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Build an authentic masonry fireplace with the efficiency of a masonry
stove! The baffle system in this fireplace extracts heat from the
exhaust, warming up the thermal mass of brick and rock. The masonry
fireplace can radiate heat for three days after the fire is out!
In this instructional video, Thomas J. Elpel demonstrates the step-by-step process of building a masonry fireplace, starting from the foundation and ending with the chimney. Elpel shows how to lay up the brickwork for the core of the fireplace, how to build the arch, and how to build the baffle system. With the brickwork complete, Elpel demonstrates freehand stone masonry, using natural rock to lay up the stonework around the brick core. DVD. 2012. ISBN: 978-1-892784-34-6. 108
Although I envision a world of houses so energy efficient that they need no heating system, I would not willingly give up my own fireplace. I like to stare at the flames and soak up the warmth on cold winter days, even when the house is already warm. Our fireplace is known as a "masonry stove" or "Russian fireplace," although the technology came from eastern Europe more than Russia. Most traditional masonry stoves have a solid metal door and function more like a woodstove than a fireplace. Ours has a glass door, and thus might be best described as a "masonry fireplace." I use the terms stove and heater inter-changeably, and fireplace to specify a masonry stove with a visible fire.
Masonry heaters are characterized by lots of mass to absorb heat from the fire, plus a snakelike flue to extract heat from the exhaust before ventilating to the outside. The masonry warms up slowly, then
radiates heat out for hours or days afterwards. I learned about traditional masonry stoves through an article in Mother Earth News magazine, about a masonry stove designed by Basilio Lepuschenko of Maine. I eventually wrote away for Lepuschenko's stove plans and studied them intently. Our initial house plans included only the wood cookstove in the kitchen, but later we built an addition to the house and we wanted an efficient fireplace for the new family room.
In Europe it was still common in the 1600s to burn open fires inside the house. Our forefathers built squared, wood-stucco houses with grass roofs before they built fireplaces or chimneys. The more advanced homes had a raised platform so the women wouldn't have to bend over to cook, and a few houses had plaster spark arrestors overhead. But the smoke flowed through the house and filtered out through the grass roofs or gable ends. The methodology was effective, but when one house caught fire it often took the entire town with it.
The reason builders did not embrace enclosed fires sooner was a matter of economics. A fireplace or simple stove with a straight chimney ventilates about 90% of the heat to the outside. More sophisticated heaters evolved during the "Little Ice Age," the period between 1550 and 1850 when the climate was unusually cold across Europe. Population increases put more pressure on firewood sup- plies, and tighter housing increased the fire danger. Safe, efficient heaters were developed out of necessity. Efficient heaters were made of thin tiles, cast iron, or heavy masonry, but all shared one characteristic - a series of baffles to extract heat from the exhaust.
Efficient masonry stoves gradually became popular across eastern Europe, but the idea did not carry over to this continent until recent times. The knowledge probably wasn't that common among early immigrants, and there was little need for efficiency anyway, since the New World was rich with free fuel. American pioneers built inefficient fireplaces and later metal stoves, followed by cookstoves with ovens. Energy efficiency was not an issue in this country until the fuel shortages of the 1970s. Inventors responded to the energy crisis by making "airtight" stoves. The air supply and exhaust in the stoves was tightly controlled, so the fuel slowly smoldered, giving off an even and steady flow of heat. Airtight stoves increased fuel efficiency to about 60%, but there were serious problems. Much of the remaining heat potential was released in the form of thick smoke, clogging chimney pipes and the atmosphere with unburned, cancer-causing particulate. The particulate built up in chimney pipes and often caught fire, sometimes burning down the houses.
Older stoves were less efficient, but at least they burned wood cleanly. The pollution problem in airtight stoves was eventually resolved with the aid of expensive catalytic converters to burn particulate in the exhaust. Catalytic converters increased the efficiency of airtight stoves up to 85% or 90%. Unfortunately, they wear out quickly, so the stoves get to be just as dirty as airtight stoves after a few years, unless the catalytic converters are replaced.
