By Marge Padgitt
Look no further than a masonry heater to heat your home during a long cold winter. Use this appliance as a primary or supplemental source of heat, and feel good about it, too, since masonry heaters are GREEN. Masonry heaters have been around for hundreds of years in Europe and are finally catching on in North America and other parts of the world. People needed to heat their homes in an efficient manner in olden times just as today in order to save their forests. Inefficient open fireplaces took too much of their valuable resources, so another method had to be developed. No one knows who the first mason was who came up with the idea of something that would retain heat for long periods of time, then radiate it into the home while using much less wood, but whoever he was he was a genius.
Masonry heaters have been redesigned and altered over the years by different masons in Finland, Russia, Germany, Austria, and the United States. But heaters all have the same characteristics with complex channels to slow down and trap heat from flue gasses, and a mass of masonry to retain that heat, then radiate it to the living space over a period of up to 20 hours. By the time the products of combustion get to the exit of the flue, the smoke is white or clear, and the particulate emissions are very low. One load of wood can usually provide heating for the average size home for 8-12 hours. Masonry heaters use approximately 1/3 the amount of wood as a high-efficiency wood stove to produce the same amount of heat. Compared to even the best high-efficiency wood–burning stoves on the market today, gas and oil-fired furnaces, and certainly inefficient open fireplaces, masonry heaters cannot be beat. Homeowners may wish to use a masonry heater as their sole source of heat, or in conjunction with another system.
Natural stone masonry heater
Another benefit masonry heaters offer is that they do not require electricity, gas, or ductwork to distribute the heat. In a properly designed home with an open floor plan and the heater in the center of the home, the heat will radiate evenly throughout. Ideally, heaters are built in new home construction, but they can be added to existing homes as well. If planned in a passive solar home, the masonry mass of the heater will also absorb and radiate heat from the sun. Heaters require a suitable foundation to support the massive masonry, which weighs three to six tons by the time all of the firebrick, block, cast iron doors, dampers, and exterior masonry facing is installed.
Heaters can be enhanced with heated benches to sit on, mantels, wood storage bins, and even bake ovens. Pizza and bread from a wood-fired bake oven has an incredible and unique taste that is not to be missed, and entire meals can be cooked in the oven if desired. An experienced heater mason can not only design and build the right size and type of heater for a home but make it beautiful to look at as well. An exterior finish of soapstone, tile, natural stone, stucco, or brick can make a dramatic statement. Heater masons will work with the homeowner to come up with a custom design that suits the home or use one of many masonry heater kits that are available from several manufacturers (usually incorporating soapstone) in a variety of designs.
Use of natural non-toxic materials and the renewable resource of wood make masonry heaters the perfect solution for a green home.
The trade is very specialized, with only a few professional heater masons scattered across the world. Fortunately, most of these masons will travel to do installations. Often several heater masons will help each other out since these are big projects. In days of old, the heater masons kept their trade secret, even to the point of not leaving the room until the heater was finished so no one else could see how the interior was built. At that time, the livelihood of the masons was dependent on this secrecy. The trade is so skilled that the only way to learn is to do hands-on assistance with an experienced heater mason, and that is part of the reason the Masonry Heater Association was formed. The older masons do not want this to become a lost art, so they help train others. The Certified Heater Mason program was developed by the experienced MHA members in order to assure that the knowledge is not lost.
In the U.S. most people are not yet aware of masonry heaters, so it is a challenge for a heater mason to make a living out of just building heaters. Most heater masons also build other types of projects such as fireplaces, chimneys and outdoor bake ovens. Some are timber frame or log home builders or own brickyards. Most are very aware of the green building trend and are interested in sustainable living. Many heater masons will travel to build a heater because they love doing it, and because they love the satisfaction they get out of building something that is very specialized.
Pricing for heaters is what most would consider being on the high end, and a long-term investment. The average cost a homeowner may expect to pay is from $25,000 to $60,000, with price depending on the complexity of the heater, material costs, and labor. The expected time to get a return on your money is approximately 10 years. The time to build a completed heater may be more than four weeks, depending on how many skilled craftspeople are working. Many homeowners will elect to be an assistant on the job in order to lower their costs. In some cases, if a heater mason is traveling the homeowner will put him and his assistants up at their house or a local hotel. When traveling the masons usually work long hours in order to get the project done as quickly as possible.
Find out more about masonry heaters, including technical specifications and testing results, photos of heaters, manufacturers, and a list of heater masons, contact the Masonry Heater Association of North America through their website at www.mha-net.org or call the executive director, Richard Smith at 520-883-0191.
Padgitt served on the board of directors for the MHA and the National Chimney
Sweep Guild. She is the author of “Wood-Fired Heating and Cooking.” Marge is
president and CEO of HearthMasters, Inc. dba Padgitt Chimney & Fireplace in
Kansas City, Missouri. Her husband, Gene Padgitt, is a Certified Heater Mason. Contact
her at www.chimkc.com, email@example.com, or