"A smidgen of good and no harm" is how a former CPSC commissioner describes the effects of the woodstove labeling rule. That assessment might be apt for UL 1482, but for the CPSC rule it is overstated. Given the modest scope of the rule and the low level of compliance with it,
there is little doubt that the rule cost more than it is worth. It is not a very burdensome rule, however, so the loss itself might be only a smidgen. But adopting the standard did not demonstrate good judgment on the part of the commission. The performance of the staff was equally disappointing, as they were unable to provide the commission with answers to many of the questions that arose during the proceedings. They shied away from technical issues at all possible junctures. Although the CPSC regulation apparently did little to improve safety directly, it may have done so indirectly. The CPSC's proposal certainly prompted UL to modify its own labeling requirements, and those changes might have produced minor benefits. The CPSC's action may also have contributed to the dramatic increase in the percentage of stoves certified to UL 1482 in the years after the Banner petition was received.
The major fault with the CPSC rule is not what it covers, but in what it does not. By writing only a labeling rule, the agency missed the opportunity to regulate a problem not covered by the UL standard: creosote production. CPSC staff members defend the decision on the grounds that the agency was responding solely to the Banner petition. This excuse is disingenuous in light of the broad reading given to other petitions. Mr. Banner's general concern was woodstove safety, and the agency certainly would not have exceeded its statutory authority by adopting a more comprehensive rule. Why, then, did the CPSC ignore the creosote problem? Two explanations are most likely. First, the agency misperceived the problem. It thought that most fires were caused by poor installation, when the data suggest that creosote in chimneys is in fact a much larger problem. Second, the staff sought to avoid technical issues. They realized that a product standard would be complicated and difficult to support in court. The agency had lost legal challenges to several earlier rules and, of late, had also lost substantial funding from Congress. A labeling rule seemed easier to defend in court and would be much less resource intensive for the agency. In short, the CPSC staff did not address creosote because they were looking for simple issues susceptible to simple solutions. A labeling rule fit the bill much better than a full-blown product standard, even though the latter might have had much more effect on safety.
UL's performance is harder to evaluate. UL 1482 has prompted some manufacturers to make design changes, while it codifies the existing design of others. Some of the changes dictated by the standard have improved the safety of the product; many have made little difference.
This suggests an element of unreasonableness in the standard. Although some firms express displeasure with UL 1482 for this reason, the sentiment is not widely held. The woodstove manufacturers' trade association endorses the standard almost without qualification. The main benefit of UL 1482 is the fire tests, which provide helpful, standardized information on clearances to combustibles. There are legitimate questions about the assumptions built into the test methods, and there are only limited data to support the specific performance criteria, but no one familiar with UL 1482 considers it to be grossly inappropriate. The standard appears to do a good job of determining safe clearances—something the CPSC knew it could not accomplish.
To the extent that labeling matters, UL can be faulted for allowing limited warnings and installation instructions for so many years. These provisions were upgraded when the standard was formally published, probably in response to the CPSC. The UL standard also avoids the creosote problem. It does not test for creosote production and, contrary to UL's assurances to canvass participants, the organization has no intention of addressing the issue. This appears to reflect a philosophical position that UL has against addressing problems caused by consumer misuse or neglect. The causes and implications of this philosophy are explored in chapter 7.