Will Air Quality Issues Put a Damper on the Outdoor Kitchen?

Spurred by the popularity of cooking and home improvement TV programs, outdoor living spaces, especially those that include fully equipped backyard kitchens with smokers, pizza ovens and built-in BBQs are one of the top remodeling trends, as identified by the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2013.

While grills and other cooking devices produce some mouthwatering food, the smoke produced by the gourmet grilling and cooking of cuisine in these exterior kitchens is resulting in a tremendous amount of eye-watering smoke. This in turn has a very negative impact on the air quality (we had eleven straight Spare the Air days in January).

In addition to the air becoming polluted, consumer complaint lines are increasingly becoming bombarded with protests from neighbors stating the smoke is getting into their homes and adversely affecting their health.

In a residential neighborhood pollution study conducted in 2012 by the University of California, Davis, it was discovered that grills that use ‘wood-derived’ charcoal generated highly toxic smoke, more than all other sources examined. Even those using gas BBQ sometime add wood or charcoal to lend a more savory flavor to their food.

Alongside the typical BBQ found in many outdoor yards and kitchens, fire pits and smokers rank high among homeowners as desired outdoor cooking appliances. The resulting smoke created by these appliances can get trapped in the foliage of trees as well as in the air, especially if the Silicon Valley is experiencing a Spare the Air event. One person’s meal can result in many unhappy and miserable neighbors as the smoke wafts into nearby homes.

The Spare the Air program was initiated in 1991 by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District with a two-pronged goal: to reduce air pollution and to provide residents with advanced notice when Spare the Air restrictions are in effect. There are two Spare the Air ‘seasons’, both of which have different polluting components.

The Summer season finds ozone pollution and smog as the primary culprits. People are asked to drive less while also minimizing other activities that contribute to the unhealthy air quality. During the Winter season, particulate matter from smoke and soot can reach unhealthy levels and residents are warned to refrain from wood burning, be it in fireplaces, outdoor fire pits or pellets stoves.

Some cities in the Bay Area have had long-standing outdoor cooking constraints but federal and local agencies have yet to impose any such recognized restrictions. This topic may be broached during official public meetings in February and March, possibly forcing this issue to be formally addressed in more detail.

With the popularity of outdoor kitchens and al fresco cooking, it is very possible that there may be limitations placed on their usage to avoid further air pollution as well as keep the peace among neighbors.