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Will an open fire leave your home more cold and frosty than warm and toasty? Get the true facts on fireplaces before lighting those logs --

fireplace heatingRoaring fires evoke the warm feelings of holiday cards, but are fireplaces efficient forms of heat? Photo: Lord-helmut, Flickr

As winter continues to roar, picturesque dreams of chestnuts roasting on an open fire may dance in your head. And you're not the only one coveting cozy nights cast under a warm glow. According, to the National Home Builder's Association, 77 percent of home-buyers list a fireplace as a "most-wanted" amenity.


Unfortunately, in addition to a cozy ambience, fireplaces also elicit concern about safety-hazards, air pollution, inefficient heating properties, and laborious maintenance needs. Not quite the makings of a festive Nat King Cole song.

But do the pros outweigh the cons? Can a wood-burning fireplace really heat your home sufficiently? Are these structures simply a house fire waiting to happen? The key is to decipher the difference between fact and fiction. Plenty of conventional wisdom regarding fireplaces is flat-out wrong, or at least misleading. Here's the truth behind some of the commonly held fireplace misconceptions.


Fireplace Myths, Realities, and Easy Fixes

A relatively simple way to increase the warmth of a fireplace is to install a fireback, a decorative cast-iron plate that reflects heat into the room. Photo: Fireback.com

Myth: A fireplace provides heat.

Reality: Wood-burning fireplaces do not provide as much heat as they do ambience and beauty. Once upon a time, a fireplace was used as a major heat source -- as well as a stove for cooking food. But that role started waning about 270 years ago with the advent of the Franklin Stove.

Fire requires oxygen for combustion, thus fireplace flames consume the heated air inside your home, which results in a drafty interior. Also, cold exterior air is sucked into the house through the fireplace's chimney.

The Fix: This one's simple. Maximize the warmth of a fireplace by installing a fireback.

A Pennsylvania Fireback is a decorative cast-iron shield placed in the rear of the fireplace. Firebacks reflect and radiate the heat from your fireplace back into the room, increasing the amount of warmth your fire provides. Opt for a heavy fireback, as lighter firebacks don't retain as much heat. Prices start around $200 for a fireback.

Adding doors to a fireplace is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to increase the fireplace's heat efficiency. Photo: Lowe's

Myth: A fireplace operates inefficiently.

Reality: Over a year, a fireplace may passively consume more energy while not in operation due to leaks around the damper than when it's actually in use.

Most fireplaces have a throat damper, which is the steel plate inside the chimney that closes against a steel or masonry shelf to prevent hot air from escaping or cold air from entering. But because both the damper and the chimney itself are rigid, a tight seal is nearly impossible. Making the situation worse, many fireplace owners don't even know this little door is back there and leave it wide open all year long. This is almost the equivalent of leaving a window open.

The Fix: Install fireplace doors.

While they can be decorative, the main function of fireplace doors is to create a second barrier between the living space and the home's exterior. They are very effective at keeping heat in and blocking cold air from entering. Prices start around $150 for the doors.

Another efficient solution is to use a top-sealing damper, which creates a gasket seal similar to a door closing against weatherstripping. This keeps conditioned air from escaping and inhibits outside air from infiltrating the chimney. Lyemance, a leading manufacturer, says top-sealing dampers are 90 percent more efficient than throat dampers and can save hundreds of dollars annually on a typical sized home in a cold climate. Chimney-top dampers are available for $200 to $400.

fireplace heatingGetty Images

Myth: You can't burn soft wood, like pine, because its pitch creates creosote that will coat the inside of your chimney and increase the possibility of chimney fires.

Reality: According to Ashley Eldridge, Director of Education for the National Chimney Sweep Guild, you can indeed burn pine without making a sticky mess of the chimney. Seasoned wood (wood that has dried for a year) burns better than green wood, which has a high-water content because it is recently felled.

It's also worth pointing out that most wood you'll burn, such as varieties from your local tree service or landscaper, is about as green a fuel as there is available. This is largely because it is locally harvested and transportation impact is minimal. Green experts refer to this as a low "embodied energy."

Myth: Unused chimneys don't need inspecting or cleaning.

Reality: The National Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends annual chimney inspection.

Cracks can develop within the structure, as well obstructions like bird nests. An annual inspection enables you to pinpoint and fix small problems before they become huge, expensive ones.

The Fix: A certified chimney sweep inspects operation of parts susceptible to wear and tear, such as the damper, the chimney's interior and exterior construction. They're also trained to recommend and complete maintenance upgrades including stainless steel flue liners, like the HomeSaver. They'll diagnose performance issues like weak draft, smoke that doesn't flow forcefully up the chimney.

A basic inspection usually costs around $200 and the price often includes a sweep (cleaning). Repairs or upgrades depend on severity of the problem, height of or access to the chimney, and other variables.

