It seems rocket stoves are as much part of the natural building vernacular as glass bottles in cob walls: de rigeur for any self-respecting stomper-of-mud, stacker-of-straw and fashioner-of-eccentric-curves. Being innately somewhat contrary and suspicious of fads and fashions, even ones I’m participating in, this fact alone would usually send me running in the opposite direction. But reading about rocket stoves, I was attracted by their low tech simplicity, their apparent ease of construction, how they lend themselves to self-build projects, how they can be made from junk and be fueled with the small branches and sticks that are no more than kindling for more conventional wood-burning stoves, and how efficient a burn they can achieve. So they were penciled in firmly for the buildings here – for cooking and heating water – pretty much from the start.
But theory is one thing: practice another. With a big push on the main building planned for this year, it was time to start experimenting – constructing different configurations of firebricks and clay and stuff and firing it all up to see what works and what doesn’t.
I started with ideas for a cookstove, based on the L-profile cookstoves developed primarily by Larry Winiarski of Aprovecho Research Center for use in developing countries. I wanted to see just how practical these stoves would be to use on a daily basis for cooking, so my initial aim was to put together the core of a rocket cookstove – the burn chamber and heat riser – and see how easy it was to light and to run. For this, the only critical dimension is that the heat riser above the combustion chamber is at least 2-3 times its diameter, so I built a 200mm diameter heat riser from the ends of stacked firebricks rising 600mm above the combustion chamber. Air gaps between the firebricks were sealed with a clay plaster mix.
Lighting the stove was simple and, allowing for the temporary nature of the construction, it drew and ran well, but after a weekend of playing with it, I kept coming back to this. A well-stuffed feed hole seems to allow the perfect amount of air through the gaps between the sticks and under the grate to support a good burn, but the rate of consumption means that the stove requires almost continual attention to keep it that way if the burn is to be kept efficient, especially if burning softwood. (And if it’s not kept efficient, then no less attention is going to have to be given to cleaning out flue ways on a regular basis …)
It seems like an awful lot of constant fiddling and effort when there are tried and tested stove configurations with a long history (kachelofens, masonry stoves, Finnish contraflow stoves, etc) which can heat mass and burn just as efficiently and a lot more controllably with a minimum of attention. The heat riser works flawlessly and well, but I kept finding myself wishing for a larger combustion chamber to fill with larger pieces of wood, and a door to better control the air flow.
The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that while it’s useful to have a stove that burns small pieces of wood efficiently, wood is wood is wood. In other words, within any one tree species grown under similar conditions, a given mass of wood has a reasonably constant calorific value. The bigger the chunk of it, the greater the amount of heat that can potentially be produced. A burn chamber that’s limited to a certain cross-sectional area and which requires a certain amount of air to be drawn through gaps between pieces of wood to maintain the efficiency of the burn, can only run within a limited temperature range. A burn chamber that’s not limited in this way, which can hold a larger mass of wood, and which is not so dependent on how the wood is loaded (and kept loaded) to maintain the efficiency of the burn has to be more flexible, more controllable and less trouble to run, as well as capable of running within a larger temperature range for potentially no loss of efficiency, temperature being controlled through both fuel mass and air flow relatively independently rather than interdependently.
Having closely watched how the wood-burning water heater, or bailarina, in our cob bathroom performs – which is essentially a rocket stove heat riser with a less limited combustion chamber – it seems to me that this is the case.
Then I came across this post from Alex Chernov written to the Masonry Heater Association of North America’s members, and Max Edleson’s reply on his own website and thought YES!! Exactly! Running these thoughts by a bunch of natural builders on a Facebook group served only to confirm these suspicions.
My thoughts now are following the lines of using a rocket stove-type insulated heat riser to deliver heat from a more conventional firebox with door to a cooking surface, but I’ve yet to investigate Finnish contraflow heaters …