When the Environmental Protection Agency tightened regulations on fireplace carbon emission levels last year, a second-generation entrepreneurial spirit ignited at the Wilkening Fireplace Company outside of Walker. An EPA standard was announced a year ago which basically changed the terminology regulating fireplaces, owner Gary Wilkening explained of the built-in adjustable burn rate heater. The regulations “changed the defininition of a fireplace.” The changes sent him a mission to meet the wood smoke emission requirements, reading regs, meeting with attorneys and contacting the EPA. “We ultimately redesigned our product,” he said, “creating a new category.” Wilkening’s late father Albert had invented the Fireplace Home Heater in his garage in 1971, opening the family business in 1973. “Prior to his design, fireplaces took out more heat from the home than it created,” Gary said.
Albert’s design “had the fireplace look, but it heated the house.” In February 2015, Wilkening faced a decision: the EPA regulations would either eliminate fireplaces’ heating capacity or create a whole new category of product. The retail store would continue, he said, but the manufacturing of the fireplaces on site would close - unless he came up with a solution. “We created opportunity from peril,” Wilkening said light-heartedly.
EPA regulation of woodburning products began in 1988, he said of the initial 7.5 grams per hour of carbon emissions. The levels were tightened in the 1990s, “but nothing more was done for 20-plus years.” But in 2010, regulations began tightening. The proposed standards were published in 2014. The standards came out in early 2015. Manufacturing was to halt on anything that did not meet the 4.5 grams of emission per hour regulations by May 15, 2015. And that was to go to 2 grams by 2020. The Wilkening fireplace was 41 inches of glass short of viewing area. “Because of the size of the glass, we could not have an adjustable air control,” he explained.
Experiments ensued, quarter-century assistant Scott Winter offering production advice. “We did it. But it didn’t come easy,” he said of the 12-hour days, seven-day weeks that ensued, watching a fireplace burning. He designed a fireplace that “met the definition,” 500 surface inches of viewing area and a single burn rate control.”That’s the easy part,” Wilkening said. “The trick is to make it efficient and meet requirements,” he said. “It’s a matter of carbureting air to fire at the right temperature, amounts and location. “It literally came down to moving holes a quarter inch,” he said of engaging “years of experience and refining what’s been done in the past. I knew if I didn’t have it done by Sept. 1, I wasn’t going to be able to manufacture it,” he said of EPA deadlines. Two tests were scheduled at a lab in Madison, Wis., the first in June, “which I was convinced wouldn’t make it,” and the second Aug. 22, “when we walked right through it. “I could hardly drive home,” he admits of the mix of relief and rapture. “We made a larger fireplace that’s more aesthetically pleasing,” he said of the evolution. “But it was only 70 percent done,” he said. “Now we had to manufacture it to meet the refinements.” The first fireplace was created by hand, completed in mid-October. Manufacturing began in November and units were being shipped by mid-month. “We’re seven-eighths done,” said the entrepreneur, who began welding at 12. “Now there’s the loose ends.” Several competitors “have fallen by the wayside,” he said. “Some met the standard prior.” But the Walker-based company and one other are the only ones he knows of that have an approved redesign. “Now we are in the process of rebuilding our network,” Wilkening said distribution spreading to the eastern U.S. “The 2008 recession hurt dramatically. We were just gaining momentum when the regulations came down. Now we’re on track to grow.”