According to State Farm Insurance, a sweep should clean a chimney if he sees 1/8-1/4 inch of creosote buildup. Creosote, a tar-like substance that lines a chimney with a sticky flammable coating, is a product of combustion and accumulates in the flue. It is an infamous ingredient for some chimney fires.

You can find a certified chimney sweep by visiting www.NCSG.org or www.Chimneys.com, as well as learn more about Links to how your chimney works at www.CSIA.org.


SEE ALSO:
How to Clean Your Fireplace
Fireplaces to Warm Any Room [Apartment Therapy]
Practical Tips for Building a Fire [EPA]
Decorating a Fireplace Mantel [ShelterPop]


  • Anna

    Fireplaces are beautiful but not economical. I keep all of my wood in my closet now that I've done them over!

    Reply
  • mellorsqst

    the person that wrote this article did little research... what a load of rubbish...

    Reply
  • Dan

    I agree that the author of this article is giving out dangerous information! You should not burn pine in a fireplace! Creosot builds up much faster with pine, even if it's been cured. Most people that burn would, don't have the luxury of letting would cure for a year and even if they did the pitch in pine doesn't not evaporate. Burning pine will create lots of creosot in a chimney and if your chimney has any cracks in the liner and there's a fire, your going to lose your house! Be smart and don't listen to the idiot that wrote this article! And if your going to heat your home with wood, get a a newer catalic wood stove. There are all kinds of style that are just as attractive in your home as a fireplace. They are designed to burn the smoke from the wood as it smolders in the stove and puts more BTU's that a conventional woodstove or fireplace. Do some research and ask questions of the various dealers! They are there to help you with the right information about the stoves, as well as how to safely use one!

    Reply
  • doc hansel

    Fireplace users in the western U.S. burn pine/fir wood almost exclusively.


  • Madeleine

    I'm originally from NY and upstate almost everyone has a fireplace, some put a coal /woodburning stove in the fireplace instead of using it but almost all heat their home with it. A few of my Moms friends didn't have a furnace, just a fireplace and it heated the house just fine. A chimney sweep would come once or twice a year and that was that. My Mother had a big old stone fireplace and it helped keep her propane costs down. My daughter uses a pellet stove and my other daughter lives in what used to be a Lodge, she has 3 fireplaces, including one in the basement. Fireplaces are not new, furnaces are. Even in older Brooklyn Apts there are closed off fireplaces that use to be in use, probably with gas, I had one and it was sealed off so even in the city it was used. You can also buy seasoned wood but it costs more. When you start out in your home if you buy two cords of wood and only use one or even one and a half and dont' use the other until the following year you will have seasoned wood to use and the wood you buy that year can be put away to season for the next year and so on. Nothing like a woodburning stove or a fireplae but i am sure they will be done away with after hundreds of years because of the pollution or emissions or carbon or whatever they give off, How did people ever survive without the Government to tell them how to live. Amazing..Yhe fiorst interview the President oObama gave he was sitting next to a fireplace with a fire going.

    Reply
  • Rico Suave

    Tell someone that has nothing but a fireplace to heat with, that they don't work. You have to know how to use it. The damper, air control,ect...

    Reply
  • Jeb

    Very little research (Surprise!) done for this piece. I've used natural wood to heat my entire home for almost 10 years. All modern woodburning hearths use double walled flues that not only use outside air to fuel the flames but also heat the incomming air before it is combusted. The article also failed to mention the global warming crowd considers wood fueled heat to be "carbon neutral" since it recycles carbon already on the earth's surface. Lastly, a woodburning fireplace is no different from any other part of your home; If you're not going to use it and maintain it correctly........Don't buy one.

    Reply
  • bonsaimark

    I have heated our home exclusively with wood for over 20 years. We do not have a furnace, we have 2 woodstoves.

    There is nothing wrong with burning pine. I burn about a cord of pine or other "soft" woods a year. These woods are perfect for early fall and spring when you don't need a long fire. The real issue and the only issue that comes with burning softwoods such as pine or hardwoods for that matter is you need to clean your chimney. If you clean your chimney you will have nothing to worry about when it comes to creosote build up.

    With today's flexible poles most homeowners can clean their own chimney with ease. Still it is wise to have a pro check your chimney as well. Once a year we have a "pro" come and clean the flu's and then I give them a second cleaning during the season.

