It’s been a warm (ok, downright hot) summer in much of the country this year, so it may seem a little crazy to start talking fireplaces. However, in many areas, the temperatures, then the leaves, and eventually the snow will all start to fall. So why not plan ahead for a way to keep little warmer and a lot greener this winter?
From cooking, to heating, to romantic backdrop in bad ’80s movies, the fireplace has served many purposes over the centuries. Unfortunately, while the crackling logs in the fireplace bring a cheerful warmth to the room, they also have some major downsides, such as the creation of carbon monoxide and particulate matter. And they aren’t even very efficient heaters, with most of the heat created by your average, wood burning fireplace going up the chimney in the form of hot air. Up to 24,000 cubic feet of hot air an hour! So, while you gather round your hearth toasting marshmallows, your house becomes like a vacuum cleaner, replacing the hot air going up the chimney by sucking in cold air from outside through poorly sealed window and doors. It can even cause your home heater to turn on just to compensate. In fact, using an old, wood burning fireplace can actually increase your overall heating bill – and not just because of that cord of wood you bought at the local store!
Happily, there are some fantastic new options available these days in efficient, non-polluting fireplaces. You don’t even have to replace your old, wood burning version – you can just pop in a readymade insert that will improve your air quality, and warm you home more easily. Here are some of your options:
Gone are the days of those cheesy looking fake logs with flames shooting up between them. Today’s natural gas fireplaces have a more aesthetically pleasing, natural look, and far less polluting. Because burning natural gas doesn’t produce creosote (that black gunk that the chimney sweep cleans out) maintenance is also greatly reduced.
If you want, you can simply put in one of the new styles of faux logs, which even come with a material to spread out below that will glow like embers when the fireplace is on. Or, for maximum energy efficiency and safety, you can purchase a full fireplace insert complete with glass screen. These are particularly handy for retrofitting older fireplaces.
Typically a form of de-natured alcohol, bio-fuel fireplaces are a perfect way to enjoy the beauty of a fire, without all the drawbacks. Derived from crops such as beets, corn and even bananas, bio-fuels are so clean burning they can be used right out in the middle of a room, without any sort of chimney or flue.
However, bio-fuels put off only a limited amount of heat, so they are best used for their aesthetic qualities, rather than as a method for heating a room.
Also referred to as “bio-mass”, the pellets are derived from corn and agricultural by-products, which are then burned in a specially designed stove or fireplace insert. Although they produce a fire that is more functional than pretty, pellet stoves are a very efficient source of heat, and can be easily adjusted to control temperature and output. One consideration to keep in mind though is that pellet stoves require electricity to operatel, so they would be nonfunctional during a power outage, unless they have a battery back-up system built in.
Even though I began this post discussing all the drawbacks of old style wood burning fireplaces, it is now possible to make a very energy efficient, low-polluting, wood burning fireplace. So if you are building a new home, or engaged in a major renovation, you might want to look at an EPA approved fireplace.
My personal favorite are the gorgeous Tulikivi soapstone stoves/fireplaces coming out of Europe. Although bearing a bit of a heavy carbon footprint on the way over (they can weigh close to a ton), they are a very efficient, lovely looking way to warm a home. Essentially, they use the heat radiating properties of the soapstone to make the most use of the high efficiency wood burning fire. The larger versions can heat an entire home from one relatively small fire.
In the end, the type of fireplace or stove you choose will depend on what you need most. Is it aesthetic beauty? An efficient way to heat your home? Or maybe just a place to hang the stockings with care? Whatever you are looking for, there are now great choices that are also green choices!