Heating today with an idea
By Ned Rozell
November 29, 2007
With the rising price of heating oil, some people are looking
to the past for ways to heat their homes.
Masonry heaters, huge masses of stonework wrapped around a sinuous
channel through which hot gases flow, are now appearing in Alaska
homes. The clean-burning, efficient heaters existed for centuries
in Europe and Scandinavia, but didn't reach the shores of America
until after the oil crisis of the 1970s.
Bill Reynolds of Fairbanks
next to his masonry heater.
Photo by Ned Rozell.
Bill Reynolds and his wife Brenda Norcross of Fairbanks have
heated their 1,400 square-foot house with a masonry heater for
more than two winters. Reynolds said they have used two-and-one-half
to three cords of wood per year to heat their home, which stays
at a constant 70-to-72 degrees Fahrenheit in winter.
A masonry heater looks kind of like a traditional fireplace,
but it fires like a wood stove, only faster and hotter. Reynolds
fires his heater once a day if the temperature is warmer than
minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside and twice if it's colder.
He stacks an armload of dry wood in the firebox and lights a
golf-ball size piece of paper beneath the wood. Air drafted from
outside his home gets the fire going like a blast furnace. After
his wood disappears in about an hour, the stonework slowly releases
the heat, warming the house for the next day or so. When he is
firing the heater, the stovepipe leading from his house emits
no smoke, just squiggly air distorted by heat.
Reynolds, the owner of Solutions to Healthy Breathing, a company
he designed to improve the air quality of peoples' homes, said
his wife has asthma, which made it difficult to use a traditional
"In two years (of using the masonry heater), she's had no
(asthma) attack," he said. "I couldn't open a wood
stove door in the past."
He likes the heater for other reasons, too.
Coals from the firebox
of Bill Reynolds' masonry heater.
Photo by Ned Rozell.
"Not only is it efficient, it's a clean way to heat and
it's a work of art in your home," Reynolds said.
Dan Givens of Stonecastle Masonry in Ester built Reynolds' masonry
heater, and he has built 27 others. When called on his cell phone
recently, Givens answered from a large Fairbanks home in which
he and a partner were installing two masonry heaters.
Dave Misiuk, the Wood Energy Specialist at the Cold Climate Housing
Research Center in Fairbanks, said more people are stopping in
all the time to see the masonry heater just inside the entrance
to the center. Givens also built that one.
"A lot of young couples are coming in, thinking of designing
their houses," he said.
Masonry heaters are so large (typical models weigh from 4,000
to 12,000 pounds) that it is often easier to build houses around
them than to add them to existing homes, said Misiuk, who designed
his own house with a masonry heater in the center and an open
The masonry heater
in the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks.
Photo by Dave Misiuk.
Europeans historically used smaller masonry heaters to heat portions
of their homes while closing off certain rooms during the winter,
Misiuk said. Americans tend to want larger masonry heaters that
can heat the entire home, but Misiuk said he sees masonry heaters
as "a really good component of an integrated heating plan"
that would also include a back up heat source and possibly other
renewable energy systems.
Because they burn so hot (with the stonework remaining cool enough
to touch), masonry heaters are extremely clean and are among
the most efficient ways to get heat from cordwood. They are also
expensive (Givens has charged between $8,000 and $20,000 for
his masonry heaters), and materials for them are spendy even
"The refractory concrete for the firebox sells for $22 a
bag in the Lower 48, but costs $117 a bag up here," Misiuk
The Cold Climate Housing Research Center is now sponsoring a
design contest to make masonry heaters viable for more Alaskans.
"We'd like to try and create a more affordable masonry heater
for Alaska," Misiuk said.
On the Web:
Cold Climate Housing Research
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
E-mail your news &
photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF
community. Ned Rozell [ email@example.com
] is a science writer at the institute.
Publish A Letter in SitNews Read Letters/Opinions
Contact the Editor
Stories In The News