In the Mountain West, where we do most of our work, the majority of homes have some type of fireplace. Some statistics suggest that more than 75% of home buyers in these areas want a home with a fireplace. We specialize in mountain architecture and I can’t remember a home that didn’t have a fireplace of some type. Having once spent several days without heat during a mid winter storm induced power outage, I can be counted among this majority. Fireplaces (or heating stoves) provide a focal point and gathering place that can be as aesthetic as it is functional.
Fireplaces and heating stoves come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles. For those who want some type of fireplace in their home, there are a number of things to consider when making the choice of which is best for you. Factors such as desired function, type of application, space requirements, cost, and willingness to do the work required for burning wood should be considered.
If you are considering wood burning, check local regulations to make sure it is allowed. Some municipalities with air quality problems restrict or don’t allow wood burning, including many resort towns that are located in mountain valleys with winter temperature inversions.
Available options range from traditional open masonry fireplaces to modern high-efficiency airtight wood or gas stoves that are as artistic as they are functional. Following is a broad overview to present some of the choices.
Masonry Fireplaces – The most traditional (and most expensive), this is the choice for those seeking authenticity and a powerful presence. Masonry fireplaces have a high thermal mass, which works well to radiate heat when it is kept warm, but can have the opposite effect when it is cold. Open face fireplaces also lose most of the heat they produce up the chimney, and in some cases they draw warm air out of the room and send it up the chimney as well. A tight fitting damper can help control heat loss when the fireplace is not in use.
Masonry fireplaces require the most space, and are often continuous from the foundation all the way to the top of the chimney. A substantial foundation is required to support the weight of a masonry fireplace, so adding one to an existing home is often not practical.
A fairly recent advance in masonry fireplace technology is the development of precast firebox and chimney components, which speeds up installation time and offers a UL listed system. Many of these are of the Rumford style. If you aren’t going to burn wood, building a full masonry fireplace is probably not practical, though masonry fireplaces can and often are equipped with a gas supply for possible future conversion or for a gas log lighter.
Prefabricated Fireplaces – One alternative to the traditional masonry fireplace is to use a prefabricated firebox which can be used with a stone or brick veneer surround to resemble a true masonry fireplace. The construction required for these “insert fireplaces” is much less complicated (hence less expensive) than true masonry, and prefabricated units are more airtight and efficient. They can be equipped with fans that circulate air in a confined space around the firebox and blow it into the room (and in some cases throughout the house) to enhance heating. It is possible to in some cases to retrofit an existing fireplace with a new insert to upgrade its efficiency. Prefabricated fireboxes are available in both gas and wood burning versions, with some models able to do both.
Wood or Gas Stoves – These are free standing appliances that are typically much more efficient at heating than any type of built-in fireplace. They require less space, less fuel, and come in a wide variety of styles from very traditional to ultra modern. It is possible to use wood or gas stoves as a primary heat source if they are well located and properly sized, but a wood stove would require a backup system for extended absences and for individual control of private spaces. Gas stoves are usually thermostatically controlled and have blowers on them to increase heating effectiveness. Wood stoves are especially effective if they are close to a large thermal mass such as a masonry wall or concrete slab. Some stoves are clad with slabs of soapstone or a similar material that stores and radiates heat over long periods of time.
The decision to burn wood or gas is a personal one, unless you live somewhere where the air quality regulators have already made this decision. Gas is more convenient, doesn’t require storage space, is available just about everywhere, and is cleaner. The cost of gas versus wood depends on the prevailing prices in your area and the efficiency of the device you are using.
Nothing beats the ambiance of a real wood fire, but this pleasure isn’t without its costs. Wood requires storage space, it’s messy, contributes to air pollution, and it requires work on the user’s part. Even if you buy wood and have someone stack it, someone needs to move it to the fireplace, start the fire, and keep it burning. If you are equipped and willing to cut your own wood, the cost is minimal but the effort is significant. As the saying goes, firewood heats twice – once when you burn it and once when you produce it.
Tom Russell, LEED AP and John Hendricks, AIA Architect
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