Build a rocket stove for home heating

Author’s note, 2015-02-14:

  • Based on the interest I’ve received in this project, I’m considering selling plans for a stove similar to the one described in this article. See the Rocket Stove Plans section at the end of the article and let me know if you’d be interested.

Original article:

For some time I’ve been considering the best way to deal with a pile of scrap wood that has been growing next to my home, the result of many woodworking and carpentry projects I’ve been involved in over the years. A few options I have considered are:

  1. taking it to the landfill
  2. cutting it into chips and using it as mulch
  3. burning it

From a climate change standpoint, the latter of these is surprisingly the least harmful in the long run. Mulching or burying do postpone carbon release to the atmosphere, but the carbon will be released eventually regardless. What’s worse, mulching or burying the wood will result in some anaerobic decomposition (that is decomposition in an oxygen deprived environment) which will result in the production of methane, a far more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Burning also has a side benefit. It releases energy which may be captured and put to some use. Scrap wood and yard trimmings are burned in backyards across the country each year without any attempt to capture that useful energy. Rather than simply “disappearing” my pile of scrap wood, I wanted to extract as much value as possible by heating my home with it. To do so most efficiently, I built an ultra-efficient wood burning stove, more commonly referred to as a “rocket stove’. Rocket stove designs are most often used for small cook stoves but larger stoves for home heating are not unheard of. They are often referred to as rocket mass heaters.

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Fire is dangerous. Building and operating your own wood stove of any design will almost certainly void any fire insurance you may have on your home and may also pose a serious risk to you and your family. As far as wood stoves go, a rocket stove is probably one of the safest designs since the combustion chamber is tiny, the exhaust volume is low, the draft is strong, and the bulk of the exterior of the stove does not reach very high temperatures. However, as with any combustion appliance, there are some precautions you should follow.

0. Locate the stove well away from anything flammable. At least 18″ is recommended by most building codes for ordinary fireplaces and wood stoves.

1. Keep a watchful eye on your stove whenever it’s burning. With an average load of wood my stove burns for about 30 minutes before requiring more fuel. I consider this short burn time to be not a burden but a safety feature, and I don’t mind it at all since there’s a certain pleasure that comes from putting another log on the fire.

2. Don’t burn treated or manufactured woods. Treated wood, plywood, OSB, etc all contain chemicals that will be released into the exhaust during combustion. You certainly don’t want to breath these and you probably don’t want to put them into the atmosphere. You should only burn untreated solid wood.

3. Install a smoke detector. Smoke detectors are required by most building codes, so you probably already have one. However, if you build a rocket stove for heating a garage or outbuilding, you should probably install a smoke detector there as well.

4. Install a carbon monoxide detector. All combustion appliances are capable of producing carbon monoxide which can be deadly if it is released into your home. Other combustion appliances in your home such as a furnace or hot water tank are probably a greater carbon monoxide threat that the rocket stove described in this article since they operate continuously, unattended, even while you sleep. That said installing a carbon monoxide detector is a wise precaution.

How is a rocket stove different from a regular wood stove?

The goal of a rocket stove is to burn a relatively small amount of wood at as high a temperature as possible, resulting in more complete combustion, and to extract as much heat as possible from the exhaust gases. To generate high combustion temperatures, rocket stoves separate the combustion, heat extraction and exhaust functions. They have insulated internal chimneys to generate a strong draft for vigorous combustion. My design uses a down draft combustion chamber. Scrap wood is loaded directly on top of the existing burning wood inside the combustion chamber.  The flame is drawn downward by the strong draft rather than rising out of the chamber as one might expect. The result is that ALL combustion products pass through the hottest part of the fire resulting in very complete combustion, producing the greatest amount of heat and reducing products of incomplete combustion such as carbon monoxide and smoke. To capture as much of the heat as possible and radiate it into the room, the exhaust gases are passed through a secondary chamber (much larger than the combustion chamber) that absorbs and radiates the heat. Finally the relatively cool exhaust gases are expelled through an exhaust tube.

