Snap, Crackle, and Pop: Fireplaces and Wood Stoves
“Snap, crackle and pop” is one of our favorite combination of sounds. It has nothing to do, however, with our choice for breakfast. Rather, it has everything to do with our passion for a cozy fire. We apparently are not alone. According to remodeling and real estate industry statistics a fireplace is among the most popular features in a home. Moreover, adding a fireplace or stove is an improvement that pays top-dollar return on investment.
Today’s fireplaces and stoves are a far cry from those of yesteryear. They are available in a wide range of styles, sizes, finishes and colors. Some are built on site while others are prefabricated in a factory. And the fuel sources that feed the fire are as diverse as the appliances themselves.
Though a brick and mortar fireplace was what many of us had in our homes growing up, over the last couple of decades it has been overtaken by zero-clearance prefabricated models. Nowadays, more than seventy-five percent (over one half million) of all fireplaces installed each year are factory-built and shipped to the construction site.
A factory-built fireplace is actually a firebox lined with refractory brick panels that resemble mortared firebrick enclosed within a steel cabinet. A blanket of insulating air keeps the outer wall cool and spacers surrounding the cabinet allow it to be installed in close proximity to the wood framing (hence the name “zero-clearance fireplace”). They use a safe, lightweight chimney and do not need any additional footing or other structural support. They are finished like their brick and mortar cousins using a brick, stone, tile, granite or marble face and hearth and can be accessorized with a mantel system that will suit any decor.
Wood, natural gas, propane, coal, wood byproducts, fuel oil and even electricity are the resources that keep the flames flickering in most American’s fireplaces. Wood, however, is increasingly losing its luster as a principal fuel source for fireplaces due to poor heating efficiency and stricter air quality standards imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Wood does remain a popular fuel source for EPA-certified fireplace inserts and wood stoves. They are the most environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient wood burning appliances ever manufactured.
Where a wood burning insert or stove is not indicated, the trend is toward more energy-efficient, heat-producing, environmentally friendly fuels such as natural gas, propane, wood byproducts and electricity (in areas where the price of the latter is cheap.)
If you have an existing inefficient wood burning fireplace and no longer wish to burn wood, you can improve its efficiency and dispense with the fuss of toting wood and cleaning the ash dump by installing a set of decorative ceramic gas logs. Gas logs and the embers and ash that go along with the typical installation look astoundingly lifelike. Fabricated gas logs can be fueled either by natural gas or propane and they are relatively inexpensive and are easy to retrofit. Most fireplaces now include a built-in provision for running the gas line and flexible piping saves time and money.
If you really want to soup up your hearth product horsepower and heat a good part of or your entire home, consider an EPA approved insert or stove. A freestanding stove gives you the ability to incorporate virtually any style into your home décor. The most versatile hearth product, stoves are available in a wide selection of sizes and styles. They are made of steel, stone or cast iron, and finishes include porcelain enamel and high temperature paint in an array of colors.
Freestanding stoves burn wood, gas, coal, wood pellets or oil, and many use a space age ceramic glass to provide fire viewing. They are generally used to heat a specific room or zone of the house. Stoves are very efficient, and the control of the fire, heat output, burn times and installation options are greatly improved. The gentle waves of radiant heat will make your home cozy on the coldest winter day.
Fireplace inserts are heating units that retrofit into an existing fireplace (masonry or factory-built). They burn wood, gas or wood pellets and offer superior efficiency. Inserts utilize the existing chimney, though a flue liner or other modification may be necessary. Vent-free inserts require no chimney or flue modification. Most have blowers to circulate the heat. Inserts are used to change an existing non-efficient fireplace into an efficient, heat producing zone heater.
If a wood or gas burning fireplace doesn’t light your fire, then there are new electric models that offer amazing realism. An electric fireplace is a simulated gentle wood fire, but without a chimney or venting system. Electric fireplaces have a built in heater to provide the right amount of warmth controllable by the flick of a switch. These appliances can be installed into an existing fireplace opening or built into a mantel. They are ideal for apartments, town homes or offices. You can even take them with you when you move.
More information on fireplaces, inserts, stoves and other hearth products can be found at the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association website at www.hpba.org.