Remember that scene from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book where the Monkey King implores Mowgli: “Teach me the secret of fire, so that I can be human, too.”
Of course, Mowgli the jungle boy – wiser than his years might suggest – brushes off the king’s request and eventually makes good his planned escape back to civilization.
Burning wood, arguably, is what sets humans apart from the animals. What’s more, using wood for heating, especially for rural homes where there is an abundance of the stuff growing nearby, can make a lot of sense, both environmentally and economically.
Trees are really nothing more than stored sunlight, and a simple magic trick – say, a match – is all that is needed to unleash its heartening warmth on a wintry night.
Cut them down and buck them up into firewood, and through natural regeneration, they eventually grow back. Some species, like the ubiquitous prairie poplar, reproduce by suckers and don’t even need to be replanted.
For these reasons, wood burning stoves have become a popular hedge against freezing to death, especially in rural areas, where â€“ Lord knows â€“ the electricity has been known to go out on occasion.
Cutting, gathering and splitting wood is good exercise, and if children are available, the process can be made into a fun seasonal activity for the whole family.
However, if a lot of wood is needed and feeding the fire begins to seem like a never-ending task with the last stick burned in spring signaling a return to the grind, choosing a more efficient stove might be an option.
The Little Ice Age, a cooling period that began in the 1600s in Europe, hit just as the continent’s forests were thinning due to growing population pressure and demand for wood.
As the Dutch skated bemusedly on their newly frozen canals, aristocrats offered rich rewards to inventors who could dream up better heating devices, which led to more efficient stoves than the fireplace and open hearth common to homes of the time.
The result was the masonry stove, which comes in various incarnations made from brick or clay tiles. In Germany they are called “kachelofen,” and the stoves are making a big comeback in Scandinavian countries where they once dominated.
Mark Twain wrote that compared to the European versions, the iron stove common to North America was a “terror” that consumed as much wood as a volcano.
He said the masonry stoves could keep a room comfortable with a handful of sticks that a “baby could carry.”
Tim Yusishen, owner of Solar Solutions in Winnipeg, sells a Canadian-made version by Temp-Cast for about $3,750 plus freight. He has had one in his own home since 2000, along with a geothermal heat pump and passive solar system.
“I can heat my 2,000 sq. foot area with a cord and a half of wood all season,” he said. “It’s a wonderful device. The Europeans really understand the value of it, but because we in North America perceive energy as being really cheap, we haven’t caught on to it.”
Weighing 2,800 kilograms on a pallet, it is cast in pieces like Lego blocks from heat resistant refractory concrete recycled from steel mills. It can be retrofitted into an existing home, provided there is sufficient footing to support its weight.
It can be attached to a masonry or stainless steel chimney. A bake oven for bread and pizza aficionados can be included as an option.
“It’s like a Russian heater, but with those you are at the mercy of the mason’s design and skill,” he said, adding that the high temperatures in such stoves can lead to cracking.
The stove is designed to burn a small amount of wood in a single, extremely hot fire. The heat is absorbed in a long, narrow, winding flue that soaks up the heat and gradually releases it into the home.
One firing of the stove can keep his house, which is insulated to R-40, warm for 48 hours at a stretch, he said. The temperature in the firebox can reach 700 C, which translates into 95 percent efficiency and almost no smoke to annoy the neighbours.
Little heat is lost up the chimney, and fumes exiting into the outdoors can be as cool as 100 C. The stove’s surface never becomes dangerously hot. Some masonry stoves are designed to incorporate a bed or couch, making for a comfy nap on a chilly afternoon.