The following illustration shows the basic design.

Rocket stove design

Insulating the chimney ensures a large temperature difference between the exhaust gases inside the chimney and those outside it. This temperature difference causes a density imbalance resulting in a strong draft. The hot exhaust gases in the chimney rise, while the cooler exhaust gases outside the chimney fall, and the whole process draws fresh air into the combustion chamber, supporting vigorous combustion. In my design, the radiating chamber is about 18″ in diameter by about 36″ high, while the combustion chamber is only about 4″ by 4″ by 10″. Don’t let the overall size of the stove fool you. It only burns a couple handfuls of wood at a time. The large size is required to absorb and radiate the heat, not to contain the fuel.

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Rocket stove mass heaters are often built from steel drums. These are convenient since they have a flat top that can also be used for cooking. I did not have one handy though. What I did have was my parents’ old electric hot water tank that they had just replaced since it was corroded and leaking. In addition to this I used some 3″ diameter steel pipe, some 4″x4″ square tubing, and some flat steel plate, all about 1/8″ wall thickness (though that is probably thicker than necessary). I also used some flexible aluminum tubing (dryer ducting) to feed the exhaust from the rocket stove into my existing fireplace.

Rocket stove testing

Above is a picture of the internal parts of the stove (combustion chamber and chimney) set up for initial testing to make sure it would generate enough draft for vigorous combustion. The aluminum flex tubing is connected to the top of the chimney for testing only. In the finished product it will be connected to the side of the stove. The chimney is insulated with about 1″ of Roxul (a rock wool insulation that will tolerate higher temperatures than fiberglass insulation) and wrapped with adhesive aluminum furnace tape to hold the insulation in place.

Rocket stove pieces

The above image shows the hot water tank cut to accept the combustion chamber and chimney.

Rocket stove welding

The above image shows the combustion chamber and chimney being welded into the side of the hot water tank. Note the block of wood between the end of the chimney and the inside surface of the tank to ensure an appropriate gap for the exhaust gases. This piece of wood will be removed after the chimney is welded in place.

Rocket stove crazy welder

Mad scientist at work…

… and after a bunch more welding and a paint job that I neglected to take any pictures of … viola! … the finished product. The silver band around the bottom isn’t a racing stripe. It covers the seam where I tack welded the bottom of the tank back on. I did not want to weld it on permanently since I may want to disassemble the stove later for inspection.

Rocket stove exhaust tube

Notice that I removed a glass pane from the left door of my fire place and replaced it with cardboard. The aluminum flex tube passes snugly through a hole cut in the cardboard to expel the exhaust gases into the fireplace where, still warm, they rise and exit through the existing chimney. I know you’re probably thinking I must be crazy to use a combustible material like cardboard for this purpose, but the fact is that the exhaust volume from this stove is so low and the stove is so efficient at removing heat from the exhaust that this aluminum tube reaches a maximum temperature of only about 60 degrees C during operation. That’s cooler than a typical cup of coffee. The top of the stove gets much hotter, of course.

Rocket stove spark shield

I also made a simple metal screen that can be placed over the combustion chamber to prevent sparks from popping out into the room where they could ignite something (or more likely just leave burn marks as they smolder on the carpet). I have another cover, not shown, that is a solid steel plate. It’s useful to quickly extinguish the fire and to prevent air infiltration when the stove is not in use.

Above is a photo of the cleanout. The plate which makes up the bottom of the combustion chamber is removable. I just slide it out as shown in the photo and the ash drops into any suitable receptacle (I’m using a plastic tray above). I’ve found it best to clean the ash out every week or so as once there is more than about a cup full it will fill the bottom of the combustion chamber and start to build up in the tube between the combustion chamber and the internal chimney. Then it’s a little harder to get to and it will eventually start to reduce the draft. In hindsight, access through the side of the combustion chamber instead of the bottom would have been more useful.

Does it work?

