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Why I chose a fireplace insert over a rocket mass heater

 
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I was looking for a thread like this, but a couple searches didn't turn it up, so...
As I listen to the Permies Podcast the question often comes up of why there aren't more RMHs in the world.  I figure a thread detailing the reasons people who know about them, yet chose something else, might be helpful in identifying the barriers. I fall into that category.
  My parents built a house with a masonry heater (kind of like a batch box RMH, except a millennia old design that works beautifully, though perhaps a tad less efficiently), so I was already familiar with the idea of super efficient wood heat, and took what I read online at face value.  I got the Better Wood Heat DVD, and watched enough of it to get an idea of how they work and what is involved in building one.  I've never actually experienced one in action as nobody I personally know has one, but like I said - I believe they work as advertised.
   A few years ago, we bought a house.  It is split level, meaning the "first floor" is a walk out, mostly above ground basement, while the second floor is the living space.  It is in an unincorporated US town, and the county has pretty normal regulations - meaning you are supposed to get a permit for structural house modifications and anything fire related inside your house. The house already had a a working open fireplace on the upper level and an old timberline stove in the basement - so two chimneys for wood burning, plus an oil furnace.
   At this point, I started looking more seriously at my wood heating options. The house came with 5 acres, and in procuring some woodchips from local arborists, we sortakinda accidentally ended up with a flippin ENORMOUS pile of wood for free.
   So; what was my perception of the barriers to building an RMH?  
     1) I didn't know if the upper floor would handle the weight.  I am a pretty advanced DIYer, but I do call in pros for things that might actually break my house. So, in order to overcome this, I would hire a structural engineer to assess.  And then, possibly, rip out the basement ceiling to install bracing/sister joists.  Added complication: the ceiling paint is textured and has asbestos (WTF 1980s???), so we'd have to push up the plan to hire a decon company to take that out. So likely a fairly pricey remodel.
     2) I have a mortgage, and so am required to carry home insurance.  I didn't look too into how an RMH would be viewed by Geico, but I had read on the internets that this is a problem, so it was definitely an added barrier.
     3)  County permit.  I hate paperwork with a passion, and the thought of trying to navigate this practically makes me break out in hives.
     4)  The actual build.  I know there are books and videos, but my experience in DIYing tells me that each situation is unique, and since I've never built one or even seen one running, I was not confident that I knew what I needed to do to ensure it would work in my context.  Would it work to install a stovepipe in the chimney and have it go out that way? Or would I have to cut a separate hole in my ceiling and roof?  I felt like I needed to put a lot more time into researching it to more fully understand it, and even then I would be nervous, as it just seems like such a huge project, and hard to fix mistakes.
    5) Prepping the barrels.  I picked up two 50 gallon drums for free early on, but burning off the paint in a non-toxic way seems scary.  Yes, I know this is a ridiculously small obstacle, but there it is...

So; all of this added up to the feeling that it would take a lot of time and money to install a rocket mass heater. With everything else going on around here, the time component meant it would probably take years. The alternative was to get a fireplace insert that slotted into the existing upper floor fireplace.  This is what we did.  For ~$5k, we went to a local stove store.  They came out and measured the fireplace, and told us what would be required for each insert we liked the look of.  They installed a chimney pipe down the chimney, applied for the permit, carried the insert up the stairs, and installed it. Within two months, we had wood heat, with the stove and installation guaranteed for a year by a reputable company with all the relevant certifications. In our climate, we've had the oil furnace turned off for the past week, and been completely comfortable. I seem to live in an area where I can get all the free wood I'll ever need, though I need to cut and split it.

   An RMH, if I'd gone with that, would have reduced the amount of wood I have to cut and split.  It also would have reduced or eliminated the need to clean the chimney every year, and reduced my guilt about running a stove that is releasing global warming gunk into the air.  But building an RMH felt like it would mean another couple of years on oil, possibly be more expensive, and with no guarantees that it would work at the end.  I know I could have paid someone to come out and consult, but that is not the same as having a company that will just come out and fix it if something isn't working in the first year.

  So, there it is.  I haven't totally given up on building one eventually - we've always meant to turn the lower level into an in-law suite, and the concrete floor down there seems much more likely to handle the weight, so the trouble an expense of the home renovation wouldn't be there.  I don't know when it will happen with all the other projects around the land, but I'm hopeful in a few years I might have time to start attacking the other things on my barriers list.