    Reply
  • Rich

    I am a Master fireplace builder with over 400 installations. It seems to be true this writer is not an expert on fireplaces. Don't ever burn pine unless it is all you have,and you're going to free to death. Not only are you at risk for a chimney fire. Also,pine burns very hot,and that can cause inevitable internal problems to arise quicker than if you burn hardwoods(distressing of iron dampers,decaying of any mortar used in the construction,etc). Although it is true that modern fireplaces are inefficient ( they usually radiate 15% of the heat provided by the fire) There is a fireplace that was designed in the mid 1700,s by a guy named Rumford. Thsi firebox design burns at around 85% efficiency. The starght backed firebox design coupled with a unique smoke chamber damper configuration cause a hot zone in the firebox,causing the cumbustable material to reach a point of near total combustion(everything burns) I believe that fireplace issues should only be handled by an experienced fireplace builder. CHIMNEY SWEEPS ARE JUST THAT,CHIMNEY SWEEPS! NEVER HIRE A SWEEP TO FIX YOUR CHIMNEY!!!Although chimney sweeps do a good job cleaning your chimney,very few have the background in fireplace construction to know by experience how a fireplace is constructed,and how it should work. I worked for a sweep,rebuilding his chimneys. He had the book smarts,but had never actually built a fireplace. Most of the customers who had their chimney or fireplaces got ripped off on price,because sweeps don't know what they're doing. Customers erroneously believed that their chimney sweep was as knowledgable as a bricklayer,and would get the same quality of service. You don't. Hire a qualified journeyman bricklayr/mason. For more info go to WWW.RUMFORD.COM

    Reply
  • chimneyswp

    Rich,
    Master builder maybe but very uninformed totally, for your records pine has been and still is tested and found to be no more dangerous than other hard woods. When seasoned pine burns its true it does burn hotter more quickly than oak which tends to burn slower but the construction if done properly will not deteriorate more quickly for pine than for oak. Actually seasoned pine produces less creosote than oak, due to the shorter burn period and hotter burn.
    Any unseasoned wood is bad for your system but if your using well seasoned wood you can burn anything.
    And your comments about chimney sweeps not being qualified for repairs is all wet, I have been in the business for 21 years and can find only 1 out of every 10 fireplaces i inspect that were built properly. There are more butchers out there building chimneys and fireplaces verses incompetant chimney sweeps.
    I'll put my knowledge of construction practices up against your "Master Builder" knowledges any day.


  • Rich

    There is a lot of discussion on burning pine. Some people say,by their experience it's ok to burn pine. Sure you can burn pine,but you shouldn't. The guy who say' you only have to "keep your chimney clean". Is just plain wrong. He is as qualified to make that statement as the guy who wrote this article. Just because you have burned pine for 20 years doesn't make you an authority. bad advice. Here is an experiment you can do. make a brick fire pit in your yard. Dig a hole,and line it with clay bricks. Then burn pine in it for a few weeks. get that fire roaring hot. I quarantee in a relatively short amount of time those bricks will crack to pieces(unless you are using cerified firebrick). I can also quarantee the guy who built your fireplace used clay brick in the construction of your fireplace somewhere. Most bricklayers use clay brick in the construction of the smoke chamber. Pine burns at a significantly higher temperature than oak,walnut,or any other hardwood. Unless you are in danger of freezing to death,or have no other wood to burn don't burn any soft wood. No pine,no cedar,no spruce,NO SOFT WOODS!! I will say if you do burn soft wood,you won't experience any problems for probably years after construction,but what if the guy who owned your house before you only burned pine? A fireplace can be a wonderful part of your home,but fireplaces have a tendency to need repair after years of use,and pine or any soft wood always hastens the need for repairs. If you need to burn soft wood,make sure you have your chimney cleaned regularly. It will also be prudent to have your fireplace/chimney inspected by an experienced bricklayer mason who has specifically been trained in fireplace construction. I have seen chimneys that have had to be torn down to the ground because cracks that ran from the top of the chimney to the ground,and one fireplace that had to be completely rebuilt was only 7 years old. Poor initial construction combined with accessive burning of soft woods (pine) Caused and early demise,and a $9,000 rebuild.

    Reply
  • Chimneyswp

    Rich,
    Once again your full of Sh#t, all firebrick tend to crack with the heat of the fire directly on them in the firepit, since this is the hottest point of the fire. But from cleaning fireplaces for 21 years I run into cracked bricks far and inbetween. Thats why IRC 2006 requires fireboxes to be built with firebrick with a minimum thickness of 2 inches. And the smoke chambers only have to be built with solid bricks with a minimum thickness of 8 inches. This is because obvisouly the firebox is closest to the fire, and the smoke chamber doesn't get the heat a firebox endures. Even after inspecting chimneys that experienced chimney fires with temperatures reaching the 1100 to 2500 degrees I've only found very few brick structures with failed bricks. So do the public a favor and stick to building fireplaces and keep your uninformed opinions to yourself.


