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Certified Heater Mason
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Low-cost masonry heaters: Tips from a heater builder.

“We always get what we’ve paid for” – folk wisdom

Lately “low cost masonry heaters” has become a hot topic among heater builders of the MHA. To me, answer to this question is pretty obvious, but it seems that this is not the case for many others. I’d like to share my thoughts here with hope that they will serve as helpful tips for ones searching for solutions. The solutions offered here are for people who want to benefit from high efficiency, low emissions and use of renewable energy sources – all what masonry heaters are about, while cutting costs on things that don’t affect performance.

We’ll go step by step.

How is it possible to come up with a cheaper heater? Let’s take a look at all possible options:

1.Use cheaper hardware.
2.Use cheaper materials
3.Build less fancy.
4.Build smaller units.
5.Use cheaper labor.

I think that we all, heater builders and our clients alike, should agree that it is unfair to an experienced heater mason who spent a lot of his time and money to learn his multidimensional trade to be paid low wages. Unless owner does some of the work him- or herself, I see no opportunity for savings here. Similarly, you don’t want to hire someone who works for small money because has no experience in heater building. Thus, let’s take #5 out of the discussion and concentrate on the other four where we still have a lot of room to cut costs down.

In North America, masonry heaters are often viewed as fireplaces; and a fireplace here is traditionally a huge mass of stone or brick - a focal point of the living space. According to this historical trend, the most typical approach to masonry heater design is to create an elaborate facing with many details and large glass firebox doors, so the unit looks as close to a “normal” open fireplace as possible. On my opinion, this approach is the single most influential aspect that actually makes masonry heaters expensive. Ironically, this approach refers only to aesthetic aspect of a masonry heater, meaning that most money is actually spent not on performance (what in reality makes masonry heaters different from conventional fireplaces), but on “looks”!

The first question I would like to ask someone looking for a cheaper masonry heater is: “Are you ready to get pure performance while sacrificing looks?” If the answer is “no”, this person is actually looking for aesthetics more than for performance, and there is not much to offer with exception of downsizing a unit. If the answer is “yes”, we are ready to discuss radical saving techniques. Most people would probably say: “yes, but…” and this is fine as we still can use some of different savings techniques represented below:

