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Heating advice

 
Posts: 266
Location: Iron River MI
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Hello everyone!

So, we live 3 miles outside of a very small town, so pretty rural, but still very dependent on public utilities/non renewable resources (propane, water and electricity). Solar is in our future plans and unfortunately, township ordinances dont allow us to have a well, so until that changes (or we try to sneak one in) we’re dependent on municipal water. I figured buying a used wood stove to have on hand would be a good idea in case society crumbles. Ideally we would have solar by then and water would be our biggest issue...

But, our propane fueled boiler that heats our house is 13 years old and having some issues. My mind ran with that and now I’m considering the future. My thoughts are as follows: buy a new boiler/furnace like a “normal” person and continue to be a leech on a dying system or buy a wood stove and start heating with wood. BUT...
even if I had all the time to cut firewood and maintain heat that way, I’m not convinced we would be any better off in a societal collapse sort of situation. We dont own enough property to cut all or even most of our own wood at home, so that means buying a truck and using a lot of oil and gas in a chainsaw all the time. There’s nothing sustainable about that, and in a situation where utilities aren’t available, I wouldn’t be able to fuel a truck and saw anyway! So I can be a crazy person with large gas tanks all over the place “just in case” and when shit hits the fan, we live a month longer than the neighbors. Or...

Rocket mass heater?? I know almost nothing about these other than that they dont always comply with building codes and that they can use wood more efficiently than normal wood stoves. Here are my questions:

1. Does anyone know if they are legal/accepted in Michigan?
2. Can a rocket mass heater reliably heat a 3 bedroom house in winter? (Real winter, like snow for 5 months and -30F here and there)
3. Does someone have a better idea, or should I just accept futility and prepare to freeze our first winter without propane? Obviously we could get rechargeable electric saws, an electric truck, move somewhere with warmer weather and more trees and all that, but that might be even less desirable than accepting futility!
 
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I have no information about Michigan, but a rocket mass heater can certainly keep a three bedroom house warm through real winter. In fact, that is the best use case for it, as you will be keeping the mass warm constantly for months which is the simplest way to operate an RMH. Milder climates where there can be warm and cold spells require balancing the mass heat for the weather you expect tomorrow. You would want a big mass and a good sized combustion core; details will depend on your particular situation.

What configuration is your house, compact or spread out? Lots of remote rooms make any central radiant source more difficult. As long as the space can be heated from a central spot, all the rest can be worked out.
 
Posts: 104
Location: Tip of the Mitt, Michigan
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monies cooking building
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Hi, check with the county building dept. and see if they allow masonry heaters, try not to use RMH or Batchbox when talking to them. Be ready with plans before you go. Make sure those plans meet codes for flu and piping and recesses...ect. DO your research and be ready to answer questions. If you do not know an answer don't fluff it. Tell them you will get back to them with the answer.  

Going with an RMH will save you thousands of dollars at the very least on propane, not to mention replacing the heater. Just think, you could save enough to buy land and maybe build your own place with your own trees. Sometimes moving is the answer.  

Good luck, and hopefully your county isn't as restrictive as ours.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Glenn Herbert wrote:I have no information about Michigan, but a rocket mass heater can certainly keep a three bedroom house warm through real winter. In fact, that is the best use case for it, as you will be keeping the mass warm constantly for months which is the simplest way to operate an RMH. Milder climates where there can be warm and cold spells require balancing the mass heat for the weather you expect tomorrow. You would want a big mass and a good sized combustion core; details will depend on your particular situation.

What configuration is your house, compact or spread out? Lots of remote rooms make any central radiant source more difficult. As long as the space can be heated from a central spot, all the rest can be worked out.



I’m no expert, but I think a central heat source would work well for our house. The chimney is in the middle, our stove and oven are in the middle, the current furnace is in the middle (downstairs). Bedrooms are down a hallway and would naturally be colder, but thats fine. I’m imagining renovating this mid section of the house and making a stove, oven and home heat source. Could be a stretch of the imagination, but if it’s legal I would love to try it.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Arthur Angaran wrote:Hi, check with the county building dept. and see if they allow masonry heaters, try not to use RMH or Batchbox when talking to them. Be ready with plans before you go. Make sure those plans meet codes for flu and piping and recesses...ect. DO your research and be ready to answer questions. If you do not know an answer don't fluff it. Tell them you will get back to them with the answer.  

Going with an RMH will save you thousands of dollars at the very least on propane, not to mention replacing the heater. Just think, you could save enough to buy land and maybe build your own place with your own trees. Sometimes moving is the answer.  

Good luck, and hopefully your county isn't as restrictive as ours.



