Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Large An Area Will A Masonry Heater Heat?

By Doug Hargrave

At first glance this seems to be a simple question which should have an easy answer. In actuality the answer to this question is much more complicated. There are two factors that must be quantified in order to determine if a particular masonry heater design will heat a defined square foot area.  One factor, which is relatively easy to determine, is the maximum heat output of the masonry heater. The other factor, determining the heat load (loss) of a defined square foot area under the coldest conditions, is more difficult.
While it is difficult to make an accurate claim as to the amount of space a particular masonry heater design will heat, it is possible based on the amount of wood burned, to accurately predict its BTU output and to define its heat storage capacity.  On the other hand, determining the heat load of a home requires a heat loss calculation of the floors, walls and ceiling based on their insulation properties, a determination of the homes efficiency in terms of outside air infiltration and inside leaks, and finally the heat load must be adjusted to the heating degree days for the geographic location of the home.
The following question and responses recently appeared on the members chat forum for the Masonry Heater Association of North America.

What can you expect out of a masonry heater with (the home) insulation being average to slightly above average? It would be nice to know how many Btu’s or how many square feet a typical heater will take care of.
Respondent A

That is a loaded question, and you can get into a lot of trouble promising a customer to heat xx square feet. We have one heater heating a 2800 sq. ft. super-insulated house in a cold climate. An identical one was built in a milder climate, and is incapable of heating a 1000 sq. ft. "poorly insulated" house. "Insulated" is a misnomer, since leakiness is often a bigger factor than insulation. "Efficiency" would be a better term, or "low energy" or even better "low heating load". 
You are better off to quote the heat output of the heater, and leave it be the client's responsibility to determine how much of his heating load it will cover. You can also quote some magic voodoo stuff about radiant heat. While real, it is much harder to quantify.  The generally accepted maximum output of a large heater is 20,000 BTU/hr, or 6 kW. One of those cube shaped 220V shop heaters is about 5 kW, so imagine one of those blowing continuously.  To get 20,000 BTU/hr, you need to burn about 100 lbs of 20% moisture wood at 70% efficiency. Typically, that will be two 50 lb fires per day. If you try to build a heater larger than that, you really need to know what you are doing, or be guaranteed durability problems.  Some companies up the rating of their heaters by specifying 3 fires per day. So you'd get 20,000 BTU/hr with a 33 lb capacity firebox.

Respondent B

(Respondent A) is correct: The only thing you can safely guarantee is output. If the heater is planned as the major heat source, I ask people to provide heat loss statement to compare with heater's output. I also can give them rough assessment of heater's capabilities bases on the max output for a reasonably largest possible heater at 25000 Btu/hr, extreme cases, 30000btu hr, and on rule of thumb for heat loss per sq ft related to the estimated R-value of their outside walls. The numbers for this rule of thumb were given at least a couple of times in this forum in the past. Super insulated home (R30 walls +) will have heat loss of 10Btu per sq ft or less, while a century home without any insulation may be in 40-50 Btu per sq ft.

Respondent A (additional comments)

Super insulated home (R30 walls +) will have heat loss of 10Btu per sq ft or less, while a century home without any insulation may be in 40-50 Btu per sq ft.

Using this rule of thumb, for a 20,000 BTU/hr heater:  Super insulated house: 2,000 sq. ft.  Un-insulated century house: 400 sq. ft.  You also have to factor in location.  Ottawa Canada has 8,100 heating degree-days.  Vancouver has 4,700.  A house in Ottawa with 2,000 sq. ft. is equivalent to 3,500 sq. ft. in Vancouver or 1,150 sq. ft. in Fairbanks AK in terms of heating load.
Respondent C

Generally speaking more mass means more heat capacity. Not all houses are constructed equally or in the same geographic location and not everyone burns their heater the same. Also not all heaters are placed in a central location, so the buyer must be informed that the rating may be reduced based on location.  I always tell potential buyers that no matter what, "they will always have a zone of comfortable heat output" if the power goes out. 
Respondent D

To be on the safe side, it is a good idea to ask the home owner to have an energy audit done on their house.   These audits are not expensive and will show where the cold spots are in the house. On the blower test, the inspector can determine the square footage of air leaving the house through leaks and can show where the leaks are. This is money well spent and will have a lifetime of positive effects.
Respondent A: +Norbert Senf – Masonry Stove Builders, Shawville, Quebec
Respondent B: +Alex Chernov – Stovemaster, Caledon, Ontario
Respondent C: +Doug Hren – Masonry Heater Design House, Hickory Corners, Michigan
Respondent D: +Gary Hart – Aaron’s Ltd. Alternative Energy, High Ridge, Missouri

Friday, December 7, 2012

Maintaining Your Masonry Heater

By Marge Padgitt

Masonry heaters require regular maintenance in order to function properly, and the flue should be swept to avoid chimney fires. Maintenance includes sweeping of the chimney flue, brushing out the flue gas channels, inspection of the chimney and heater, and doing any repairs necessary. If the masonry heater is operated properly there should be little,if any creosote in the flue, and you should find only small amounts of soot. If there is any amount of creosote in the flue proper operation and burning procedures should be reviewed. One to two very hot fires should be burned each day, or once every 12 hours for most heaters. The fire should not be “damped down” to maintain a longer burning time as is the normal procedure with a wood stove. The maximum number of fires per day should be three. For chimneys with exterior exposure, the flue will be colder than an interior chimney and will accumulate more soot.

Cleaning the flue gas channels involves using a small poly brush and vacuum. Go to the small channel doors, open them and clean and vacuum each one to remove fly ash. The chimney interior and exterior needs to be inspected, and the heater itself should be inspected for any deterioration or loose firebrick in the firebox, any cracking in the exterior heater skin or finish work, and correct clearances to combustibles. Like any masonry structure, the masonry heater and chimney will need to be maintained and repaired as needed. Get a copy of the Homeowners Safety Manual and Burning Guide for Masonry Heaters for free at

Be sure not to use a grate inside the firebox. Fires should be built right on the firebrick floor. The door should be closed during operation, and flammable liquids should not be used to start fires. Homeowners should not burn anything other than dry cord wood in the heater. Building a top-down burn fire will provide a clean burn start up with less CO and smoke. The top-down burn is the opposite of what you learned as a Scout. Place a couple of large logs on the bottom with airspace between them, then add smaller logs on top in the opposite direction, then kindling. Try Fatwood or dry pine as a fire-starter. The fire will burn down slowly, like a candle. This method warms the flue slowly, and causes draft to establish before the fire really gets going.

Your professional chimney sweep is best qualified to sweep and maintain a masonry heater, and can likely do any minor masonry repairs needed needed as well. Find a professional chimney sweep at the Midwest Chimney Safety Council Website at or at the Chimney Safety Institute of America site at

For more information visit or call Executive Director Richard Smith at 530-883-0191.