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Masonry Heaters

There is a centuries old tradition in Europe that is only beginning to be known in North America: the use of masonry heaters. For some reason Americans are entirely familiar with wood stoves and fireplaces, but have only a hazy notion of what a masonry heater is. This is unfortunate because these devises represent the epitome in home heating comfort and efficiency! The recently publicized rocket stoves are based on a similar concept on a much smaller scale.

In his exceptional book, Masonry Heaters: Designing, Building, and Living with a Piece of the Sun, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, Ken Matesz explores every aspect of these works of art. Also known as kachelofens, Russian fireplaces, Finnish fireplaces, Swedish stoves, contra-flow fireplaces, radiant fireplaces and mass-storage fireplaces, their basic functional design concepts are all similar, although their appearance can be vastly different.

Matesz calls them “a piece of the sun” because the heat that they provide is the same as that given by direct sunlight. This is radiant heat that you can feel being absorbed by your body when you are in the presence of the heater. Wood stoves and fireplaces also radiate this type of heat, but not nearly as efficiently; as soon as the fire goes out the heat quickly dims away. Not so with a masonry heater.

The whole idea with masonry heaters is to fire it only once or twice a day, building as big and hot a fire as the firebox will allow, giving it all the oxygen that it can consume, so that every bit of the fuel and the gases that are released are turned into heat. This is the cleanest, most efficient way to burn wood; there is virtually no creosote, hardly any smoke, and no fiddling with the fire over time. These heaters are often allowed in areas that have tight controls on air pollution because they burn so cleanly.

The wonderful trick of a well-designed masonry heater is that it will absorb every bit of the heat from the fire into the masonry shell of the heater itself. It does this by directing the exit flue from the firebox through a labyrinth of unseen tunnels within the heater before any cooled fumes are eventually allowed to go up the chimney and out of the house. Once the mass of the heater gets warm, it gently radiates that heat for up to twelve hours…long after the fire has gone out.

Often the heaters are designed with benches or areas where people can snuggle up to them to take advantage of the warm glow. They become like a welcome member of the family, one that people want to be near because of their radiant warmth. For this reason they are usually located at the center of the social area of the home, near the living room or dining room. Having such a prominent position in the house means that most owners want the heater to have a special presence, one that commands respect and admiration. Often the designs will lavish much attention on details and materials that speak of charm, durability and sometimes even opulence.

Another option well worth considering is the inclusion of a bake oven or even a cookstove as a part or adjunct to the heater. People say that once you try what one of these ovens can produce you will be sold on the idea.

Matesz has been designing and building masonry heaters for many years, and this book glows with his expertise. He has a scientist’s mind for analyzing all the variables that go into good design, as well as an artist’s eye for the aesthetics that these durable works of art deserve. And as an author he writes very clearly, even passionately, about what he loves. This book is assembled with all the methodical care that he obviously lavishes on his building projects.

This is one of the most beautifully illustrated books I have seen. There are color photographs on almost every page, and most of these are examples of the amazing variety that masonry heaters can embody. The book is worthwhile just for inspiration in how one might design such heaters, but there is also enough information to have a thorough understanding of all the elements that go into good physical design.

I’m sure some are wondering how much these heaters might cost to have built. There are so many variables in size, configuration, and materials that the cost can only be given as a range. Matesz usually tells people that they cost around what you might expect to pay for a car. You might be happy with a basic Hundai or you might crave a top-of-the-line Mercedes, and so this is the range that you might expect. But bear in mind that a well made masonry stove can last for many generations and even outlast many of the homes where they reside.

There are a number of kits available for either the core refractory materials and all the necessary hardware, or both this and the exterior cladding as well. Some of these kits are manufactured in Europe. Soapstone is the premier material for the exterior, since it has thermal properties that exceed all other stone, brick or stucco. The ability of soapstone to store heat is remarkable.

To my way of thinking, the very best way to heat a home is with passive solar, since it is totally free, clean, and requires little fuss to utilize. Unfortunately, in much of world the climate doesn’t cooperate in providing abundant sunlight during the cold season. Furthermore, most houses do not really take advantage of the solar opportunity, so in these situations the next best option for heating could easily be with a masonry heater.

