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The Heat is (Always) On:

Inside and Outside the Masonry Heater

By Jim Cavan

He didn’t know it at the time, but a miscommunication with his home’s previous owner would eventually result in one of the best purchase decisions Bill DeCarolis ever made.

DeCarolis, who lives in Newcastle, New Hampshire, thought that the owners agreed to include their vintage, early 20th century woodstove and porcelain kitchenette in the sale.

“When we went to move in, all that was left was a plate-sized vent hole with nothing attached,” DeCarolis recalled.

This led to a call to Les Veilleux, an old friend and fourth generation mason, who launched Eco Firebox – a company specializing in super-efficient heating systems – in 2010.

Building on concepts popular in Europe for over two centuries, masonry heaters use only a fraction of the wood required by standard woodstoves, producing a clean, radiant heat that provides even temperatures for 12 to 24 hours — after the fire itself has died out.

Les Veilleux in front of a masonry heater he installed.

Veilleux has created a system at Eco Firebox that can be pieced together in various configurations, thus allowing the heating appliance to suit multiple interiors, without compromising the complex internal functioning that makes the masonry heater green and efficient.

“The Eco Firebox is made up of ‘heat cubes’ that I liken to my kids’ Legos, where the squares can snap together to create different shapes,” Veilleux explained. “Some customers prefer a design that’s more like a traditional fireplace, while others want to achieve a more modern aesthetic and incorporate bells and whistles – a pizza oven, heated benches, that sort of thing. The design options are endless.” The fully modular system is thus more affordable.

How does a masonry heater work? Think of a concrete patio on a hot summer day. Even after the sun has long since set, the concrete still radiates heat. Unlike metals, brick and stone retain and release heat evenly and efficiently over time.

A traditional woodstove may burn wood efficiently, but releasing heat to the building is another matter. The efficiency rating a stove gets from the EPA relates only to the stove itself and cannot take details of a specific installation into account. Even the most efficient stoves lose most of their heat up the flue system. By contrast, a masonry heater extracts and retains nearly all the heat from flue gasses, and that speaks volumes to efficiency.

After installing his Eco Firebox, DeCarolis’s oil consumption was reduced by a staggering 670 gallons in only 2-1/2 months. At today’s prices, that equates to $2,500 in savings (less $250 for the cord of wood used). DeCarolis arrived upon this estimate even after factoring in the drop in Degree Heating Days (DHD), due to last year’s mild winter.

“Because the bedroom is right above the unit, the heat is rarely turned on upstairs, if ever,” DeCarolis said. “On the first floor, there’s only one room that ever requires an additional heat source.”

For a technology whose performance suggests it resides squarely on the cutting edge, the masonry heater design just goes to show how, sometimes, the best ideas lay in the past.

Jim Cavan writes for Green Alliance, a Portsmouth-based organization that seeks to connect green-minded consumers with the businesses doing their part to lessen their environmental impact. Eco Firebox is a Business Partner of Green Alliance, http://ecofirebox.org/ www.greenalliance.biz

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