Secrets of Healthy Heating from Northern Europe

As the days grow colder we savor the warmth of home.  When it comes to cozy, nothing beats the presence of a toasty fire. The deep penetrating heat, dancing flames and crackling roar delight our senses. Having a relationship with this powerful element evokes a deep sense of home. The hearth is the heart of home. This is why so many homes have a fireplace even though most produce very little heat and lots of smoke pollution. There is a way to have it all: the romance of fire, optimum health and energy efficiency. In this column I will describe our favorite way to heat an EcoNest, embodying secrets of healthy heating learned from Northern Europe.

Across the pond, in the 13th century, the first environmental crisis occurred when it dawned on our ancestors that their fuel supply was not endless and that, in fact, they would soon be shivering in misery if they did not curb their rapid consumption of the remaining forests. This is when the evolution of the masonry heater began. The German Kachelofen, Finnish Tulikivi, the Russian stove; each country invented a way to provide efficient, healthy, home heat with a sustainable use of wood fuel. These heaters have continued to serve Northern Europeans generation after generation with pyro-wisdom, passed down and perfected over a 700 year evolution.

The masonry heater uses the principles of full combustion, contra flow, thermal-mass storage and increased surface area to maximize efficiency and minimize pollution.  The heated mass continues to radiate warmth for many hours after the fire is spent.

From the standpoint of Building Biology which considers the natural environment to be the gold standard for human health and planetary ecology, this is an ideal form of heat. Consider how nature heats us. The sun is our renewable source of radiant heat. Life on earth is possible because that heat is stored in the mass of the Earth sustaining us through the night and the winter.  It is because radiant energy heats bodies and not the air that we can be comfortably warm on a sunny day, even when the surrounding air is cool.

From nature we can deduce the qualities of the perfect heating system for optimal health and ecology:

• radiant heat that warms us and not hot, dry air heating air
• free of toxic combustion bi-products and fried dust
• maintaining a natural ion balance (negative ions cling to ductwork and forced air is depleted of ions)
• maintaining a constant temperature from head to foot
• providing healthy temperature variation within the home
• quiet, without noise pollution from blowing air and cycling motors.

Forced air heating, although far from ideal, is the most common form of heating throughout North America and if you have it you can make it healthier. Have your ductwork cleaned yearly by a professional cleaner using HEPA vacuum equipment and avoiding all chemical cleaners. Affordable, superior filtration is now readily available. Filtrete Ultra Allergy Reduction (Home Depot) will fit 1” slots. Honeywell has 4” high performance filters for carrier units. Remember to change them regularly.

If you have the opportunity to build from scratch, then I invite you to come and experience the comfort of radiant heat when combined with thermal mass walls. Call us!

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