There are three types of heat exchangers generally used to capture the heat produced in a combustion chamber.
The hot flue gases can:
- Heat mass, like heavy stone or masonry
- Heat water which then warms the house or…
- The easiest and least expensive route – make the hot stove gases efficiently heat the air inside the room
In modern houses with limited air exchange rates heating the air has become the popular option. High mass heat exchangers were created in the days of drafty houses when heating air was a losing proposition. Old houses had air exchange rates of more than 10 exchanges per hour. All the air in the house was replaced ten times or more every hour! It didn’t make sense to heat air that would quickly be outdoors.
Heat exchangers increase heat transfer to the room by making sure that the hot flue gases leaving through the chimney are as cool as possible. Even a smoldering fire turns about 90% of the wood into heat. But, heat transfer efficiency (heat delivered to the room) can be less than 20% in poorly designed systems. As the cartoon shows, a little improvement in heat transfer equals impressive increases in fuel efficiency.
Retaining Heat is Part of the Equation
We cook beans (and other long simmering foods) at Aprovecho using a “haybox.” The pot of food is boiled for ten minutes on a stove and then placed in a well-insulated, airtight box. The beans inside the pot get soft and palatable because the retained heat is sufficient to finish cooking them. We end up using a great deal less fuel because the haybox has improved the heat transfer into the pot. (It’s also a much easier cooking method!)
The reason that beans are usually simmered over a fire for a couple of hours is because the pot constantly loses heat to room air. The reduced flame underneath the pot replaces the lost heat.
In the same way, a furnace or a wood replaces the heat in our houses because the house allows the heat to constantly leak away. The house loses heat and the burning wood replaces it. If the house loses a lot of heat, we use a lot of wood per season. If the house loses less heat, we can save trees and are better stewards of this precious resource. If the house loses very little heat, the stove is frequently not even lit because energy in sunlight and interior sources of heat are now equal to the heating demand.