Couldn’t I just ask if masonry heaters are allowed and if yes, get to designing it? Or would it all have to be inspected and so make a lot more sense to have detailed plans reviewed ahead of time before investing time and effort into something uninsurable?

And I agree that we would save a lot of money, and even more cool, be less dependent on utilities. And we do have land and trees, just not enough to cut all our firewood at home. We’ve got 2.5 acres and half is maple hardwoods. Also a double wide stand of red pine, but local log cabin builders didn’t want them. Apparently they’re too young to be very valuable for log homes. We’re making lumber from half of them for now.

And yes, sometimes moving is the answer. But if that’s the answer, I might avoid asking the question! I knew it would be hard not to get attached when we bought the place, but... there’s a reason we bought the place. Aside from the utility aspect, the house, property and location is exactly what we want. And I’ve put so much time and effort into planting trees, making gardens and planning a food forest that moving would feel like ripping my soul out. I honestly don’t want to sell our house unless the buyer is aware of what I’ve done and can respect it. Maybe even be like minded as far as permaculture goes.
 
Arthur Angaran
Posts: 104
Location: Tip of the Mitt, Michigan
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Hi, Sure, (read positive) you could call the county dept. and ask if they allow msonry heaters. Then check with insurance companies to see if they will cover your house with a massonry heater, some do some don't. Then start planning.

What I've gleened is an RMH uses about 80% less wood than a wood stove. You also don't need large pieceses of split wood.  I'm not an RMH expert by any means, meaning I know very little.
You could get "Fire Science" by Erica Wisner.
 
Brody Ekberg
Posts: 266
Location: Iron River MI
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Arthur Angaran wrote:Hi, Sure, (read positive) you could call the county dept. and ask if they allow msonry heaters. Then check with insurance companies to see if they will cover your house with a massonry heater, some do some don't. Then start planning.

What I've gleened is an RMH uses about 80% less wood than a wood stove. You also don't need large pieceses of split wood.  I'm not an RMH expert by any means, meaning I know very little.
You could get "Fire Science" by Erica Wisner.



Ill look into that, thanks! And I was hoping they were more than efficient than a regular wood stove. Burning smaller stuff would make the whole process much easier.
 
pollinator
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Location: South Central PA
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Hi! As a back-up you may want to keep your boiler system operational. Do you have steam or hot water heat? I ask because if it is steam I know tips and books to direct you to, in order to help you raise the efficiency of the system. I have steam heat in a 2-1/2 story, mainly uninsulated brick house in PA and was able to drop my gas heating costs and usage significantly. Most steam systems I've seen in our area have been hacked and made to "work" with more modern stuff, but have lost all the originally efficient functionality. I rebuilt my entire near-boiler piping when I bought this house and have been happy with it since then. I don't personally have any experience with hot water, but I can still send you links to people that might be able to offer greener solutions for your system.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Denise Kersting wrote:Hi! As a back-up you may want to keep your boiler system operational. Do you have steam or hot water heat? I ask because if it is steam I know tips and books to direct you to, in order to help you raise the efficiency of the system. I have steam heat in a 2-1/2 story, mainly uninsulated brick house in PA and was able to drop my gas heating costs and usage significantly. Most steam systems I've seen in our area have been hacked and made to "work" with more modern stuff, but have lost all the originally efficient functionality. I rebuilt my entire near-boiler piping when I bought this house and have been happy with it since then. I don't personally have any experience with hot water, but I can still send you links to people that might be able to offer greener solutions for your system.



We have hot water, as far as I know. And you’re right, keeping the system operational for as long as possible is probably best. Even if we can legally install a rocket mass heater here, I dont think it will be happening for a few years or more. I’m hoping our system just needs a cleaning and and adjustment and we can get several more years out of it. This issue just sparked some ideas about the future so I figured I’d start considering our options ahead of time. Maybe we would be able to leave the current system fully functioning in the basement and install a masonry heater upstairs, then have both and try to do an easy transition with a backup plan.
 
Denise Kersting
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Aha, well I can't point to good books, but https://heatinghelp.com/ has tons of info to help you either fix it yourself or if you need help finding a pro (for any type of heating system). There is also a forum where you can get a ton of info and advice for your system.
 
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Erica and Ernie Wisner wrote the Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide which is probably the best book out there regarding RMHs including code at the time (they literally helped write the code used in Portland to permit the first RMHs there). Their digital market space on Permies is at https://permies.com/f/316/ernie-erica-wisner

You didn't mention the house foundation - do you have a slab or is there a basement/crawlspace? Depending on the size of the mass, you could be looking at 3000-6000 pounds of material. So if it's not a slab foundation, you'd need to add additional support underneath.

