Three decades ago, Pihl moved from upstate New York to West Yellowstone, Mont., in search of better hunting and fishing opportunities. New to the area, he stumbled upon a mason in desperate need of an apprentice. Pihl enlisted and continued to assist the mason for several years before starting Cornerstone Masonry. But it wasn't until 1982, at a workshop back East, that Pihl had the opportunity to help build a Finnish contra flow heater and bakeoven. This new discovery, long used by his Scandinavian ancestors, began to change his way of thinking about wood stoves and fireplaces. Several years later, at the annual Hearth Products Association meeting in Florida, Pihl met a Finnish fireplace designer from Tulikivi company who quickly convinced him that soapstone is the superior material for construction of masonry heaters due to its extraordinary heat retention qualities. Tulikivi (which means fire-stone in Finnish) became Pihl's heating system of choice.
The concept is simple: The firebox of fireplaces and stoves burns wood extremely hot and clean, reaching temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees. But rather than the heat rising up through a chimney (which also draws heat from the room), it loops back through conduits and is stored in the soapstone. Slowly and gently, the warmth is released long after the fire has gone out. Because the stone generates a natural, evenly circulated radiant heat (like the warmth of the sun), the air in the house is never too hot or dry. And the temperature difference between the floor and the ceiling is only about 3 percent, as opposed to 18 percent with a conventional heating system. One firing is able to heat most of a 1,500-2,000-square-foot house for a whole day.
Cornerstone Masonry installs custom soapstone units throughout the Rocky Mountain region. Certified installers can easily retrofit most homes. Pricing varies greatly according to the scope of the project and the model chosen, but starts at around $7,000 installed (but think of the money you'll save on gas). For more information, call 800-321-7010; www.warmstone.com.