ampersand project blog

off-the-grid and interconnected

Thermal Awesomeness


Adam Rubinstein rents a cozy house that is unburdened by an abundance of insulation. Fashionably warm in summer and cool in winter, like so many houses. But Adam is not your typical anybody. For one thing, he is curious-nearly to the point of obsession-about his energy consumption.

“How much am I using?” he questions. “What’s taking all that juice? How can I use less?”

So he goes about researching and tinkering. LED lights, bubble wrap over the windows. Solar panels? Maybe not for a house not one’s own. But maybe. Ponder, ponder.

It is, for me, a joy to behold. He’s thinking, asking a variety of folks questions, constantly revising his ideas, his equipment. I’m not going to tell too much of his story, that’s for him. Just this one bit of it, because it’s so cool.

His main heat source is a wood stove. He burns scraps and salvaged wood, thrown out broken up pallets, that sort of thing. It heats the one little room in which it sits real nice.

IMG_4203Till the fire goes out. Then the heat, unencumbered by much of an insulative barrier, flees for the cool outdoors.

For whatever reason(s), he’s not going to add insulation. Of course he’s thought about it-money, time, it’s not his house, I don’t remember why, but that’s not going to be his next move. So how else to keep some of that heat around?

There’s a good run of exhaust pipe above the stove that gets pretty hot. So he researches and asks different folk what they think, etc. And one of his friends has a bunch of bricks she’s willing to donate to Adam and BOOM… thermal mass. The answer leaps out and hugs him.

Thermal mass is the ability of a body/material to store heat. A few winters ago, it hit -20F at our house. Our greenhouse has way less insulation than Adam’s house. But it has four 55 gallon drums filled with water-thermal mass-that helps stabilize the temperature inside. That night the temp inside the greenhouse got only to 20F. It’s still cold, but that’s a 40 degree difference.

Water is far superior to masonry when it comes to holding heat, but how are you going to surround a wood stove with water? There’s ways to do it with tubes or pipes, but it gets complicated and potentially very wet. Bricks, aka masonry, are fairly straightforward.

Adam gets the bricks, stacks them around his wood stove. Adam being Adam, he tinkers with the design, the placement, he’ll probably keep tinkering until he turns to dust, but the point is… it works.

When he fires up the stove, the bricphotoks absorb heat and long after the fire goes out, the bricks continue give off heat. Thermal mass is… awesome. And so is Adam.

He also helped some with our nifty new website, just in time for our upcoming watershed restoration indiegogo fundraiser. When I say helped some I mean mainly, he built it. Could not have done anything remotely as good without him. I’ve just tinkered with it. If it’s broken, that’s probably my fault. You should visit it and see.

And visit Adam. Great person, great designer, multi-talented. Find him at

Written by Andy Bramble

4 thoughts on “Thermal Awesomeness

  1. Pingback: Solar Thermal How it Works in the Home

  2. So great to see a creative and effective implementation of thermal mass at work. It was at a recent gathering that I really heard about thermal mass and heating for the first time. Outloud anyway. Yay…anything to overcome those occasional dips to negative twenty. Love the tinkers and thinkers of this world. The ones who can revise, re-do, recreate and create. I love the thermal mass brick design. Feeling inspired! Thankyou!

  3. Mass is a gas. I have suggested to many folks who have large south windows and not enough mass to save and reuse 1 gallon milk jugs and stack them up at the windows. It will lower the day temps and raise the evening temps. food coloring to enjoy colors. Jim Palmer designed the Palmer wall as turning a south window into a modified Trombe wall by stacking concrete cylinders discarded by engineering testing labs. Nothing wrong with using dirt from your yard and make some adobes..

  4. It reminds me of some beautiful wood stoves back home in northern Minnesota. Big belly stoves with mountains of glacial stones stacked to the ceiling, held by rough cut timber. Incredible thermal mass that could hold the house all day should you take off for a long one.

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