Environmentally Efficient & Friendly Soapstone Fires
The fireplace in the holiday cottage at Mairela Holistic Retreat has now been replaced with a more energy efficient model in line with our progress towards sustainable living and holidays.
The new fire is made of beautiful soapstone which has an extremely high heat-conducting capacity. Soapstone’s weight and heat are higher than other commonly used fireplace materials plus it is also fireproof and doesn’t crumble at extreme temperatures…..Finland being a land of extreme temperatures. Sometimes we step out of our +25 cottage out into the -25 winter weather!
In Finland the name of the stone is vuolukivi and it has been used for centuries in the north of Finland as a warming fireplace stone. Soapstone was formed over hundreds of millions of years of magnesite rich rock being crushed and subjected to intense heat beneath the earth’s surface.
Ingenious Fire Systems
Coupled with the ingenious Finnish fire system of contra-flow channels the thermal energy from the fire isn’t directed straight up the chimney, as still happens in many UK fireplaces but instead flows around the fire being recovered by the soapstone until eventually it is only the flue-gases which leave via the chimney.
All Finnish fires have a damper system too. When the fire has finished burning, the damper is closed and the heat remains in the room rather than disappearing up the chimney!
I have had the same design of fireplace in my home for the past 10 years and despite very harsh winter conditions, sometimes as low as -36 the soapstone fireplace heats the whole house using just a couple of baskets of wood. To many of the holiday makers at Mairela it appears inconceivable that I don’t have my fire burning all day and instead light it for a few hours then close off the damper and sit and relax in the glowing warmth.
Visitors from both the UK and Alpine France have commented that they use much more firewood to heat their homes.
Not only does the soapstone fireplace use less wood than others but because of the unique airflows it burns the wood more efficiently too. The combustion efficiency can be as high as 90% (German DIN 18891)
Warm & Fresh Air
There is also a special feeling in a room heated by a soapstone fire, not just because of the wonderful aroma of burning wood but also because the fire makes the room air circulate in a natural way as opposed to the way central heating does. A full load in a soapstone fire will change all of the air in a house, assuming that there is no obstacle to fresh air entering the room. That is another feature of my Finnish home which amazes guests: I have open ventilation points in every room even when the outside temperature is well below zero. The Finns really understand how unhealthy it is to completely seal off your home from fresh air!
The room is aired with real fresh air but without causing draughts. Plus, the air in the room remains fresh because the soapstone walls are of an even temperature and don’t create a scorching effect.
Some of the heat from the soapstone fire is radiant and some is convective, that is, you can warm yourself by sitting directly in front of the fire (radiant) but the air flows will also be warming the upstairs and the remaining room space (convective).
The surface temperature of the fire is safer to touch than cast iron because our brains feel the heat and can remove the hand before sufficient heat has accumulated at the point of contact to burn the skin. Although it is possible to over-fire the fire.
Energy & Carbon Efficiency
Dry firewood properly burned in an oxygen rich environment is a clean burning fuel that creates little pollution. In addition, the wood ash can be added to compost as a nutrient rich and valuable fertilizer.
I also use the wood ash to make my own lye for making soap or cleaning purposes.
Much of the firewood used at our retreat is collected from the forest floor after one of the big logging companies has cleared an area. Using our efficient soapstone fire the carbon dioxide emissions are equal to or even less than those that would have been emitted if we’d left the “unwanted” wood to rot.
Firewood collecting and preparation duties are one of the jobs done by volunteer workers who come to the Retreat to be inspired by the organic gardens, the unspoilt forest, an interest in herbal and natural medicines, the animals, holistic healing or sustainable and environmentally friendly living.