Instructors Offer Visual Emissions Training
October 15, 2013 5:00 PM
by Adam Lidgett
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Most don't realize that the smoke coming from factory smoke stacks can be read with just the naked eye.

That's what they're teaching at the Visible Emissions Training Program this week to anyone from lawyers to environmental engineers.

The people going through the training first spend time in the classroom with John Cambila, a Penn State professor of mechanical engineering, and Wayne Pauley, a principal research engineer at LeMont Nittany Corporation. The United State Environmental Protection Agency requires all facilities with smoke stacks to submit reports on the density of their emissions.

The actual emissions test is run by Vern Irwin and Margaret Gearhart. Irwin is the smoke school field test instructor and instructor in the College of Engineering at Penn State and Gearhart is the owner of Cricket Trax, a consulting, training and database management business that helps with the tests.

Irwin says the EPA requires those who work in fields that have use smoke stacks be able to identify if the smoke coming out of their stacks exceeds the federally-allowed level of opacity. Opacity basically means the density of the smoke, Gearhart says. 

"People have to be certified in Method-9 EPA every six months," Irwin says. "The certification requires them to be able to pass a test of 25 white and 25 black plumes of smoke. They have to read those plumes within certain perimeters."

The smoke plumes that come out of the training machine are between zero and 75 percent opacity. The perimeters are being not plus or minus 15 points off the target.

Irwin, who has been doing emissions training for 30 years, built the machine -- a converted pickup truck -- with Gearhart. Irwin says no one has ever gotten every single plume correct.

"It's kind of like hand grenades," Irwin told the class. "Close enough is good enough."

If the smoke is above 75 percent opacity, it is not as much a question of danger but rather maintaining a low level of pollution in the air.

"If you look at a plume and it's 10 percent to 15 percent opacity every day, then one day you go out at it's 20 percent or 25 percent, it means something has changed [from where the smoke is coming from," Cimbala says. "You can see by your eye if something's wrong."

The EPA and the state regulate the levels of opacity smoke stacks are allowed to have, but this program is for industry people only. The people in the program include boiler operators and quarry operators. Some hospitals will even send people if they still use boilers.

When asked why something as subjective as the human eye is used to test the density of smoke instead of some machine, Cimbala says people with a trained eye can be very accurate.

"Its a very unusual talent," Cimbala says. "The eyes are very sensitive instruments. Guys that have gone through the training can notice differences easily."

The program costs $250 for recertification and and $375 for first time certification.

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