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Satin in The Lower Depths had the best place to sleep

He slept on the Russian stove.

I first read the play when I was a kid and never understood what the hell that meant. Now I do.

Russian stoves are massive masonry structures designed to suck every last bit of heat from burning fuel that it possible can, store that energy in its masonry, and release it into the room over time. The heat is sent through a flue system that doesn’t just go straight up, but travels, and that flue system is covered with brick or stone. Koreans have a similar traditional heating system called an ondol. The Romans used something similar in the caldarium (though the floors would be too hot to walk on barefoot) to heat their bathhouses. The heat and smoke from a fire is sent through a series of chambers under a masonry floor to heat the house.

Modern hydronic radiant heating systems work the same way; but use fluid instead of air as the heating medium since it’s not as hot, it’s easier to control, it can be more directed, and it can use just about any fuel to heat it. The heat charges masonry, usually concrete (which the Romans also used), that releases the heat over time.

Our strawbale house is designed to both store heat and release it gradually (radiant flooring and passive solar collection using the same concrete slab), and to keep that warmth in the house (the 22” bale walls and foam-sealed roofs and cupola walls). It's all about maintaining an equilibrium of temperature and humidity. But I wanted a back-up heat source and I wanted a hearth.

For me, a house without some kind of hearth is missing something that makes it a home. I don’t even really care what kind of hearth, as long as it has one. And it should have a mantle. Anyone who thinks greenbuilding (the real kind, not the marketing kind) shouldn't take aesthetics into account is...well, dumb as a stump is the nicest thing I can say about that. A hearth is an aesthetic need as well as a practical one.

Hearths present certain challenges, especially if you want to use wood for fuel, which we will and do. We use a woodstove to heat the small house were in. What a mess. Not only ashes and soot, but the logs I haul in often have small stowaways, which led to the development of the Spider Bounty. The fab GF doesn’t mind spiders outside, but in the house, she finds them unbearable. They are too sneaky. Catch-and-release nets me $3 a spider.

I didn’t want a woodstove and I didn’t want an open fireplace. They’re very inefficient and expensive to build. So we looked at masonry heaters.

All kinds of cultures have built the equivalent of a Russian stove and you can find all kinds of designs for masonry heaters. And lots of people are interested in stone or masonry bakeovens. So it didn’t seem like it would be too hard to find models and masons. Well, that’s why you start two years before you actually do, because nothing is as easy as it appears. But it looks like we found the right guy. Timothy lives in the southern part of the state. He’s on a job in Maryland right now, but we’re going to finalize our design soon and I will be pouring concrete again. The small masonry heater we’ll build (core will be by Temp-Cast.) requires a slab at least 10 inches thick, with 6x6 rebar grid.

But first I get to dig. That’s just swell.

I left a hole in the slab and concrete pavers that is 48"x72". This void is to the right (west) of the patio door 48". The void then runs north 74". At the 48" inch corner, the bale wall stands about 102". At the 72" end of the void, the ceiling is about 120" tall. I have to run a combustion air inlet from the exterior, under the foundation, and placed specifically in the heater’s slab. That combustion air inlet must be metal and I have to sink it in concrete, too. Luckily, I placed an 8” double-walled corrugated plastic pipe under the foundation to run this inlet, but that's a lot of digging and a lot of swearing.

But it’s worth it. I have a question requiring firedoors to Timothy right now. We’ll have a bakeoven facing the kitchen and I want to know if we can have see-through firedoors. Firedoors are the doors through which you put the wood into the firebox. See-through doors are on opposite sides of the ehater, so you can see through to the next room. I know this will make the heater less efficient, but it will be pretty. We’re still deciding on the finish---we’ve come up with several workable designs, but I thought of something yesterday and am checking to see what Timothy thinks. I’m looking forward to his design ideas, too.

We were going to have heated benches, but I changed my mind. Maybe if we lived in Russia.

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gizzardboy's picture
Submitted by gizzardboy on

I have heard of such stoves from Austria and from the Far East, but I have wondered about the "creosote" (whatever distills out of the wood smoke) that plugs flues and causes chimney fires. When you get all the heat out of the post-combustion gasses by directing it through a masonry labyrinth, don't you end up condensing out both water and combustible substances?

Submitted by ohio on

The first is the the firewood must be as dry as possible. This is good practice anyway for any wood-burning heat source: No wet wood. You want to have the fire burn as hot as possible as quickly as possible, so dry hardwood is the first choice of fuel. The firebox can take a lot of fuel, 60 pounds as I recall depending on the size of the box. Since we have a woodlot and the trees get blown down, it's up to us to use good fuel properly stored.

The second is that these heaters can be cleaned like any chimney. There is the equivalent of a plumbing clean-out built into the wall of the heater so you can send a chimney brush in. Depending on use, the heater will need to be cleaned every couple to every five years. You can hire a chimney sweep to do it if you want.

Also, the fires burn for only a while. You don't keep a hot fire burning all day, but in the morning and/or evening. Two to five hours, then you're done. So the creosote doesn't build up as quickly as with a woodstove or other device.

But clean out is definitely part of the maintenance.

In the house we're in now, there's no need for us to hire a chimneysweep as the stove pipe is perhaps 12' total, from woodstove to the top of the pipe, and completely straight. I can shove a broom down it or a piece of chain on a rope to scrape the sides and that cleans it just fine. Messy, but it does the job.

Thanks for reading.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Had a house up in the Colorado Rockies, 8500 feet, with a dandy little wood stove. Called a Carousel fireplace, free-standing glass-enclosed so the fire was visible from any angle and at night the south-facing glass wall reflected the magic.

