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Living Off Grid - Masonry Heaters

2/17/2012 2:22:00 PM

Tags: off grid, living off grid, masonry heater, Ed Essex

One of the big decisions we had to make when we were planning our new off grid home was what kind of heat we were going to have? We pretty much eliminated anything that would require electricity such as a heat pump or forced air furnace since we’re going to produce our own electricity with solar power. Ideally an underground home with passive solar design was the very best design concerning heating but Laurie may have put me underground about 6’ if I tried to put her in an underground house so we had to keep looking.

We considered geothermal but it wasn’t practical due to water availability concerns and again, the electricity required for the pump. We were trying to stay away from propane heat in the pursuit of sustainability.

We did have 40 acres of trees and wood heat was a consideration but what would be the best kind of apparatus to deliver the heat? I had heated for years with a wood stove and didn’t particularly like the unevenness of the heat circle. If you place them where you live (living room) it can get pretty hot up close. A wood furnace would once again have the need of electricity for the fan to circulate. Fireplaces are not efficient or effective with the possible exception of a Rumford.

At the time we were planning this new home I was fortunate enough to be self employed in the commercial masonry business. I was discussing the heating issue with a colleague one day and he asked me if I had considered a masonry heater for my primary heat source.  Well, I just told you I was the Owner but I never said I was a professional mason. He explained to me that there were other terms like Russian stove or Russian fireplace etc. I had heard of those before but didn’t know what they were. I started doing research as soon as he left my office.

 Heater w CabinetsKitchen heater w cabinetsThe short of it is that we did indeed end up with a masonry heater as our primary heat source.  We also had a wood burning kitchen stove and oven built on one end of the heater. I can’t tell you how happy we are with our choice. These heaters are over 95% efficient. Some claim they are the cleanest heat source available in terms of emissions. They burn so hot that all of the gases and toxins are burnt up before they go out the chimney. Once the fire is started they are virtually smokeless.

Heater FireThey work differently than a woodstove. When a woodstove gets too hot you have to damper it down and they don’t always burn as clean as you would like when that happens. You also have to keep a woodstove going 24/7 in the cold months.

Masonry heaters are different. They are a solid mass of brick and/or stone with a unique course for the exhaust to travel from the firebox to the chimney. The exhaust chamber starts at the firebox and then winds through the mass of masonry before it exits out the chimney. This allows the masonry mass to be heated thoroughly in a short time. We burn our hot fire for about two hours and then shut it down completely. Fire out. The heated masonry mass then continues to emit passive heat for the next 10 hours. Passive heat is the most comfortable heat there is. It is the same type of heat the sun puts out. You can even touch the outer stone with your hand without getting burnt so they are much safer for children and pets to be around.

Because you only burn for two hours twice a day you save on wood. We are going to use about six cords of wood per year but we live in cold country. This heater has kept our house (1400 sf) at a comfortable temperature when it was down to -9 degrees F so far. We did have to close off two rooms that didn’t need to be heated. If we need more heat or if we don’t want to close those two doors we just light a fire in the kitchen stove. If I had this same heater in my old house I would only use about three cords per year. We have even learned to use our kitchen stove to heat the house in the milder temperatures like spring and fall. That takes about an armload of wood per day.

These heaters have been around for hundreds of years. They were developed and are still quite popular in Europe. Mark Twain commented that they were the most comfortable heat he had ever experienced after a trip overseas. They were developed as Europe became more populated and wood became scarce. Short hot fires to heat the mass and then let the mass emit heat for hours afterward. Most of them had ovens and even platforms for sleeping attached.

There are six different types of masonry heaters. Ours is a Finnish Contraflow. Each type has unlimited design ability. They are all custom designed and built.

Before stone facing heater startThere is a downside to these heaters. They are expensive. I may not have had ours put in except I was in the business and was able to cut the costs considerably. You can’t imagine why they cost so much until you see one being built. They are complicated to build and require more material than you could ever imagine if you didn’t see it with your own eyes. There is a legitimate reason they are so expensive. I should also mention that you have to burn relatively small pieces of wood, not to exceed 4”. That means way more splitting than a wood stove or furnace.

You can build one yourself but I would caution you to do a lot of research on the design and size before you do. If you are going to hire it done like I did, make sure your designer/mason is qualified and experienced. This is too large of expenditure and too important to your well being and comfort to do otherwise. For references or research I would suggest you start at your local masonry supply store or visit the MasonryHeater Association Of North America on line. You might also look at FirecrestFireplaces .

As an aside, we did put direct vent propane wall heaters in as backup if we have to leave the house for any length of time during the winter.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and offgridworks.com.

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Post a comment below.

 

ED ESSEX
4/6/2012 8:34:12 PM
Whoops, that comment was for Faith.

ED ESSEX
4/6/2012 8:33:44 PM
Thank you!

ED ESSEX
4/6/2012 8:33:12 PM
Faith,soap stone is the best. The fake stone you see everywhere today is not recommended. We used Quartzite and it seems to be a good match.

ED ESSEX
4/6/2012 8:31:52 PM
Patricia,soap stone is the best. The fake stone you see everywhere today is not recommended. We used Quartzite and it seems to be a good match.

John Williams
2/20/2012 12:24:49 AM
First time to comment and get involved in this blog… I’ve been Mother Earth News reader sense the 70’s and In 1979 on I have designed and built several Earth Sheltered Homes. http://Earthshelteredconsultants.us (rebuilding web site now due to web host dropping all) But check it out if you like as it is being built. I’m also into Off The Grid Earth Sheltered Housing and ECO-PODS and alternates Thinking Outside The Box. I’m presently building several types of these units on a lot behind my present home. Earth Sheltered Container with Solar Passive and other off grid accessories like Solar Cooking, Parabolic Mirror from 10’ and a 6’ satellite dish, and implementation of many other things. Much going on that I should be sharing with all who are interested.

John Williams
2/20/2012 12:24:09 AM
I have always used Solar Passive and mass in my Earth Sheltered Homes… 2’ of earth over top and southern exposure and back in 1979-80 installed fire places with plenum circulation and/or heat stoves for homes… NOT NEEDED… and owners couldn’t use due to no need and overheating home. The homes have not used heat or cooling sense built in 79 and 80… houses paid from themselves via savings.

PATRICIA STRALEY
2/18/2012 11:24:59 PM
When we built our house in 2001, we put in Crossfire Masonry Heaters. http://www.crossfirefireplaces.com/. The cost was a bit more expensive than a high end insert and we still had to face the thing with brick so it was a no brainer for us. Love the quick hot fire that keeps the house warm all night. Just got back from the step sons place where you had to add wood to the stove a couple of times each night. Glad to be back to my masonry heater.

Faith Boudreau
2/18/2012 7:03:17 PM
Is there a difference in the heat retention and radiance based on the stone selected? Brick vs. stone vs soapstone vs other? Anyone know?

Faith Boudreau
2/18/2012 6:59:51 PM
I have been looking into this type of system for a couple of years. I am in the process of selling my current home and looking to downsize a bit. Although I have seen a couple of places with this type of heating system, they are rare. So....whatever place I purchase will be with an eye to accommodating the addition of a masonry heater. At the present time I have a soapstone wood stove. Like a masonry heater the radiant heat from this stove is very comfortable. However, you have to keep feeding it. Therefore, my next move will be to have a place with a masonry heater. Congratulations on your new system. It is beautiful!










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