Well… actually … it works too well. The difference between burning wood in the fireplace and burning wood in this stove is incredible. You really have to experience it to believe you can get so much heat from a small handful of wood. I’ve fed my fireplace for hours with hardly any change in room temperature but it only takes a few minutes for the rocket stove to raise the room temperature noticeably. It may take a long time to get through all my scrap wood at this rate. Feeding the stove every evening after work, I have only managed to go through about one bin (perhaps 20kg) of wood per week. Part of the issue is the season. It just doesn’t take much heat to get the house to a comfortable temperature right now in early spring. I will be able to burn a lot more wood in the stove next winter.


On average the heat energy available from burning wood is around 4.5 kWh per kg (assuming a 20% moisture content). Assuming roughly 80% efficiency of the stove (just a rough guess) the heat extracted will be about 3.5 kWh per kg. I heat my home with electricity that costs about $0.07 per kWh. Therefore, the heating value of my scrap wood is about $0.25 per kg and by burning about 20kg per week I save about $5 per week on heating costs or about 50% of my heating bill for this time of year. Savings will be much greater in winter when the stove can be operated more frequently without the room becoming uncomfortably hot.

Why not just buy a fireplace insert?

I considered buying a fireplace insert but after learning about rocket stoves I quickly dismissed the idea because:

  1. an insert would almost certainly be less efficient
  2. it would require significantly more cost and effort to install
  3. it wouldn’t provide nearly the same conversation value
  4. I would not be able to re-purpose existing waste material such as my parents hot water heater
  5. it would not be portable (I look forward to operating my rocket stove on our patio on cool summer evenings).

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What about adding thermal mass? Would that be more efficient?

Wood stoves used as a primary heat source for a home will derive significant benefits from thermal mass (imagine replacing my short length of aluminum flex tube with 30 or 40 feet of duct buried inside a couple tons of concrete and you’ll have the right idea). The thermal mass stores heat and releases it slowly into the home, evening out the temperature and allowing the stove to be operated intermittently.

However, for a stove like mine that’s used only for supplemental heating, thermal mass is not of much benefit since an even temperature can be maintained simply by varying the heat input from the primary system (which happens automatically since it is controlled by a thermostat). For example, when I operate my rocket stove in the winter, my electric heaters automatically cut back such that the house temperature does not rise significantly.

It is also worth noting that thermal mass, by itself, does not improve efficiency. Improved efficiency is often a side effect of adding thermal mass, but the improvement is really just a result of extracting more heat from the exhaust gases. This could be accomplished just as easily without adding any thermal mass. For example, I could extract more heat from my exhaust simply by using a longer piece of aluminum duct between the stove and fireplace (I have noted that the exhaust temperature drops about half way to ambient for every 20cm of tube length).

So in a nut shell, thermal mass is not really that useful for a stove that’s intended for use only as supplemental heat, if the primary heating system is on a thermostat.

Additional resources

There is a lot of information about rocket stoves online. A Google search on “rocket stove” or “rocket mass heater” will yield good results but is a good place to start. There is also an excellent book called Rocket Mass Heaters available for purchase in PDF format at

Paul Wheaton, founder of has put together an extensive set of DVDs on Rocket Stoves, available on Amazon, titled Wood Burning Stoves 2

Erica and Ernie Wisner, of, who were also involved in producing the DVDs above, will be launching a new book in June of 2016. You can pre-order it on Amazon: The Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide

Rocket Stove Plans

Update 2015-02-14: A few readers have emailed me asking if there is any way they could purchase detailed plans so they can build a stove similar to mine or get a welder to build one for them. I don’t currently have any such plans to offer, but if there is enough interest, I would consider building an improved stove (I’ve learned a lot from using this one for the past several years) and documenting the process in more detail with the intent of selling the plans. To gauge interest, I’ve created the following very brief survey.

Reader Projects

If anyone out there decides to build a rocket stove based on this or a similar design, I would be happy to post some pictures of your project, or if you have your own site, let me know and I will post a link below.

