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Energy HOME: Crackling Hot …

March 1st, 2009 · 4 Comments

Every day, I strive to Make Energy CENTS from the Home to the Globe. Whether programming the thermostat to low temperatures overnight to providing comments on national energy policy drafts to opening discussions as to Energy COOL technologies and concepts, my efforts to Energize America to a prosperous, climate friendly future cross a broad spectrum.

This is the first (?) of a new set of discussions that focus on efforts within my own home, from the simple (leak sealing, efficient lighting) to the (often annoyingly) complex (solar hot water). Today’s discussion: heating via a wood-burning high-efficiency fireplace.

Some background on my home …

Our home is a 51-year old brick house, built reasonably well: to 1958 standards. When buying it over a decade ago, a bit more naive and with far less knowledge re energy issues, I took almost on face value the previous owner’s claims as to the energy efficiency improvements in the home. (The additional insulation in the attic was obvious … and later, with more knowledge, obviously poorly installed. Such ‘obvious’ problems emerge via multiple paths.) This is where 1958 “standards” can come into play: when opening up a wall, finding zero insulation between the dry-wall and the concrete blocks is not unusual. Over the past several years, step by step, we’ve been taking steps to reduce our household carbon footprint

Old heating system: natural gas. More recent: a fossil fuel system (combination of very high efficiency heat pump with a good natural gas system, with the controller switching between them based on temperature/efficiency of system) (cutting cost of heating (putting aside insulation) by perhaps 50%); and most recently the high-effiency wood-burning fireplace.

With the exception of one dimmable lamp, used rarely, and bulbs inside appliances, not incandescent lightbulbs — with a mixture of compact fluorescents and LEDs. Electronic devices are on power strips, turned off when TVs (for example) are not in use.

And, so on … Far (FAR!!!!) from perfect, not close to net-zero, but more efficient today than yesterday and, I hope, better tomorrow than today.

The fireplace …

Ah, curling up in front of a warm fire heating the house. What a romantic image for Valentine’s Day and, well, how wrong. Traditional fireplaces are actually disastrous as home heating systems. Traditional fireplaces are actually disastrous as home heating systems

Field trials conducted by the Combustion and Carbonization Research Laboratory (CCRL) of fireplaces in Canadian homes, in conjunction with other combustion equipment, have shown that in all but one case, on cold winter days, use of conventional masonry fireplaces actually resulted in an increase in fossil-fuel consumption for heating. The fireplaces actually had a negative energy efficiency during the tests.

In the exception where a fireplace did reduce fossil-fuel consumption, the fireplace was situated opposite from the house thermostat. Without glass doors, the fireplace’s infrared radiation fooled the thermostat into thinking the house temperature was satisfied, while allowing the rest of the house to become quite cold. The owners had just arrived from Great Britain and were used to cold bedrooms, so they thought nothing more about it. The thermostat cutback did save energy, but the fireplace itself was still very inefficient.

There are many reasons for the inefficiency, from the poor combustion to the actual produced heat typically going into brick exterior walls and, thus, actually moving heat to the outside. These have led to efforts to improve coventional fireplaces:

People have been trying for years to improve the performance of conventional fireplaces–adding this and changing that–to little or no avail, often at significant cost. Devices such as glass doors, “heatilator” type heat exchangers, and even using outside air supplies improve efficiency only marginally, to the 10-20% level at best.

While I’ve heard somewhat better numbers (up to 25-30% for heat exchangers), the general point: invest a bunch ($1-2k) in the conventional fireplace and you might (MIGHT) get a slight net benefit.

And, well, we’ll put aside that the conventional fireplace produces quite a bit of particulate matter and thus is a negative polluter.

And when the fire isn’t burning …

To add even more to the inefficiencies of the fireplace, consider it’s structure. The damper: putting aside that many forget to close it, the damper is typically in the range of a half-inch of iron. Hmmm … closed what sort of insulating value does that provide? How tight an air seal does this mean? Thus, when not using a fireplace, it is valuable to
put in an insulation and leak seal.

The Siegel household situation …

A number of years ago, the chimney sweep came. The news: clean but dangerous chimney. Recommend repair. $3000, if I don’t discover more problems. AHHHHHHHHHH!!!! That is a lot of money for a rarely used fireplace. In went attractive birch logs, to sit in an unused space as we considered our options.

And, after awhile of non-use and realization of the energy inefficiencies of the damper, in went a flue seal. In this case, a DIY using styrofoam from a washing machine delivery (high-efficiency, low water/electrical one) wrapped in an old sheet with door gap foam stripping on the edges to provide a tighter seal.

And, bit-by-bit, the discussion with my better 95+% moved along. If it is going to cost $3k to have an energy wasteful system, what might it cost to get something that could actually heat the house. We looked toward devices that would increase heat flow into the house. (Basic concept (there are multiples out there … no links because I’m not in a position to endorse any of them): put hollow metal tubes for holding the wood in the fireplace and use a fan to move air through the fire-heated tubes to increase the amount of produced heat that actual enters the living space rather than going up the chimney or into the exterior wall.) Looked at improved glass doors to cut down on unnecessary air flow into the fireplace. All told, it looked to be in the range of $1k to be able to improve efficiency from -10% to perhaps as much as 25%.

