It sits quietly in your living room munching all day on three little sticks of wood, putting out steady, radiant heat with almost no mess, noise or smoke. Mark Twain called the device "delightfully warm and comfortable "¦ the best stove."
It's a kachelofen, which means "tile oven" in German, and though it's been used there for centuries — and is as environmentally green as the grass — most Americans have never heard of it.
The large and lovely kachelofen works very differently than anything in America. It feeds heated air into a convoluted series of tile baffles and, with little emission, radiates heat that's so gentle and steady you can put your hand right on the stove — as Edith Montgomery of Ashland demonstrates on her kachelofen.
This centuries-old stove — they've been in use since about 900 A.D. — was a focal point and conversation piece when Montgomery's house was featured on the Ashland Green and Solar Home Tour last fall.
The bad thing about the kachelofen is that it takes a lot of green (as in folding money) to get one. However, once purchased, says Dave Cornell of Kachelofen Corp. in Talent, they not only keep their value — his stoves cost between $20,000 and $50,000 — but they appreciate in value and that, of course, translates into a higher value for your home.
"A lot of my customers are fed up with fuel costs, rising prices of gas, oil and electricity," says Cornell. "A kachelofen uses a renewable resource, wood, which is not linked to fossil fuel. It's good for the local economy "¦ and once you've had one, you fall in love with it. They become the centerpiece of the home."
Montgomery got hers from Tom Paiken of Alaska Masonry Heat near Ashland, which now focuses on Tilikivi, a Finish type of masonry heater that, being made of soapstone, is considered a steinofen or stone oven. It operates on the same principles as the kachelofen — radiant heating through baffles.
Tilikivis cost from $5,000 to $50,000 plus installation, which comes to about $1 a pound — and they're pretty heavy.
Kachelofens are mortared together, tile-by-tile, from the ground up, then surrounded by standard bricks for more radiant heat storage, Montgomery says. They're custom-built to the site, so the weight is conducted to the foundation.
They are usually coated with colorful tile, but Montgomery put a toned-down stucco over hers to match her walls, later painting it green.
It burns fuel completely, leaving only a small amount of ash to be taken out about twice in winter, says Montgomery, who converted the device to electric (it still uses only a small amount of energy) four years ago for easier use in older age. She's 69.
A masonry heater is just one facet of a green approach fashioned by Montgomery, who is something of a pioneer when it comes to the use of alternative energy in our region. She built her home in 1990 under the Super Good Cents program, which oversaw things like an extra-tight building envelope with high R-value insulation, an air-to-air heat exchanger and a whole-house fan to exhaust hot, stale air.
The home has lots of south-facing glass and retractable awnings to shade out summer heat but let winter sun in. It also has radiant ceiling heat — when needed — and no air conditioning.
The SGC program was standard on all homes in the Mill Pond subdivision where Montgomery lives, but that was just a launching point for her.
Within two years of moving in she mounted a south-facing, rooftop solar hot water heater and — the crown jewel of the house — the kachelofen.
In 2004, Montgomery installed a four-panel, 3-kilowatt photovoltaic system that turns her electric meter backward. The result is a zero electric bill in the four hottest months of the year, and a 50-percent lower water bill because she builds up a credit from pumping more juice into the grid than she uses and the city applies her electricity savings to her water bill.
Some people may question investing so much green technology into such a small house (1,678 square feet), but Montgomery says the plethora of energy-efficient technology makes her home rise to the top of the pile when it comes to value, especially in a soft market like this one.
While green is a good investment, she says her motives emanate from a deeper place than her wallet.
"I want to make as small a footprint on this planet as possible. I'm part of this planet," she notes. "It's just a given, like how we were taught as children to turn off lights when you leave a room. I've always been an environmentalist."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.