You can let your neighbors know that you want all their tree litter, if they bundle it up with string and leave it out front you can swing by to pick it up, and use it as fuel in a RMH. If you have the space in the yard you could consider planting some trees to coppice on a regular rotation. Alder, willow, black locust, elderberry, and chestnut are options that coppice; black locust and I think alder are nitrogen fixing. If you cut the trees down to the stump once they are 3-4" thick, no need to split the all wood, just cut it to 15-16" lengths and split a few as needed for kindling (or make curl sticks). Smaller trees are also easier/safer to fell.

Depending on your conditions, that might take 5-10 years for a tree to reach that size, then another 4-8 years to regrow new shoots to the same size (since the roots are already established). My own plan had been to plant 2 acres of black locust to coppice, and harvest 1/4 acre per year on an endless cycle, but the site was too dry with too many deer to allow me hands-off planting by seed and forget and none made it. So be aware that coppice shoots are tender and tasty to deer, rabbits, and other critters you might have around.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Mark Brunnr wrote:Erica and Ernie Wisner wrote the Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide which is probably the best book out there regarding RMHs including code at the time (they literally helped write the code used in Portland to permit the first RMHs there). Their digital market space on Permies is at https://permies.com/f/316/ernie-erica-wisner

You didn't mention the house foundation - do you have a slab or is there a basement/crawlspace? Depending on the size of the mass, you could be looking at 3000-6000 pounds of material. So if it's not a slab foundation, you'd need to add additional support underneath.

You can let your neighbors know that you want all their tree litter, if they bundle it up with string and leave it out front you can swing by to pick it up, and use it as fuel in a RMH. If you have the space in the yard you could consider planting some trees to coppice on a regular rotation. Alder, willow, black locust, elderberry, and chestnut are options that coppice; black locust and I think alder are nitrogen fixing. If you cut the trees down to the stump once they are 3-4" thick, no need to split the all wood, just cut it to 15-16" lengths and split a few as needed for kindling (or make curl sticks). Smaller trees are also easier/safer to fell.

Depending on your conditions, that might take 5-10 years for a tree to reach that size, then another 4-8 years to regrow new shoots to the same size (since the roots are already established). My own plan had been to plant 2 acres of black locust to coppice, and harvest 1/4 acre per year on an endless cycle, but the site was too dry with too many deer to allow me hands-off planting by seed and forget and none made it. So be aware that coppice shoots are tender and tasty to deer, rabbits, and other critters you might have around.



Thanks for all this information, I’ll most definitely check out their book.

The house has a full basement, so we would definitely need support. I had no idea it would be that heavy, but it makes total sense.

We’ve got quite a bit of small stuff growing here already that we can coppice, and more stuff I just recently planted. Lilacs, peashrubs, elderberries, highbush cranberry, chokeberries, buckthorn, plus the acre or so of maple hardwoods. So, I dont think finding fuel will be the problem. I think codes and weight will be the biggest hurdles with this.
 
Glenn Herbert
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Unless your basement is finished living space, that is less of a hurdle than just another task in building your RMH. Adding a few concrete block piers (on a new footing pad if necessary) from basement floor up to first floor is not difficult or especially expensive and is a reasonable DIY project. Code and your local official's and insurance agent's attitudes are likely to be the tricky part.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Glenn Herbert wrote:Unless your basement is finished living space, that is less of a hurdle than just another task in building your RMH. Adding a few concrete block piers (on a new footing pad if necessary) from basement floor up to first floor is not difficult or especially expensive and is a reasonable DIY project. Code and your local official's and insurance agent's attitudes are likely to be the tricky part.



Thankfully, we’re good friends with our insurance agent so at least we’ve got that going for us! I could definitely see running into code issue though. Seems like this isn’t exactly a widely accepted practice yet, and from my observations, Michigan tends to lag behind society at large in accepting new changes to old ways.
 
Mark Brunnr
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I think the key for code is to look up any specs regarding masonry heaters, which is what this is. Perhaps there's clearance from combustible materials and the size of a hearth, and a minimum mass to qualify as a masonry heater vs wood stove. So long as insurance/code allows for a masonry heater, then you just have to meet the requirements of that in the build.
 
Glenn Herbert
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I believe the minimum to qualify as a masonry heater is 900 pounds, which is much less than you will want for most cases. A common practice of builders is to apply code clearances and materials for "woodstoves" to the firebox door/feed tube area and barrel around the riser, and "masonry heater" clearances for the mass.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Very helpful, thanks everyone! Glad to know that we have options and probably wont have to rely on another boiler/furnace. I’ll definitely do more research and look further into doing this legally in the next few years!
 
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