Thus, with additional estimates as to the cost of repairs, it looked to be in the range of $4500+ for repairing the chimney and then having a mediocre efficiency fireplace. AHHHHHHH!!!! That is, sigh, a lot of money for a marginal result for something that might, I thought, be used 10 times a year (dependent, perhaps, on heating value).

High-efficiency fireplaces looking attractive …

Think a moment about the heating and cooking system for many before the easy path of flipping a switch: wood-burning stoves. There is a renaissance, around the world, in high-quality wood-burning (and other biomass) stoves with ever-more options for variations that will go into existing (or created) fireplaces as “inserts” to bring the fireplace to near same levels of efficiency.

The “search” moved from the internet (lots of options out there) to visiting stores. (One where I found advice particularly good and, with able to check elsewhere, honest was Acme Stove in Rockville, Maryland even as I eventually didn’t buy from them as they don’t carry the stove we chose.) In place of perhaps $4500 for a low-efficiency system, the “best” (under our criteria which included size, efficiency, look, etc …) system was going to be $5280 — tax, delivery, and installation included.

Rather than 10% efficiency, claimed efficiency in the 65% level and promises of being able to actually use that wood harvested in the neighborhood for helping heat the home and cutting down on electricity and natural gas usage.

Warning, in terms of marital bliss, “I’ll do this because for you but it really isn’t very attractive. I really want a contemporary look.” The vast majority of stoves / inserts out there are, in my phrasing, images of 19th century stoves, designed with a “rustic” nostalgic approach.

This was (is) not a minor expense but, agreement for years of birthday gifts and taking lunches to work, the credit card came out several years ago. Well, a few days later, someone lifted my wallet and the credit card got cancelled as did the fireplace purchase. This led to more household angst: “I really don’t want to look at that every day coming down the stairs into the living room …” And, the fireplace purchase went into the holding bin.

To be resurrected relatively recently with the discovery (how blind I was, never searching contemporary fireplace wood insert via those Google tubes. All of a sudden, the potential opened for meeting my energy concerns and the better 95+%’s tolerance of them amid demands for something ‘livable’.

In the end …

With lots of angst, trials and tribulations, and looking around, we ended up basing our decision on recommendations from our trusted chimney sweep (who has installed over 500 wood burning stoves and inserts of easily 50+ types) and going with a Morsø. After everything, we bought, only having seen via the tubes, a Morsø 5660. Gorgeous, sleek, clean design with theoretical 50,000 btu output (tested from 10-35k), a decent, but not top-notch, particulate emissions of 4.5 grams/hour (roughly double what better stoves can achieve and far more than pellet stoves.), with an overall efficiency of about 60 percent. (A note: a reason for going with wood rather than pellet was rather simple: we live in a woody neighborhood and, with my and neighbors’ trees, I had several cords of wood built up and the ability to heat with wood traveling all of several hundred feet to the home.) Total cost, delivered to the house: ballpark $3400 (better negotiation than I might cut into that) with another $1800 for all the installation (and some repair of chimney cap/otherwise). Not fun checks to write, but written with a thought that we would make back at least some of that that money through some heating value.

Some angst about the stove …

The stove has been a great addition to our lives (see below), but a moment about the system itself. Installation proved a near nightmare, with a weak (to be polite) poorly-illustrated installation guide leading to the installer saying: “Well, I’ve learned my lesson. Next time, I’ll charge twice as much.” (Basically had to be fully taken apart to be installed to then be put back together … lots of work.) And, looking into the future, two complicating aspects that I never would have picked up via seeing the stove in a store (and hadn’t seen in any online discussions).

1. The baffle is a 30-pound element connected inside with two bolts. It basically requires two people to take out and install. And, every time we have the chimey cleaned that will be necessary. Perhaps another $50-100 each time that occurs.

2. The interior of the firebox is lined with material that can break and require replacement, rather than with soap stone or other material that might last the lifetime of the stove.

And, well, a minor issue: the fan unit was delivered with a broken part and a new one has yet to arrive. Thus, despite discussion below, not perfect … but, WOW!

Some comments about operations …

A wood stove / high-efficiency fireplace insert is different than a regular fireplace in many ways, not just for enegy reasons. For example we have a muted sound of the fire (negative, perhaps), there is no smoke / particulate matter than comes in as long as the glass is sealed. Thus, except for the first fire at the beginning of the learning process, no occasion of lots of smoke in the house. Fires are incredibly easy to start and the burning efficiency leads to very high temeratures (watch out, only two minor burns so far), with serious gloves de rigeour for operation, and a log will burst into total flame within moments (maybe minutes) of being put in when the fire is going well.

A life changing event?
Installation occurred a little more than a month ago. The hope: hmmm, perhaps actually offsetting 10-20% of heating load with occasional fires (perhaps a few / week). Well, this has been a time where reality has exceeded expectations … by a lot.