2010-12-13: One reader, Brent, built his own rocket stove following a similar design (though he was clever enough to put the cleanout in the side of the combustion chamber rather than the bottom). You can read more about his stove in the comments, or take a look at some pictures and a video on Brent’s blog:

2012-11-26: Another reader, John, sent me these pictures of his project. He’s using a large water reservoir for thermal mass with a coil of copper tubing wrapped around the internal chimney of the stove for heat transfer.


Happy burning!

Heat your home with a dehumidifier

A moisture problem

We (my wife and I that is) keep the temperature in our home relatively low in winter. As I’m writing this, it’s a balmy 16 degrees C in my living room. My lovely wife is wearing a toque and she’s about to put on another sweater because she’s feeling “a bit of a chill”, but she’s a trooper and wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s how she was raised. In Richmond, BC, where we live, winters are… well… wet. It’s pretty much a case of 100% relative humidity outside 24/7 and the water table is at ground level… well… truthfully sometimes it’s a few feet above ground level, but that’s why we have the pumps.

Combine 100% relative humidity outside with low temperatures inside and as you might expect, we occasionally have issues with condensation, especially on windows. “Experts” generally don’t recommend keeping interior temperatures below about 17 degrees C for exactly this reason. I don’t care much for expert opinions (experience has convinced me that I’m more expert than most of them), but I also don’t care much for condensation.

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A solution with a bonus: “free” energy

A portable dehumidifier

The solution (without simply raising the temperature of our home), is a dehumidifier. While I purchased it for its intended purpose (to reduce humidity levels) I now realize that it also makes a very effective heater. Ah… but doesn’t it cost money and energy to operate a dehumidifier? Well… actually… NO! At least not in the winter, when we’re heating our home with electricity anyway. In fact, a dehumidifier is MORE efficient than an ordinary electric heater, which is already 100% efficient. Yes, a dehumidifier is more than 100% efficient at heating your home. That is to say the amount of heat a dehumidifier will release into your home is greater than the amount of electrical energy it will consume. The reason is simple: a dehumidifier removes energy from water vapor in the air in order to condense it to a liquid. This energy is released into your home.

It’s all about enthalpy

There is a property of any substance known as the enthalpy of vaporization. “Enthalpy” really just means energy. The enthalpy of vaporization of a substance is a measure of how much energy it takes to convert a given mass of the substance from a liquid to a gas. It also indicates how much energy is released when a given mass of the substance is condensed from a gas to a liquid. The enthalpy of vaporization of water is 2257 kJ/kg.

What is the efficiency?

How efficient is a dehumidifier at heating your home? Let’s figure it out together. I mean that literally. As I write this, I haven’t actually figured it out yet myself. I’m flying by the seat of my pants here, people; I’m a scientist gone rogue. But luckily I’m also a scientist who recently acquired a portable dehumidifier. I plugged it into a Kill-A-Watt meter several hours ago to measure exactly how much electrical energy (indicated in kWh by the Kill-A-Watt meter) it consumed. It’s been running for about 8 hours and it has consumed 3.87 kWh of electricity. Thus, based on the first law of thermodynamcis I know it has put at least 3.87 kWh of heat into my home.

However I have also determined with a simple digital scale that it has condensed 3.23 kg of water in that same time. How much additional energy did it release into my home as a result of that? That’s where the enthalpy of vaporization comes in. 3.23 kg multiplied by the enthalpy of vaporization of water (2257 kJ/kg) gives 7290 kJ of energy. A kWh is equivalent to 3600 kJ so 7290 kJ is equivalent to 2.025 kWh.