1.Cheaper hardware.
Huge savings potential lays here. A set of high-quality large cast iron glass doors and other hardware (ash-box, clean-out doors, grate, dampers) for a heater without bake oven can be as high as $1600-2000 or even more. Do we have to use large glass doors? No. A small quality cast iron firebox door without glass serves all the functions as well as the large one, and costs mere $300. For an absolute no-frills heater, a large rugged cast-iron clean-out door bought at a local masonry supply store for mere $50 can serve as a firebox door without any adverse effects on the performance. No ash-box door is a must either - one can just use a brick to cover the opening for ash collections and air supply or use cheap cast-iron clean-out door. Clean-out doors that cover openings for cleaning of channels can also be replaced by brick plugs laid in clay mortar (the way it is done in Eastern Europe and Russia), or by clean-out plugs made at the spot from small tiles and pieces of brick*. Grate is not necessary either. This way all expenses for the hardware for an absolute no-frills heater will be of $50 for firebox clean-out door and $70 for a chimney damper. This way, minimal cost of the hardware can be as low as $120 if you are about performance only. What if this is not what you want to see? It is then time for you to consider a more expensive choice for the doors that you think will look better than our no-frills option. The reason for the higher cost, however, will be clear now.
*How to make a tile clean-out plug? A square piece of brick is glued with silicone to a 4x4” or 6x6” ceramic tile to form a nice plug. Choice of colors for the tiles is unlimited!
2.Cheaper materials for the core.
With exception of some good deals on left over firebrick that sometimes can be found in classified ads or at web sites like Craigslist or Kijiji, there is almost no way to save on refractory materials. It is worth to shop around all possible brickyards/masonry supply stores while searching for firebrick and other refractory materials since my experience shows that price can vary significantly from store to store. I don’t recommend using reclaimed firebrick that was already laid before in refractory mortar since it is difficult to clean refractory mortar off the bricks, and for the reason that quality of this brick is unknown. It is OK to use cheaper reclaimed firebrick that is clean while attempting to create the cheapest heater, however, you still may want to use new brick in the firebox lining to have peace of mind that the most critical area is built from good brick. Complexity of the core will have some effect on number of bricks used, but the effect will be minimal for the difference in performance.
3.Cheaper materials for the facing.
Lots of ways to save. The cheapest facing possible in terms of cost of materials and labor is probably concrete block. Goes fast, costs low. Don’t like a look of it? Paint it with calcium silicate or clay based paint or lime-wash it, or even paint with latex paint for just a few extra dollars. Still not looking good enough? Plaster it with white thin set mortar for $60 of extra cost. You can plaster it smooth or make textured plaster. Such plastered face can also be painted in any color. It looks not bad now, isn’t it? The plain white plaster can be used as a base for a painting or mosaics. You can also apply stone or ceramic tile over such face at any time down the road. Another alternative is to use so-called “back-up” brick for brick facing. Back-up brick is new (not reclaimed) brick left over from different orders at a brickyard in relatively small quantities. Brickyards are often happy to sell it for $0.30 apiece just to get rid of it. Sometimes you can create a nice blend collecting bricks of different color but of the same dimensions. Cost of such brick in MAX size for the complete 3x4x8ft heater facing will be mere $145. The brick can also be plastered using the same thin set technique. Still not looking good enough for you? Well… then you have to select a fancier facing and …yes, pay more. 4.Build less fancy.
Quite many people ask me why most of masonry heaters built in Russia and other Eastern European countries are done in brick and have simple square or rectangular shape. The answer is simple: people in those countries build for heating, not for looks. So they use the most cost-effective material and the most cost-effective shape. We should follow the same way on our way to savings. Keep it simple, get rid of unnecessary shelves and other aesthetically pleasing but meaningless features and you will get overall much cheaper heater.
5.Build smaller units. First of all, size the heater accordingly to the heat load. Don’t build a big heater if you don’t have to. The smallest possible heater of double-bell or contraflow design built in double-wall system (refractory core and separate facing) will have a footprint of about 24x24”. Heater of this size is not going to be expensive! Sure, it may be extreme, but it shows that downsizing is possible. What if this heater will not match your desired heat output? Well, then you need to get a somewhat bigger one that is going to be somewhat more expensive, because again “we always get what we’ve paid for”...

Now, it is time for an example: Inexpensive large heater with output of about 21000-22000 Btu per hour under two 50lbs loads a day firing schedule. We will take a 32”x48”x96” heater – typical for Finnish contraflow that is built most often. We will estimate its cost based on our savings techniques described earlier, not going to the extreme, however. Note that cost of the support and chimney is not included and the prices quoted in Canadian dollars are based on what I pay locally for the materials in spring 2008:

1.Cost of materials for the core (hand-built) excluding hardware: about $2000
2.Hardware. We will take good firebox door without glass, an ash-box door, a small grate and a damper. Clean-out plugs are made at the job site the way described above. Cost of hardware: $600
3.Materials for the facing: concrete block and thin set plaster: $400 or clay brick – simple facing: $500.

All materials for the heater will be about $3000-3100. An experienced heater mason would build such heater in about 8 days alone. If the heater mason is paid a proper wage, your heater will cost close to $7000-7500 mark. Is it expensive? I don’t think so considering how much heat it will bring to the house, significantly cutting your heating bills. An absolute no-frills heater of the same size and output will cost about $600 less. Further savings are possible if reclaimed facing materials are used and if owner is skilled enough to do part or all of the construction work him- or her-self.

I hope that this essay has shown what contributes the most to cost of masonry heaters, shown an importance of proper planning for a budget-minded person, and made available savings techniques clear.

At the end, I just would like to add that at the current times, when size and cost of in-home theater systems, flat-screen TVs and outdoor SPA is constantly increasing, when there are more luxury than necessary items in our stores, I find that talk about “expensive” masonry heaters is just an indication of an improper hierarchy of values in the society. I am sure that with time people will come to understanding of the importance of investing in own health and the environment we all live in. As more and more people choose locally produced “more expensive” organic food over genetically modified food brought from third countries, more and more people will turn into believers that investing in own environment from own home to our own planet is going to pay back very well for all of us and for all future generations.

Alex Chernov
May 3, 2008.