1. In terms of domestic tranquility, the look is a positive. Check 1. Walking down the stairs (especially at night, without lights), the fire is really nice to look at.

2. We’ve had fires going basically full-time weekends, most evenings and mornings, and most of the day when someone is working at home. Much more than expected. (Will that be true five years from now???)

3. The heating is working. It looks, quite roughly, that it adds in the range of 30+ degrees of heat into the house. (House, again, is a split-level. I keep the thermostats set several degrees below desired temperature, keep fan running at low at all times to distribute the heat, and if the temperature is above about 35, the gas/electric heating seems to never turn on. 40 degrees outside and the house is a toasty 72 or so.) It looks like, including the time that we’re not at home and night (both with temperature set to 50 degrees), we’re taking up the majority of the heat load burning neighborhood wood.

4. A life-change element that was self-evident beforehand but only really starting to be absorb. Living in the ‘flip on a switch’ reality of gas / electric heating and an automated (even if advanced) thermostat, taking care of heating (as with so much of our lives) is a ‘don’t need to think about’ convenience. Easily, between splitting logs (can you believe: recommendation is for 3 logs, totaling 5.5 lbs — or less than two pounds each — with recommended thickness of 3 inches. Most of my 4+ cords of wood doesn’t fit within those parameters), rearranging wood pile, moving wood from outside to by fireplace, setting fires, maintaining fires, 30 minutes is a generously low estimate of how much time per day goes into the fires. This is ‘good’ time, almost like gardening, doing something with the hands, physical activity, achieving something tangible that, as below, improves our ‘social’ health, but it is not a ‘time’ convenience compared to not thinking about the furnace.

5. Blogging by fire … A life-changing element that
was, somewhat, hoped for but not fully conceived. The living room, with the fireplace, was easily the least used room in the household. With the fireplace going, it has become nearly the most used. The kids will come in the morning to heat themselves before breakfast, like reading / playing games / eating ‘picnics’ before the fireplace. Reading and blogging are more pleasurable with the fireplace. And, due to the efficiency, sitting right next to the fireplace might be too hot, but being on the couch 15 feet away isn’t cold but actually is quite warm and comfortable. When friends are over, rather than adults handing out in the kitchen or kids playing elsewhere, much interaction has migrated toward the fireplace. Individually and as a collective, our family’s “social” and “mental” health is clearly enhanced — whether watching with fascination how quickly a log bursts into flames or simply ‘doing other things’ with the warmth of the stove.

A recap …

This was not (is not) a minor expenditure, but is already looking to be a wise “investment” in terms of a more sustainable (heating with cut-down neighborhood trees, which otherwise would be hauled away), warmer (fireplace heating above where we’d set thermostat), more comfortable, and better utilized home. And, along with the sustainability and financial (heating value might pay for the stove in five years or so) benefits, there is the incalculable social and mental health value for the entire household.

As I type, I watch snow falling warmed and calmed by the wood burning near me and knowing that my family is being heated today without electricity (other than 25 (I think) watt fan) or natural gas. One, good payoff, step toward Make Energy CENTS from the Home to the Globe. And, like so many other energy smart practices, this has so many values other than sustainability that even those uncaring about those issues would get more than enough “payoff” to make the sustainable choice the right choice.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Stop the Soot // May 12, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    […] through the implications of fireplaces and cookstoves, kerosene lamps and diesel trucking globally and you might start to think of the […]

  • 2 Energy Bookshelf: Dummied Energy Efficiency // Jul 18, 2009 at 9:24 am

    […] for example, no endorsement) to extremely easy DIY projects. In my home, prior to installing the high-efficiency fireplace which now picks up much of my heating load, I took styrofoam from a furniture delivery, cut it to size, wrapped it in a beat-up bed-sheet that […]

  • 3 Energy HOME: Calculating a confusing heating situation … // Jan 4, 2010 at 10:05 am

    […] High efficiency fireplace insert with about half the wood coming from trees / limbs cut down in the neighborhood rescued from being hauled away (and, well, even storm damage limbs, which are great for starting fires). […]

  • 4 M S // Jan 17, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Since you are using compact florescent and LED bulbs you obviously don’t care about good light quality. Those are pretty much have the ambiance of the local 7 Eleven.

    An incandescent is not an incandescent. You can buy how many different types, colors, intensities?

    Well, same is true for CFLs and LEDs. Re CFLs, we took about $35 or so and got a variety of bulbs which we tested across the house. Perhaps half were ‘undesirable’ (for a variety of reasons) and, as for the rest, they work well for us in different rooms for different reasons.

    I have some LED recessed lighting that, unless guests look to ceiling to see what type of light is in the fixture, they can’t pick out the LED. There are mediocre LEDs, on the other hand, which have the sort of light you’re talking about.

    Because your experience isn’t great doesn’t mean that there aren’t decent lighting options.

    he fireplace project hoever is one of your better ideas.