The energy crisis also led to a new interest in efficient masonry stoves. Several companies now offer pre-cast, laboratory-tested models as do-it-yourself masonry stove kits. Masonry heaters burn a hot fire with lots of oxygen, so the exhaust is very clean. A well-designed system extracts up to about 90% of the heat potential before the exhaust is ventilated out. The quality of these prefabricated units is exceptional, but the cost is astronomical-usually four to six thousand dollars for the core and hardware. Then you still have to add the stone or brick veneer and build a chimney.
Commercial units are expensive partly due to the refractory cement used to cast the pieces. Refractory cement is designed for use in high-temperature applications. The cement itself is different from the cement used in regular masonry, and it has bits of steel fibers and broken pottery pieces mixed in for aggregate. You could not buy the cement and cast your own blocks for much less than what you would pay for a factory-made unit. We wanted to buy a kit stove for our home, just to play it safe with the design, but the commercial units did not fit either the available space or our budget, so we designed and built our own.
Masonry stoves are built in many different shapes and sizes, and you can easily custom design one for your home. As with anything you build, the blueprint is the sum of the criteria. You have to list the
criteria, then brainstorm a plan that best fits the criteria. You will no doubt have some specific criteria for your unique situation, but for any masonry stove there are a few universal principles to consider.
A masonry stove needs a long enough baffle system to efficiently extract most of the heat from the exhaust, but not so long that the smoke doesn't immediately rise through the system when you light the fire. Without an engineering degree, success hinges on a bit of educated guess work. The total length of a typical baffle system is about 20 to 25 feet, in up-and-down or back-and-forth series. Our stove has about 20 feet of horizontal baffles, but it is difficult to compare since it is a split-flue system. The exhaust splits and travels horizontally through about 12 feet of baffles per side, but the baffles are much narrower, so the total surface area is greater. For greater efficiency, I believe we could have added another series of baffles on top (which would have made the fireplace unreasonably tall), or extended the baffles another brick or two horizontally. The Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD details the construction of a second generation, improved masonry fireplace we built in another house. It is similar, but not identical to the masonry heater plans included in the sixth edition of Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.
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It's been a long journey of house building, but wanted to finally update you with our fireplace operation. It is awesome! So thankful for your design, your book and video, as it gave us the courage to try something we never would have without it.
The fireplace works exactly as you described. After about 6 hours of fires, the whole mass is heated up and gives a gentle heat out for days.
We built it pretty much brick-for-brick from your book. A couple small changes were we did 4 layers of the 1st level of brick, to further protect the cement floor from heat as well as to raise the fire box up a little.
We only made two sets of baffles (2 clean outs) because the fireplace was getting quite tall, and we liked the height it was at. A third set of baffles would have made it even more efficient, as we can feel pretty good heat coming out the damper after a couple hours. Maybe a missed opportunity to capture heat, but we thought it was a nice size and weren't thinking of its operation at that point.
We also had a couple other challenges using the red brick as opposed to a rock facing, but they were easily worked around. Two main ones were bridging the clean out doors and finishing the top of the fire brick (where you used the perlite).
The best part is heating both our attached garage and house at the same time. Loading the firebox from the garage is a huge bonus as it saves on making a mess in the house.
It was hard to find someone to fabricate the doors due to the custom work. Perhaps if I did it again, I would buy the doors first and build around them. Not sure if that would be easy or not though. The custom work was not cheap, we live in Alberta and it seems everything in the trades is expensive here.
Finally, I will share one thing that we would change but is entirely our fault I believe. Our fresh air intake was 4", but the piping run to outside the garage ended up being 15-20 feet. I believe this length slightly starves the firebox of air upon start up. When the fire is well established, it is no issue and burns great. So to start the first fire, I leave the fire box door slightly open on the garage side for extra air. Once it's burning hot, I am able to close the door and operate normally. The fireplace draws fine, even with the door open and the fresh air intake fully open.
I always run the damper wide open and burn as hot as possible. Hoping it helps with any creosote build up, but I will take a look after the first winter of burning here. So far there does not appear to be much build up anywhere. I close the damper to trap the heat the morning after our burn day.
Once again, I would like to say thank you from our family. It is truly the centrepiece of our house and was an amazing experience to build with one of my good friends.
Hope life is treating you well, you are an inspiration to many.
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