To a large part, it is about energy independence. With solar you have this, and with a masonry heater all you need is a little wood (which can be odd scraps and tree parts that are not usually considered good firewood.) No matter if the electricity goes out or you run out of gas, or the price of these becomes intolerable, you can always still keep warm, without contributing to global warming. Wood is a renewable resource that reabsorbs CO2 as it grows, so there is a net zero emission.

I would advise a would-be masonry heater owner to hire expert help for designing and building the appliance, but armed with this book, you would know everything necessary ask the right questions and to make good decisions.

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Conserve Water

Many people feel that an adequate supply of clean water will be one of the most significant issues of the future, and I have no reason to doubt that. The United States has been blessed with an abundance of good water, and we have gotten used to having it at the twist of a faucet handle. It can be a shock when water supplies diminish and water has to be rationed, or if the supply gets contaminated and is no longer available for potable use.

Water agencies always advise conservation; they know how precious and limited the supply is. In fact, many plumbing codes now require that new installations of toilets be low consumption models and that showers be fitted with restriction diaphragms to limit the flow of water.

Other strategies for conserving domestic water tend to be rather controversial. The reuse of gray water, using rain water catchment systems and composting toilets all conserve water but may be frowned upon for various reasons, mostly to do with health concerns. In many places these practices are flat out illegal, even though they have been shown to be safe and effective when utilized carefully.

Recycling gray water (from the drains of baths, showers, washing machines and bathroom sinks) is very tempting because it seems so benign and obviously of value. Black water waste (from toilets, kitchen sinks, garbage disposals and dishwashers) is more clearly of dubious value because of all the organic material it contains and the potential for bacterial contamination. About 2/3 of all the water used inside a typical house could be diverted for the use of watering plants, flushing the toilet or washing clothes.

Here are some guidelines for gray water use: never use for direct consumption; don’t use directly on anything that might be eaten; don’t spray it; never reuse water from washing diapers or cleaning meat or poultry; occasionally water plants with fresh water as well to leach away any buildup of toxins, and use biodegradable soap.

Because of continuing drought, California legalized the use of gray water in 1992. However, it was only legalized for subsurface use, either with drip systems or mini-leach systems. Drip systems require the use of a surge tank to clarify the water, where leach systems may use the gray water directly. In either case the water must be introduced at least eight inches below the surface.

This below-ground cistern is being installed to store rain water.

Rain water catchment is definitely gaining popularity throughout the U. S. , with an estimated 250,000 cisterns in use. There are many places where it is the only way to get decent water. Again, these systems are not without some health risks, so care is advised in setting them up. Rain water can be used directly without treatment for evaporative coolers, toilets, car washing, chlorinated swimming pools, and surface irrigation. For other household uses, it is advised that the rain water be disinfected.

Roofs made of metal, clay, tile, or slate are often used to catch the rain; other types of roofs might leach harmful components into the water. A clever way to capture the initial rainwater that might contain bird droppings, dust and debris, is to employ a standpipe where the first water fills the pipe, and then the overflow goes into a cistern. This standpipe is then drained after the rained has stopped. It is recommended that about ten gallons be diverted for every 1,000 square feet of roof area. The cistern or storage tank should be situated as close to the downspout and at as high a level as practical. Of course during seasons subject to freezing weather, the system must be protected from frost damage. Also a sealed tank will keep the water cleaner.

The above photo shows a little water fall and pond arrangement that was where the overflow water from the cistern pictured earlier discharged.

Sometimes water is captured from paved areas, and that is best used for watering plants. A considerable amount of water is typically used for watering landscaping, especially lawns. It takes about 660 gallons of water to put one inch of water on 1,000 square feet of lawn. When my wife and I were living in a bus conversion motor home, we managed to accommodate all of our domestic water needs (including showering) on about 20 gallons a day, so that bit of lawn watering would have provided us with about a month’s worth of water! If you must have a lawn, just water when it really needs it, or better yet, let it go brown during the dry season. Other strategies for diminishing outside water use include mulching plants, using drip irrigation or soaker hoses and planting indigenous, drought-resistant plants.

