A new look at an old technology
Our engineer asks this burning question: Should Russian fireplaces find a place in American homes?
Something deep within us is soothed by the penetrating warmth and glow of a wood fire. Many people in Chelan County use wood heat to reduce the amount of electricity used to heat their home, and/or simply because of the comfort that it adds to their home. While we are familiar with fireplaces and wood stoves, Chelan PUD Engineer Jim White recently stumbled on an old technology that has been used for hundreds of years to heat homes in Russia. The following are his thoughts on the different ways to heat with wood.
I became interested in Russian stoves after reading an article in Alaska magazine that mentioned that prior to 1860, wood stoves made of iron were unknown in Alaska. Instead of iron stoves, the Russians used a “pechka,” a homemade furnace built of stones, bricks and locally made mortar. It served as both a cooking and heating appliance. Mark Twain came across similar wood stoves when he traveled to Germany and wrote the following:
“…At half past seven on a cold morning the servant brings a small basketful of slender pine sticks and puts half of these in, lights them with a match, and closes the door. They burn out in ten or twelve minutes. He then puts in the rest and locks the door… The work is done.”
These mass fireplaces and stoves work by absorbing nearly all the heat from a small but intense fire. Once the firewood is consumed, the chimney damper is closed to keep the heat and air from escaping up the chimney. Nearly all of the wood’s heat is stored in the fireplace brick; the heat is slowly released inside the home throughout the day. Many of the mass fireplaces also contain an oven that gets hot enough to bake bread. Some Russian fireplaces even had a flat area on top that was used as a warm place to sleep on those cold Russian nights.
While beautiful to look at and wonderfully warm stand near, the American brick fireplace seems very inefficient in comparison. Instead of being inside the home where it can be used to store heat, a majority of the brick in an American fireplace usually is located outside the home. The heat that is absorbed by the brick is either wasted up the chimney or conducted outside. Although some fireplaces have channels or tubes built into them that duct or blow warm air into the space, the typical fireplace is more of a campfire than a furnace. The flames and coals warm the surfaces they shine on, but do very little to actually heat the air around you. Most of the air heated by the flames and coals goes up the chimney. Unless there is a separate outside air supply to the fireplace, warm or hot air flowing up the chimney also draws cold air into the rest of the home that has to be heated.
A traditional wood stove is better than a fireplace at capturing the heat produced by the fire. The hot surface of the stove quickly heats the air and radiates warmth throughout a room where it is located. While warm and comforting to enjoy at first, eventually it is necessary to reduce the amount of heat produced by the wood stove. The most common way to do that is to restrict the amount of air flowing through the stove to slow down the combustion of the wood. While this is effective at regulating the output of the wood stove, it also causes the wood to burn very inefficiently, generating soot and air pollution.
So if these Russian stoves are so efficient, comfortable and can also be used to bake bread, why don’t we see more of them in United States? One of the advantages of wood stoves and conventional fireplaces over Russian stoves is their ability to provide almost instant heat. The other drawback to the Russian stove is that their design and construction has become a lost art. It is difficult to find an experienced mason who knows how to build a long-lasting and well-functioning mass stove. In their day, qualified fireplace masons were highly prized in Russian society. A well-designed stove would be the highlight of a Russian home, providing warm, even heating throughout the day and night, while also cooking food and providing comfort. Poor designs, on the other hand, did not draft properly, creating smoke problems and performing poorly as a stove or oven.
One group in North America that is hoping to change that is the Masonry Heater Association of North America.