  • Jeff

    I have a wood burning fireplace in my home. While I agree that they arent very efficient, there are ways to increase the amout of heat output. We put a tube grate with a blower in ours a few years ago and it heats up the house nicely! Our heating costs have gone down quite a bit after installing it. To add to the discussion on pine.....I never burn it in my fireplace. I only burn hardwoods (mostly oak, hickory, and elm). They provide a slow steady burn and dont clog up the chimney like pine does.

    Reply
  • Bill Liddle

    I built my house in the early 1970s and installed a fireplace with a heat exchanger, glass doors and electric blower motors. I keep the doors closed when using the fireplace and I keep both blower motors running full time. My fireplace is located on the lowest floor of the home with the blower discharge openings directed at the stairway leading to the upper floors. I'm in the Chicago area and even on the coldest of winter days, I can heat the entire house and the furnace will never kick on.

    Reply
  • taxocrat

    All those blower equipted fireplaces work great when the power goes off. I llike natural gas, it doesn't gag out the neighbors.

    Reply
  • Mary

    Our fireplace has an electric motor that runs a fan to discharge the heat into the room when the doors are shut, however, the room where the fireplace is located, empties into the hallway where our main furnace thermostat is. If the temp in the hallway gets warm enough, the heat pump on the furnace shuts off and the upstairs of our house gets cold. We only use the fireplace for special occasions as it tends to run our heating bill up. The best investment we made was to buy a new heat pump that uses the newer freon, and keep the air filter cleaned. Fireplaces can make the air in a room dirtier. Never store wood in your house or next to your house. It can lead to terminte infestations.

    Reply
  • Mary

    Storing firewood in the house or next to the house can lead to termite infestations. Other than keeping a couple of logs in a holder adjacent to a fireplace. Store your wood outside away from your house. Don't believe me, ask an exterminator. They also do not recommend growing shrubbery right next to a house unless you are willing to have your foundation treated annually.

    Reply
  • Mark

    http://www.diylife.com/2011/02/07/fireplace-heating/?icid=main%7Chtmlws-main-n%7Cdl5%7Csec3_lnk2%7C200625#commentform

    Hi,
    as a former exterminator many years ago, we did run into big problems with people storing wood next to or against the structure of the house itself; I always recommended them storing wood at least 25 to 50 feet from the house, or on a concrete garage floor with plastic under it; also sprayed with insecticide for good measure -- but be careful with insecticide in an enclosed garage.
    One customer jokingly told me years ago that he did keep some old wood about 100 feet from his house, to let the termites have at it and he'd stack his better wood safely on a metal rack ( the wood was about six inches off the ground ) in his garage with plastic under it and kept a good eye on it. I've seen termites under homes less than six months old that had upright mounds and mud tubes directly attached to the floor joists; so, whatever you do, if you're going to store wood close to your house ( never against it ), always be vigilant in keeping an eye out for not just termites, but wood boring beetles and other bugs that love to get under the bark of the wood; splitting wood enough often causes the bark to fall off ( if well seasoned ) and with the bark off, you'll be able to better observe your wood for insect infestation before bringing it inside. Having got bit by a brown recluse and enduring a big gash down the leg to let it drain ( and a 7,000 plus hospital bill ), please be careful to watch out for those and black widow spiders ( got bit by one of those while a preteen, so I've had my share of painful spider bites ) for they love dark hiding places, with the black widow being more prevalent here. Either way, be careful of the insects that often hide between the bark and wood; if the wood isn't seasoned, the bark will stay more attached and they'll be less chance of spiders or other misc. insects hiding between the wood and bark, but then you run into newer wood that's not seasoned. Just be careful, for I wouldn't want anyone going through the hell I went through with that brown recluse spider bite. It was very ugly, and when I was admitted to the hospital, I could hardly put my foot on the floor without almost screaming the pain was bad, hot and swollen. Just something you all might want to watch out for. God bless, M. Savage, Lumberton, NC


  • Anne

    I own a 53-year-old house with two fireplaces, and I've never used them. The previous owners PAINTED the interior of the upstairs fireplace white and gilded the mortar, so a fire would create toxic fumes. Also, I do not want bark and wood chips all over my floor and rug, nor do I want smoke to stain my wallpaper. So, my beautiful fireplace and mantel are just decorative accents in my home!

    Reply
  • mls

    Each Sept I have a cord of wood delivered - this year cherry that was fallen then harvested.
    I build a fire nightly around 3 in the afternoon and keep going until about 7. Yes, it certainly does warm the 14x20 family room quite nicely. it is festive, comforting and totally enjoyable. After all, the temp' has been below freezing most of the winter so why not enjoy the ambience of the fire.
    do not burn PINE or any item that is not cordwood - for example an old basket. POOF - you will have a house fire. Unbeknowenst to you, it may have a flammable coating - recipe for disaster.
    Enjoy a fireplace fire for what it is - comfort in the winter.

    Reply
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