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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]


  • Kevin Lowder

    Just be aware that burning wood creates a huge amount of greenhouse gases and if not vented well can be darn near as dangerous to your lungs as second hand cigarette smoke. Yes... warm, cozy, homey, pretty, but there are pros and cons to everything. I gave up using fires (I have two fireplaces, used to use at least one daily) and stick with zone heating techniques using gas central heat (on low) and supplement with small electric heaters where I am parked for the evening.

    Reply
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