old creamery-turned-factory and its six employees currently can produce only about 150 furnaces per year, along with some smaller sauna stoves. But Lamppa this month is planning an all-new 4,000-square-foot facility in Tower's new industrial park just off Highway 169 west of town. The building will be designed to easily grow to 6,000 or 8,000 square feet if needed.
Lamppa hopes to be the first tenant in the park, making furnaces and sauna stoves in the new building by Christmas, doubling his workforce to a dozen or more employees — welders and metalworkers — churning out 500 or more Kuuma furnaces each year.
"We're getting bids in right now from construction companies. Daryl really wants to keep it local if we can, both the construction and the materials," said Dale Horihan, Lamppa's general manager. "We've got private financing options, and we're working with the city to do some help. It's still in the works."
Marshall Helmberger, chairman of the Tower Economic Development Authority and local newspaper publisher, said the city is working hard to retain and even grow the company that provides among the highest paying, longstanding jobs in the city.
"We're working on the formal nature of it now," Helmberger said of the business development deal. "We definitely want to keep them here. It's been three generations running this business in Tower. They want to stay in Tower. ... This is the perfect chance to build off our local talent to create sustainable economic development."
The Kuuma (roughly translated to "very hot" in Finnish) has a computer-controlled air-flow system that's patented but not that complicated. The key lies in the fire burning in the ceramic-and-brick-lined firebox slowly, from front to back. The fire is only burning the front part of the wood as it moves up the log, like a cigar, Lamppa notes. Only the part burning creates heat and flame, so each piece of wood can burn longer and more completely, creating even heat in the home for the whole burn.
What's left is a pencil-thin bit of charcoal and a smattering of ash. And the fire burns so efficiently that there's hardly any smoke, let alone soot. And that reduces fire danger.
"There's no smoke. That means there's no creosote. I haven't cleaned my chimney in 30 years," Lamppa brags.
A system of baffles keeps the fire burning at an even heat, and a computer module controls the overall airflow. Set by the homeowner, the module will keep the fire going at the precise level to deal with outside temperatures. All of it runs without a fan to force air through the system. Warm air simply rises up as it moves through. There's also no need for a catalytic converter to re-burn air leaving the stove.
Testimonials abound on Lamppa's website of homeowners burning 40 percent less wood than with their previous indoor wood furnaces or stoves (a wood furnace is designed to be hooked up to a gravity or forced-air duct system and is not designed for ambiance). Homeowners say they can stoke up their Kuuma and not come back for 12-15 hours. Some say they never have to light a fire twice in one winter.
The fully insulated (the outside is cool even when a fire is inside) Kuuma Vapor Fire 100 starts at $5,295 suggested retail. But there are some incentives available. The Minnesota-based Environmental Initiative's Project Stove Swap offers up to $4,000 in rebates to low and mid-income residents of 17 Northeastern Minnesota counties if they swap out their old wood burning device with an EPA-certified wood furnace. The rebate is funded by Minnesota Power. The goal is to replace old smoke-belching woodburners with new, more efficient models.
"Swapping out just one outdated wood stove for a new model is the pollution reduction equivalent of removing over 700 cars from the road per year. Wood smoke can also lead to a variety of short-term and long-term health issues," the group notes.
Lamppa also notes that wood is a renewable (more trees grow back when one is cut) and carbon-neutral fuel source, with supporters arguing that only as much carbon is released during burning wood as would be released if it rotted away. (Critics of wood burning say it still is adding carbon to the atmosphere compared to not burning anything.)
Lamppa estimates about 28,000 wood furnaces are sold in the U.S. every year.
"If we can just get part of that, it's going to be a huge deal for Tower," Lampa said. "We may be the only one left serving the market."