Beautiful Heaters: Masonry Fireplaces

By Sam Streubel

Masonry fireplaces offer good solutions to many of the problems associated with wood burning. They provide clean combustion at a high temperature, good efficiency, a high degree of safety, and little or no pollution. Masonry fireplaces were designed to burn much hotter than a standard wood stove. Moreover, they are able to retain that heat much longer than the traditional fireplaces that preceded them.

Masonry fireplaces can sharply reduce wood-burning safety problems. An iron stove, when lit, is frequently so hot it will burn anyone who touches it. In contrast, builders of masonry fireplaces sometimes incorporate seats into the stove because the external surfaces of a properly used heater are very safe to touch.

In addition to built in seats, it’s common to also incorporate a bake oven, and to a lesser extent, a domestic hot water heater coil.

Here’s how they work: Outside combustion air enters at a lower level through the foundation. The intake air passes through the air damper and then into the firebox. Rapid combustion of the fuel charge results in long flames, which are directed around the bake oven and then burn out in the secondary combustion chamber. (Secondary combustion occurs when the gases emitted from the burning wood are also combusted. This accounts for high fuel efficiency with minimal harmful emissions). The hot gases are then cooled in two downdraft heat exchange channels and enter a connecting plenum under the firebox.

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From there the cooled exhaust gases enter the chimney at floor level. The design of the connecting plenum allows the chimney to be connected anywhere at the back or side of the heater without unbalancing the downdraft channels.

Masonry fireplaces are very well adapted to new homes where floor plans allow for the required extra space. They can be adapted to many existing homes by locating the unit in an insulated basement or in the living room supported by reinforced masonry piers.

Masonry fireplaces, also known as Russian, Siberian, or Finnish fireplaces, are some of the most efficient heating systems you can have in your home. The heater core of a masonry stove burns at maximum efficiency resulting in particulate emissions that fall well within EPA guidelines and are comparable to catalytic wood burning stoves.

Unfortunately, since masonry fireplaces are custom built to individual specifications, they don’t lend themselves easily to third party testing necessary for EPA certification. This certification is required to qualify for state and federal energy tax incentives and rebates.

Masonry fireplaces excel not only in combustion efficiency, but they also greatly outperform metal wood stoves and open fireplaces in thermal efficiency. Thermal efficiency is measured in the proportion of the heat produced by the fire that is retained in the dwelling.

But don’t expect a masonry stove to quickly take the chill off your home. The first firing of the season will probably take 2 or 3 days to bring the heat up to a comfortable level. Once this level is achieved however, you can depend on non-drying warmth for the entire heating season with minimal firing.

Masonry fireplaces, decorated with tile, stone, or adobe, are also very attractive from an interior design standpoint and often downright beautiful.

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