My MOTHER's House Part VII: A Masonry Russian Fireplace

In the scramble to build a more efficient woodburner, the fuel-stingy masonry Russian fireplace — a centuries-old backyard technology whose time has come — is rapidly moving up through the pack.

| September/October 1982

Part VII of My MOTHER's House discusses the popularity of the fuel-stingy masonry Russian fireplace. (See the Russian fireplace diagrams in the image gallery.)

In the first six installments of "My MOTHER's House", we've discussed the construction techniques used in erecting our earth-sheltered building and described its solar heating and cooling systems. However, despite our structure's inherently low demand for energy, and the solar gain it receives, there are likely to be times — although surely only in the dead of winter — when a little boost will be needed to maintain a comfortable interior temperature.

As most of you already know, auxiliary wood heat — largely because of its relatively low cost — is probably the most popular form of backup for energy-efficient buildings. Nowadays, most people choose steel- or iron-bodied stoves, since such heaters are widely recognized to be far more efficient than are conventional fireplaces. However, with more and more individuals discovering the attributes of the so-called masonry Russian fireplace, that bit of standard wisdom is about to be left by the wayside.

In Europe, massive masonry "stoves" have long been (and still are) in general use. Historically, of course, the open hearth dates back to the Dark Ages, but even the comparatively advanced (by today's standards) Russian fireplace predates Ben Franklin's famous heater. At one time, the grubka (as it's called) was commonplace in rural Russian homes, and the concept actually arrived on our shores when a White Russian community formed in Richmond, Maine around the turn of the century.

A massive masonry fireplace is quite different in concept from an "airtight" stove. The common metal heaters provide warmth over extended periods by working under predominantly starved combustion-air conditions. The Russian heater, on the other hand, has an unrestricted air supply and burns its charge of fuel rapidly. The high-temperature flue gases that are generated in the long, narrow firebox are then forced to wind their way through a series of baffles built into the brickwork above the firebox. In the process, a very large percentage of the heat is given up to the masonry. In a typical Russian fireplace, a load of fuel will be all but out after only three hours, but the warmth that's been absorbed by the bricks will continue to radiate for another seven to nine hours!

Obviously enough, it'd be pretty much impossible to load up a 7,500-pound mass of bricks and move it into a laboratory for testing. Consequently, it isn't often easy to compare performance figures for Russian fireplaces with those of conventional heaters. The work that has been done, however, suggests that the very best masonry heaters may have efficiency ratings approaching 90% . . . exceeding even the best metal-bodied stoves. (You might compare that rating to those — for airtight heaters — quoted in the article that begins on page 40.)

7/31/2007 1:52:26 PM

I built a grubka 27 yrs ago, and have saved thousands of dollars on electric heat. I fully concur with all the articles comments. The infra-red heat actually warms the whole house after a few days. 'Things' are warm, not just the air. Feel free to write with any questions.

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