  Anyone else want to share their barriers to building on of these things?  Hopefully it will be helpful to those wanting to move the technology further!
 
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I think a lot of people have a very similar story, myself included.
 
Lina Joana
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Agreed, J.O.!  I do wonder what a contractor/stove builder who knows how to do it would charge.  The materials are cheap, but take a lot of labor, at least for cob.  So how much would it cost to have a pro install a pebble style?  How would it compare in upfront cost to the conventional wood stove? Could you get a model where DIYers such as myself could pay a local company to consult, handle the paperwork, and do the "don't do this at home" bits - like ensuring the chimney and venting is correct, and then leave the homeowner to do the grunt work?  But still be there to help if something doesn't work right?  Of course there is a chicken/egg issue here - you need a certain volume of customers to make that kind of business model work, and until you have a critical mass of people in a geographic area who have seen the product and want it, it can be hard to get that...
 
Rocket Scientist
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Hi Lina;  
Excellent synopsis of your reasoning for your choice.
All of your concerns / questions are very valid points.
I believe you made the correct choice in your situation.

The structural strength of a floor is a big hurdle to overcome.  In your case you had asbestos to deal with as well.
As an experienced  builder and now a RMH parts supplier.  I completely understand about the uncertainty of "HOW DO I DO THIS???" "Where do I find This???" There are just not that many accomplished builders . The available information is out there. Permies and other forums will answer questions... but it can still be very overwhelming to the first time builder.
Those of us that are experienced, generally live in rural areas. Far from suburban towns.  To agree to travel to a new area to undertake a build would be a major undertaking with all sorts of unknowns such as material supply's.  There are a few known builders that travel to do builds.  I have no idea what they charge.  I'm sure your $5000 could have ben used to build you a beautiful RMH.  Would it have been enough money?  Well that depends on lots of variable's, but DYI material wise, I would be surprised if it cost more than $1000 to build a common batchbox rmh.

The largest hurdle faced is the Insurance company.  Some will just not accept any wood burner that is not rated.  
Some will accept a Masonry Heater (like your parents) but it must be built by a licensed Mason.
Other's will accept that a brick masonry stove is safe  and will allow you to build it yourself.

What we are attempting to do, is get the word out about RMH's . The more that get built, means more people who see them and want there own!
Who wouldn't want a stove that used significantly less wood, needed no fire all night long, released almost no harmful exhaust to the earth and more important did not fill the neighborhood with thick clouds of smoke (Like every "normal" okeydokey wood stove does every day!).  
Everyone who see's and experiences a RMH in action are fascinated!!! They have never heard of such a thing!!! Gosh why hasn't fox news reported on this awesome development???
Well here is why... they can't make money on them!  Why should corporate America promote something that was good for the environment unless they can get rich?

This is a grass roots development. We must work to introduce these to the general public.
You are the perfect example. You are aware about RMH's. That alone is a big step. Yes you could not make the plunge this time, but you would like too!  I have no doubt that your friends and relatives  have heard you talking about how you would like to build one.
That is a start!  Twenty or even ten years ago only a handful of people even knew what an RMH was much less how to build one!

Keep your dream alive.  Just to play and maybe show your friends about RMH's. Why not build a simple J tube bench area in your backyard?
You would gain experience in working with bricks and clay. You will have a super evening spot to sit outdoors!  
AND you will be spreading the knowledge that there are other choices out there for mainstream America (and the world) !






 
Lina Joana
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Thanks Thomas! Do you do actual builds in your area? How much do they cost if so? I am really curious about whether they are viable for people who aren’t up to designing and building their own.
 
thomas rubino
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Hi Lina;
I have not done builds for others.
I have been approached to do so.  Prier to Covid My Job took me on the road 8 months a year, so building rnh's for anyone else was out.
Now that I stay home I have continued to turn down actual building rmh jobs. I do however offer to consult and even visit a build site to provide in person guidance.
Other than fuel if I drive. I have a tendency to turn down offers of payment. Talking about RMH's and encouraging people to build one are a passion with me.
Chatting on line or on a phone about RMH's is fun for me.  I have been know to bombard compete strangers at the craft fairs we used to frequent , with RMH lore...  
I'm hooked, Its a rocket scientists life for me!    
 
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