Magazine article Sunset

Our Changing Fireplaces

Magazine article Sunset

Our Changing Fireplaces

Article excerpt

New worries, new rules, but also many new alternatives

GATHERING AROUND A cozy fire on a cold winter night is the stuff of Christmas carols and Norman Rockwell paintings. So fond are we of our hearths that they have become a symbol of home and family life. Fires warm our homes, brighten our rooms, even cook our meals, as well as delight our senses with their crackling noises, dancing flames, and smoky smells.

Lately, though, home fires have been sending up some dark smoke signals. On cold, windless winter nights, many areas in the West experience weather conditions called inversion layers, which trap pollutant-laden air close to the ground. If too many fires are built under these conditions, the result is a thick, stifling, health-threatening cloud of smoke and gases. As a result, many governmental agencies that monitor regional air quality now request voluntary--or, in some cases, mandatory--participation in limiting or forgoing fires.

The good news is that a new generation of fireplaces and woodstoves burns their fuel so cleanly that they are usually exempt from these limitations or prohibitions. Not only do they pollute less, but they also can significantly contribute to your home's heating needs. The cleanest-burning ones use natural gas or propane, though others that burn solid fuels such as firewood or compressed sawdust pellets are cleaner burning than their predecessors.


One look at the dense plume of smoke coming from the chimneys of traditional fireplaces and older wood-stoves shows that they don't burn wood efficiently, since smoke is basically unburned particles of fuel. Manufacturers have responded to this problem in much the same way as the automobile industry did when it installed emission-control devices and improved engine efficiency to reduce auto pollution. Similar improvements in new woodstoves, energy-efficient fireplaces, and pellet stoves have resulted in a significant reduction in both woodsmoke and fuel consumption, as well as an increase in heat output.

Regardless of whether their fuel source is wood logs, pellets, or gas, units come in three basic configurations: freestanding stoves, fireplace inserts (which are virtually woodstoves without legs), and factory-built fireplaces with outer metal shells that allow them to be placed near wood framing (these are often called zero-clearance fireplaces). Sizes and corresponding heat (or Btu) output vary to accommodate different heating needs, ranging from a small room to an entire house. (For wood-burning units, there is an additional special category--the masonry heater.)

One of the most appealing features of the new gas units, as well as of some pellet-burners, is that the temperature and particulate level of the exhaust is low enough to allow direct venting through a wall. Doing away with the need for a chimney not only reduces cost, but also allows these units to be installed almost anywhere there's an outside wall, lending more flexibility to the house's design.

If you already have a traditional masonry or prefabricated metal fireplace, an insert can convert it to an energy-efficient heater. You will also need to modify your chimney with a properly sized liner that will slip inside your existing flue and join directly to the insert. This assures the unit will have the proper draw and burn rate.

The best way to see, compare, and understand the variety of choices is to visit a fireplace and stove store. This will allow side-by-side comparison of styles and fire appearance. If you are planning to add a unit to heat one room or the whole house, providing room dimensions and ceiling heights will help the salesperson determine the right size unit for your needs. Another source of information on fireplace and stove manufacturers is the Hearth Products Association, 2150 River Plaza Dr., Suite 315, Sacramento, Calif. 95833; (916) 567-1181.

While shopping for a fireplace or stove, you're likely to hear the term "Phase II" applied to many of the new appliances. …

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