Thus, the total amount of heat released into my home by the dehumidifier over the last 8 hours is equivalent to the 3.87 kWh of electricity consumed, plus the 2.025 kWh of energy released by the condensation of water. The “efficiency” is equal to the energy output divided by the energy input or in this case (3.87 + 2.025)/3.87 = 1.52 or 152% efficiency. An efficiency over 100% is more appropriately referred to as a “coefficient of performance” since technically, it is impossible to achieve greater than 100% efficiency (having more than 100% efficiency in energy conversion would defy the first law of thermodynamics). So if you ever measure more than 100% efficiency, as I just did, what it really means is that you have moved energy from one place to another rather than simply converted energy from one form to another. Such is the case with a dehumidifier which removes energy from water vapor and releases it into the home in the form of heat, condensing the water to liquid in the process. But whatever the terminology you want to use, the fact remains that I can release 1.52 kWh of heat into my home for every 1 kWh of electricity my dehumidifier consumes.

What’s the payback time?

I paid about $250 CAD for my dehumidifier. It consumes about 480W of electricity (3.87 kWh in 8 h) and outputs about 730W of heat (480W*1.52) into my home. I can buy a decent electric heater that will output 730W for about $50. So the difference in price is about $200. Let’s calculate the difference in the cost to operate. A 730W electric heater consumes exactly 730W of electricity. The dehumidifier only consumes 480W of electricity to produce the same 730W of heat. The difference (730-480) is 250W. Effectively I get a free kWh (1000 Wh)of heat for every 4 hours of operation. I currently pay about $0.07 per kWh for electricty, so I save about $0.42 per day when operating the dehumidifier in place of a heater. My heating season runs from October through March, or around 180 days of the year. Therefore, I can save about 180*$0.42 = $75 per year by operating the dehumidifier in place of a heater. That will take a little over 2.5 years to pay back the difference in price of $200.

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Will this work for anyone?

In a word, “No”. The human body is most comfortable at a relative humidity between 20% and 60%. I can run my dehumidifier continuously in winter and not expect to ever drop below 20% relative humidity inside my home. The same may not be true for homeowners in other locations maintaining their homes at higher temperatures than I do. Heating with a dehumidifier works for me because of the high relative humidity in Richmond, even in the winter, and because of the low temperature at which I keep the interior of my home. It could work well for anyone who lives in a similar environment and keeps their home at a low temperature. But if you live where temperatures are usually below 0 degrees C outside in winter then you likely have a much lower relatively humidity. In that case, a dehumidifier will not be able to condense nearly as much water for a given amount of input energy and its operation may bring the relative humidity below a comfortable level.

Clothes dryer vs a rack and a dehumidifier

If you’re considering hanging your wet clothing to dry inside your home, vs using your drier, then you should know that a dehumidifier will be far more efficient than a clothes dryer. In the case of a clothes dryer, electrical energy is used to vaporize the water in your clothing and the water vapor (and all the energy you’ve put into it) is expelled from your home through your drier vent. There is a net loss of energy from your home. If instead you use a dehumidifier, the heat already in your home is used to vaporize (evaporate) the water in your clothing. This energy is recaptured by the dehumidifier when the water vapor is condensed to liquid. Unlike the drier, the dehumidifier doesn’t expel any energy from your home.

Heat pump vs dehumidifier

A dehumidifier is effectively a heat pump. Rather than extracting heat from the ground or the outside air, a dehumidifier extracts heat from water vapor contained in a home’s inside air. In my home, for reasons given above, I can run my dehumidifier continuously without reducing the relative humidity in my home below a comfortable level and I’ve found the coefficient of performance (COP) is about 1.52. A typical air source heat pump has a COP of around 4 assuming an outside temperature of around 0 degrees C (a typical Richmond winter). A typical ground source heat pump has a COP of around 7 assuming a ground temperature of around 10 degrees C (a typical Richmond ground temperature). So clearly, a heat pump (either air or ground source) is much more efficient. If I had a heat pump, I would be consuming more energy than otherwise by operating my dehumidifier. That said, I feel secure in the knowledge that I can run my single dehumidifier continuously and consume less energy to heat my home than if I were running an electric heater. I’ll save the installation of a heat pump for another day… perhaps.

Can you heat your whole home this way?