The house was a bowed A-frame, like an upside-down boat, two stories tall plus an attic, the open living room reached 27 feet from the floor to the peak. The chimney exited right next to the roof crown, and was 30 feet in total length. That much run and we captured nearly all the heat, kept the entire house toasty even in the dead of winter.

The property was full of lodgepole pine, plenty of deadfall and all the wood we burned was well-seasoned, wintered over under very low humidity. Still, by extracting so much heat the creosote built up pretty fast and cleaning was a once-a-year early fall ritual. I used a brush and a series of screw-together poles and came up from the bottom, far safer than scaling that steep roof. With a shopvac and a long hose, so the vac itself sat outside, almost all the ash was sucked up as it fell. Messy, but not too bad.

Clean that flue regularly, whether you think it needs it or not; last thing you want in your nice new home is a fire.

Ohio, fix your title - SatAn. Thanks for another nice post.

Submitted by ohio on

I've never seen the name as SatAN. Satin or Satine. I prefer Satin because that's what was in the copy of the book I read as a kid.

So, Satin is the murderer who sleeps on the Russian stove and tells the assembled poor that pity will crush you, so don't succumb to it.

Satan is the out gay guy in South Park who isn't Big Gay Al or Mr. Garrison. Or Sparky the dog.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

and foolish.

Should have asked instead of assuming, shouldn't I?

BIO's self-inflicted public humiliation and lesson for the day. I believe I actually will STFU and go deal with the garbage now.

gyrfalcon's picture
Submitted by gyrfalcon on

but as a relative newcomer to heating with wood, I wonder about a couple things. I assume you've checked whether this kind of set-up is permitted where you live, but I wonder about the amount of particulate matter coming up your chimney and out into the air. My non-catalytic EPA stove burns the smoke itself inside the firebox, and even with imperfectly seasoned wood, there's no visible smoke coming out of the chimney except at a cold start when there's a little bit. There's also very little creosote build-up. Won't your stove smoke like heck?

There's a terrific Web site devoted to wood-burning I've learned an enormous amount from,, for anybody who's thinking about going that way, cordwood or pellets. It's primarily a bunch of discussion forums populated by people who've been cutting and burning wood for many years and who know all the tricks of wood, woodstoves, chimneys, etc.

I was lucky enough to be in Russia the spring after the Soviet Union came apart, and the main house on the old pre-revolutionary industrialist's estate we stayed at outside Moscow had the kind of magnificent elaborate set-up you describe, the wide flues covered with beautiful tiles of some kind. It made me feel warm and cozy just to look at it, but I suppose in that large drafty mansion, it wasn't quite as wonderful in practice. But still, it was impressive as heck, and a lot smarter than giant open fireplaces.

Submitted by ohio on

Uses the same kind of scrubber design as the woodstove we have now. Sounds like what you have. Plus, the masonry heater burns hotter than most woodstoves, so that helps everything completely combust.

There are two kinds of permits---one for the slab/foundation and one for the masonry heater itself. Interestingly enough, they haven't yet started enforcing code for these heaters in specific. I don't know if it that's because there aren't many or that most people who have them

I tried to think of a different descriptor, but I can't. It is one of those things that Timothy and I have discussed. He usually works on projects ranging from $25,000 and up. He was very solicitious after I fell on the floor---obviously he heard the loud thump when I landed. We don't got no stinkin' money. Not like that. But we have an interesting house and he sees how his work would be a major feature. Plus, we pay our bills. I guess a lot of rich people don't do that. Huh. Seems like you don't get rich by writing a lot of checks.

I knew there was something I've been doing wrong.

Anyway, we looked at a lot of designs---Tulikivi being one of them. Those Finns are pretty persnickety when it comes to air pollution. (And apparently they like money, too, because these heaters are beeyootiful but pricey.) I know a family down in eastern Oregon in a bale house with a Tulikivi that heats the entire house and they're very happy with it. But I really don't want to rely on wood as a major source of heat any more.

I did look at the wood-fired boilers. And biodiesel-burning boilers. And waste-oil burners. And propane. But we can make electricity (part of the five-year plan). I can harvest wood, but damn, I think I reached my limit after fourteen years.

So the heater will heat the common areas on those rare days when there's more than a slight a chill in the air. Or if we lose power. That happens less often than it used to but it still happens, so it's nice to have the backup if we need it.

gyrfalcon's picture
Submitted by gyrfalcon on

I'm in Vermont, where it sure does get cold as heck in winter, and have only a very small stove which I originally bought more for fun and comfort but which is now serving as my primary heat source for my small house. It's a small farmhouse built in the mid-1800s, when they didn't mess around when they built houses in Vermont (north and south walls are a foot thick), so that plus some excellent insulation the previous owners put in the walls means it holds heat (and cool in summer) pretty well, so I get by OK as long as I dress warmly indoors.

For now, at least, I'm really enjoying the physical labor involved in burning wood, especially in winter when I tend to get pretty sluggish about any kind of exercise. But I sure can imagine the joy and relief people felt when they first experienced a 10-minute stop-off from a fuel truck and the flick of a thermostat replacing the year-round work of dealing with wood. I have no woodlot, so buy my firewood from any one of my "neighbors" who sell a few cords from their own lots beyond what they need themselves. So at least I don't have to cut and buck and split, just stack and haul.

I really like, too, being able to defy the oil companies, and the several thousand dollars I'll save over oil heat this winter makes me just about delirious!