Penn State

Smoke signals: Penn State students work toward EPA certification

Students gather around the truck that produces numerous plumes of smoke for the participants identify. Penn State's Visible Emissions Training Program, also known as Smoke School, is being held at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel October 22, 2014.
Students gather around the truck that produces numerous plumes of smoke for the participants identify. Penn State's Visible Emissions Training Program, also known as Smoke School, is being held at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel October 22, 2014. CDT photo

Twenty-five plumes of white smoke rise. Twenty-five plumes of black smoke do the same.

Could you tell the difference in opacity between each puff?

If certified by smoke master and Penn State faculty member Vern Irwin, you would be able to.

Irwin’s smoke school, held Wednesday morning behind The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, provides Environmental Protection Agency-required certifications for individuals holding a Title V permit.

“Anybody that releases any kind of pollutant that’s visible is required to have a (Title V) permit, and have people on site at all times that can read the opacity of a plume of smoke,” said Irwin, a certification test instructor with the Penn State visible emissions testing program and an instructor in the College of Engineering.

Title V refers to the section of the EPA Clean Air Act covering permit programs and requirements.

Plumes can mean anything from the smoke coming from a factory smokestack to the clouds of dust released by a quarry crusher, Irwin said.

“Dust and smoke are basically the same,” he said.

The opacity of a plume tells you how many emissions are going into the air, he said, and is what the Department of Environmental Protection and the federal government use to cite people for emissions violations.

Although there are other tests that are more accurate, Irwin said, the certification allows people to simply look at a plume and judge whether there is a violation.

“They can do it with just their eyes,” he said. “They don’t need any equipment, can be offsite of the actual facility and still judge if they are in violation.”

The test consists of 25 plumes of white smoke and 25 plumes of black smoke, he said.

The smoke is generated from a machine in Irwin’s truck.

The white smoke is created by burning diesel fuel, and black smoke comes from toulene burned in an oxygen-reducing atmosphere.

The machine is precise enough to generate plumes from zero to 100 percent opacity in both colors, he said.

Certifications are done in April and October, he said, and serve Pennsylvania and the contiguous states, meaning Irwin sees permit holders from West Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey and Maryland. If someone misses a certification date, they have to travel several states south to find another smoke school.

The smoke machine was constructed by Irwin and his partner, black smoke operator Margaret Gearhart, a field certification instructor with the testing program.

“We worked really hard on building a machine that met the requirements and was robust and easy to maintain,” he said.

Becuase they work on combustion principles, the machines tend to require a lot of maintenance and replacement of parts before they fail, Irwin said.

But Irwin has never had to cancel a smoke school in the 37 years he’s been certifying, he said.

“We really pride ourselves in having a machine that runs every single time we fire it up,” he said.

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