Now comes the touchy subject of compost toilets. People either love the idea or hate it; I’m somewhere in between. My wife and I have lived with a compost toilet on several occasions, so I can speak from experience. The first one we used I built copying the design of the Swedish Clivus Multrum system, and we used it for a few years. It’s a pretty clever, low maintenance design, where the waste material slowly slides downhill so that the finished compost is available at the bottom of the tank. A network of pipes provide air to the composting mass to assure aerobic decomposition, and a large insulated vent stack carries any fumes outside the building. It actually worked pretty well, but occasionally flies would set up camp in there and that was a problem. Also periodically cleaning the thing out was no fun.

The next composting toilet we used I installed in our bus. It was a commercially made Sun-Mar boat and RV toilet. It also worked, but we had two major problems: the fly situation became intense at times, and unfortunately the capacity of the collection drum was not great enough for the two of us using it full time. Thus I had to clean out the tank before the waste material was fully composted; that was really no fun! So if you’re interested in pursuing a composting toilet, I suggest that you carefully size it to your needs, and be prepared to deal with the very organic nature of it. If you are good at keeping a garden compost pile cooking along, you might enjoy using a composting toilet.

Water conservation is partly a matter of consciousness and partly a matter of having appropriate systems. It is obvious that we can get by with a lot less water than we typically use, so why not start using less now and be prepared for possible shortfalls?

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Building Amazing Homes & Mobile Spaces Using Shipping Containers!

In this video we explore and learn how to use shipping containers as strong, durable and mobile building blocks to create amazing structures of all kinds, like a house, addition, office space, or cabin; and we feature a few stunning projects to get you inspired! Anthony Ruggiero from Storstac Inc. (http://www.storstac.com/) showed us around their yard in Toronto, Ontario and took the time to teach us about the ins and outs of building with shipping containers.

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Making Retaining Walls with Earthbags

I recently received this question about using a particular commercial product for making retaining walls:
“I’m ready to do an earthbag-style retaining wall project at the end slope of my front yard. I’m looking at an earthbag-style product called Flex MSE, which is basically UV-safe PPE material that can be sliced open to insert seeds or native plants. Flex MSE apparently strengthens as a retaining wall as vegetation becomes established. But the bags are specially formulated and have aforementioned UV-blocking properties, which is opposite of the much more affordable PPE earthbag that has to be shielded from the sun. The result of putting plant matter in a small slit in the Flex MSE bag is that the vegetation spreads and covers the bag, which makes UV protection unnecessary so long as it is fully developed in cover. Do you know of anyone who has cut small slits in plain earthbags for inserting plant matter? Would you recommend against it? I assume that plant coverage could protect a plain PPE bag from the sun, just as long as it is a vine or perennial that doesn’t recede during winter months (Zone six Western Pennsylvania here).”

“Plain earthbags would save us hundreds of dollars here on our retaining wall, as the Flex MSE product is just about $4 a bag; we need 128 for the project, plus a proprietary interlocking plate product that would act as the barbed wire does in a traditional earthbag setup to hold the bags tight to one another, working in tandem with gravity. The plates are about the same price per unit and are used in a 1:1 ratio with the build style we’re using for our retaining wall, although I feel that using barbed wire instead would be just as effective and so much cheaper. Let me know what you think.”
So I wrote back:
I don’t believe that there is a completely UV-proof Polypropylene material. The coatings that are used do have a lifetime, and they are usually measured in a matter of weeks, or months at the most. I would not trust the coating to protect the bags for very long. On the other hand relying on plantings to ultimately protect the bag material from sunlight is equally uncertain; as you know, nature never provides complete and uniform cover.
As for slitting the bag material in order to directly seed the soil sounds counter productive to me. Such cutting of the bags can only weaken the integrity of the matrix that creates the monolithic nature of the earthbag retaining wall. And, as you point out, replacing the barbed wire with specially fabricated connectors just adds extra cost to the project.
If I wanted a green retaining wall, I would use standard earthbag methods and protect them with stabilized plaster, then add a secondary commercial green living wall system, similar to what is shown in this article. By doing this you would create a more durable and likely less costly retaining wall.

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