No. If I were to install more portable dehumidifiers to provide all the heat my home requires (to maintain a balmy 16 degrees C all winter long) I would almost certainly bring the relative humidity below comfortable levels, and the COP would drop below the measured value of 1.52 simply because there isn’t enough water vapor in the air to be condensed. So the idea of using a dehumidifier to heat one’s home is clearly not scalable. At best a dehumidifier may provide suplemental heat. I think I might get away with using two portable dehumidifiers continuously which would each save me about $75 per year based on the calculations above. That’s about $150 per year in total. Currently, that’s about 10% of my home’s annual heating bill.

Seal Your Ducts

Much of the following information is provided on the website of RCD Corporation and has been reprinted here with their permission.

Duct Sealing FAQ

Why is sealing ductwork important?

Leaky ductwork can account up to 30 percent of total heating and cooling costs. For an average home, leaky ducts can waste hundreds of dollars each year. While the increased energy costs and green house gas emissions are significant, health and safety are also a concern.

Why is duct leakage so common?

Most connections are simply not sealed. Those that are, may have been sealed with a poor quality material such as duct tape. Yes, ironically enough, duct tape is just about the worst material you could use to seal your ducts. Want proof, see these test results. If a tape is to be used, foil tape is a better choice. Even better is to use a mastic.

What is mastic?

A group of high strength adhesive compounds used in the building and construction trades. Usually applied by trowel, brush, or caulking gun. There are three general classifications: water-based; solvent-based; and two-component curing systems. Water-based is the safest and easiest to use. It performs as well and in some instances better than the other two classes.

If ducts are insulated, do they need to be sealed?

Yes. Insulation does not stop air leaks. Look for dirt streaks in duct insulation, they’re a sign that air has been leaking from the ducts.

Are certain types of ducts more air tight?

Studies show that all types of ductwork can have problems with air leakage. Mastic works to seal metal, flexible, and fibrous ductwork.

What are the most important areas to seal?

In order of priority, these are:
1. Disconnected components
2. Connections between the air handling unit and the plenums
3. All seams in the air handling units and plenums, takeoffs, boots, and other connections, especially site-built items.

What are the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in mastics?

In water-based mastics, the only volatile compound is water which is inorganic. Therefore the VOCs are infinitesimally small (not recordable). This is the reason water-based mastics pose a low health risk compared to solvent-based and two-component mastics.

Where to check for leaks


Where to apply mastic

It is a good idea to apply mastic to all joints and seams, regardless of whether you can detect leakage. Thermal expansion and furnace vibration can loosen joints over time causing them to leak in the future unless they are sealed with a flexible material such as mastic. The following images show more detail about where to apply the mastic.

Duct sealing air handler

Duct sealing plenums

Duct sealing flex ducts

Duct sealing boots

How to apply mastic

  1. Clean duct Surface
    Use a cloth to wipe dust from the surface of the duct. If oily film or grease covers the duct, wipe clean with a damp cloth.
  2. Apply the mastic
    For gaps less than 1/4″, load the brush with mastic and coat the entire joint with a continuous strip. Use the end of the brush to work the mastic into joint. Spread the mastic at least one inch on each side of the joint. The mastic should be thick enough to hide the metal surface of the duct (about 1/16 inch thick). If the gap in the duct connection is larger than 1/4 inch use a fiberglass reinforcing membrane in addition to the mastic. If the membrane is sticky on one side, cut enough membrane to cover the joint, press the membrane in place, then cover it with mastic. Apply enough mastic to completely cover the membrane. If the membrane does not have a sticky side, first apply a thin layer of mastic, press the membrane into the mastic, then apply a finish layer of mastic.
  3. Wrap Ducts with insulation
    Water-based mastics generally dry to the touch in 2 to 4 hours. Insulation may be installed over wet mastic but try not to move the ducts too much, because the mastic seal could be damaged. All duct support work should be done before applying mastic.

Where to buy mastic

You can buy mastic suitable for duct sealing from the following companies (please add to this list):

RCD Corporation
Home Depot – If this link doesn’t go to the proper product page, try searching for “duct sealant” or “mastic” on the Home Depot website.