Your Ultimate Guide to Fireplaces
Which style is right for you?
As we head into the final weeks of winter, you're likely logging lots of time beside your fireplace-after all, there's no cozier way to end a chilly evening. If you don't already have a fireplace in your own home but are thinking about adding one, we're here to help. You'll quickly realize that there are a number of different fireplace options available to you, and that each one comes with its own set of pros and cons. To help you choose the fireplace that is best for your home and lifestyle, we spoke to experts about cost, safety concerns, and maintenance requirements associated with the most common types.
There is nothing quite as cozy as reading a book in front of a crackling fire. It might keep your toes warm, but because the chimney lets in cold air from the outside, the fireplace can actually make it more difficult to heat your home. Installation and maintenance can both be quite expensive: Not only do you have to build a chimney into the roof, but you will also need to have it regularly cleaned by a certified chimney sweep.
The Director of Education at the Chimney Safety Institute of America Russ Dimmitt says that while there is "no such thing as a safe fire," keeping the fireplace clean and using dry wood that has been split and seasoned for at least a year can help prevent any danger coming to you or your home. Failure to do so can cause a buildup of creosote which is a tar-like deposit that coats the inside of the chimney. In addition to being flammable, the creosote can damage the chimney in a way that can be quite costly to repair. "The creosote is acidic in nature so it eats away at the mortar and brick," says Dimmitt.
While it might not be as picturesque as a wood fireplace, a gas fireplace is much easier to use-just flip a switch and it lights itself. According to Laura Moreno, an engineer at the National Fire Protection Association, a gas fire will not leave behind the creosote that makes wood fires dangerous. "When gas burns, it produces combustion products like carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor," says Moreno. Those products are expelled outside of the home through a vent. The fire sits behind a glass so it isn't pulling warm air out of the room which makes it much more efficient than a wood fire. Instead, the air comes from a vent that pulls in outdoor air. The drawback of this is that if the vent is faulty and the fire doesn't get enough oxygen, it will release carbon monoxide. For that reason, you'll want to have the unit inspected annually and have carbon monoxide detectors installed throughout the home.
Ethanol fireplaces are a newer alternative, but they're gaining popularity due to ease of use and their environmentally-friendly properties. While both wood and gas fires pollute the air, ethanol is a renewable fuel that burns up without releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere. The fuel is pricey, which makes it an expensive option for regular use, and it doesn't provide much heat. With that said, ethanol fireplaces are easy to install and require very little maintenance, making them an appealing choice for many homeowners-all you have to do is pour the fuel and give the stainless steel a quick wipe-down with soap and water from time to time. "Flammable liquid fuel and open flame can always be dangerous if used incorrectly," says Moreno. As long as you store the fuel away from the fireplace, keep anything that is flammable away from the fire, and follow the manufacturer's instructions, you can safely enjoy an ethanol fireplace.
An electric fireplace is the easiest, most affordable, and safest fireplace option. It doesn't require a chimney or costly installation; simply plug it in and watch the flames. The bad news is that, because it isn't a real fire, an electric fire is purely decorative. It doesn't give off any heat unless it is equipped with a heater. "It's more like a hairdryer, you're not getting much heat out of it," says Damien Kuznicki of Big Apple Fireplaces.
Wood, gas, and pellet stoves are enclosed appliances that use a pipe to expel combustion products from the home. Stoves can provide a significant amount of heat-to the point that they can replace an electric heating system or radiator-because they are equipped with airflow controls that push the heat around the home. Kuznicki says that stoves are equipped with an automatic shut-off feature so, unlike a traditional fireplace, you can leave it on while you are sleeping. Wood and pellet stoves require a similar amount of maintenance to a wood fireplace, but a gas stove doesn't require any. Freestanding stoves are the most economically sound choice because they lower utility bills and are relatively inexpensive to install.