Category: Major Systems

Bob Vila Radio: Radiant Walls

Many have become familiar with radiant floor heating. Fewer know that radiant walls and ceilings not only exist, but offer many functional and money-saving advantages.

You’re probably familiar with the comfort and effectiveness of radiant flooring, but did you know that radiant heat can also be installed in walls and ceilings?

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Listen to BOB VILA ON RADIANT WALLS or read the text below:

Radiant Walls


Like the floor-based variety, radiant walls and ceilings provide heat through panels behind the drywall or other interior finish material. In walls and ceilings, these panels are usually heated by electricity. The heat emitted by the panels in turn heats the wall and ceiling surfaces, not the surrounding air, resulting in enhanced comfort at lower air temperatures. This allows radiant systems to achieve the same level of comfort at lower thermostat settings. This fact, combined with radiant heating’s quick response time and room-based controls, can translate into cost and energy savings.

Ceiling or wall radiant heating systems can usually be retrofitted with less disruption and at a lower cost than floor systems, which require ripping up and replacing an existing—and possibly expensive—floor. And depending on the panels used, radiant wall heating may need to occupy only the bottom four or so feet of wall, so installation is less intrusive. Whichever radiant route you choose, remember it will be effective only with proper insulation.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Planning Guide: Insulation

Although it remains out of sight in our homes, insulation is our greatest ally in the struggle to save energy and keep our spaces toasty warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

How to Install Insulation - Fiberglass Batt


Insulation is the strong, silent type. Although it operates behind the scenes for the most part, it plays a vital role: keeping us comfortable indoors. Unlike fuel or electricity, insulation doesn’t cost anything from month to month, but it works to maintain a warm temperature in winter, a cool temperature in summer.

Despite the big difference insulation can make, many homeowners ignore its advantages. In one study, the Harvard School of Public Health found that 65 percent of homes in the United States contain substandard insulation. If in every one of those instances the insulation were brought up to the standards set by the International Energy Conservation Code, we would save 800 trillion BTUs annually—an amount of energy equal to 75,000 supertankers’ worth of crude oil!

So if you’re building a new home or seeking to improve the energy efficiency of an existing dwelling, don’t be mistaken—at home, what you can’t see can help you.

How to Install Insulation - Types


There are several different types of insulation, each with its own set of attributes and ideal applications. If for any reason a single solution is judged to be unsuitable for your home, then for optimal results it’s not only possible but recommended that you install a combination of insulation types.

Most common of all is blanket-style insulation, made from either fiberglass or rock wool. The material comes in rolls or square batts (with or without a foil or paper backer). For the convenience of contractors and do-it-yourselfers alike, blanket insulation comes presized to fit between most studs, rafters, and joists.

Meanwhile, loose insulation works best in parts of the house where there are irregular surfaces, or where major system components like the furnace are present. This type of insulation consists of either fiberglass or rock wool that blows into place by means of special equipment. Professional installation is advised.

For home exteriors, basements, and crawl spaces, opt for rigid insulation, whether foam- or fiber-based. A relatively new addition to the home-building and remodeling market, rigid insulation has quickly become a favorite, because it packs a lot of insulating power, measured as R-value, into a thin profile.

Closed- or open-cell spray foam insulation is resistant to mold, unlike other insulation types, and closed-cell foam in particular boasts an outstandingly high R-value. In contrast, open-cell foam insulates less well but offers superior breathability. Either type is expensive, in part because foam must be installed by pros.

The higher the R-value of an insulation product, the greater its resistance to heat flow—and the higher its cost. So what R-value does your insulation need to have? That depends on where you live. Energy Star provides an easy-to-read chart that lists the recommended R-value for different parts of the country.

R-values are cumulative, meaning that if you place R14 insulation over an initial layer with an R-value of 30, the insulation ends up being R45. Never compress insulation; doing so dramatically undermines it. Therefore, be wary if installing a denser material—say, rigid foam—over a lighter one, such as a fiberglass batt.

Insulation products are clearly marked. Pay attention to that labeling so that you can be sure to spend no more than is strictly necessary. Hiring a contractor? Ask to see the label on each roll, batt, bag, or panel of insulation going into the job. That way, you can be certain you’re getting the R-value for which you’re paying.

How to Install Insulation - Rafters


Home builders are in the habit of using only a base level of insulation. For that reason, it’s important to discuss your insulation requirements with the person in charge of the project. To avoid unnecessary delays, speak up early in the construction timeline, before the walls and siding have been fastened into place.

Any floor, wall, or ceiling can be insulated, including those in unfinished basements or garages. The catch is that if your basement floods or your garage gets drafty, insulation might be a waste of money. Ideally, you should fix water and air leaks before you proceed to install insulation in a space affected by either issue.

One key advantage in new construction is that builders have the opportunity to counteract a phenomenon known as thermal bridging, in which floor joists become a source of heat loss, causing a drop of up to 50 percent in insulation R-value. For best results, insulation must run above joists, not just between them.

How to Install Insulation - Paneling


Estimates say that only 20 percent of homes predating 1980 are properly insulated, so if you live in an older home, chances are that installing insulation would dramatically lower your heating and cooling bills.

If you’re interested, start with an energy audit (sometimes these are provided free of charge by the local utility company). Among other things, an energy audit reveals which parts of the house are subject to heat loss. Of course, those areas are the prime candidates for additional insulation.

You can assess your insulation needs without consulting an energy auditor. The labor-intensive process involves such things as peeking into the attic and crawl space and, where possible, behind walls or beneath flooring. If you want to know whether there’s insulation on the other side of a wall panel, one trick is to remove the faceplate from an electrical outlet on that wall. You should be able to see in.

How do you determine the R-value of any insulation that you find in your home? If it’s pink, white, or yellow, it’s likely fiberglass, which has an R-value equal to 2.5 times its thickness. If the insulation is gray or off-white, then it’s probably rock wool, in which case the R-value is 2.8 times the thickness. Loose cellulose insulation is typically gray, with an R-value that is 3.7 times its depth.

In an existing home, it’s usually pretty easy to add insulation in areas like the attic, basement, or crawl space. Walls, on the other hand, can be very tricky—or, in other words, expensive. Here, the least invasive, most cost-effective solution is to rely on blown-in or spray insulation.

• To cut blanket-style insulation, place the product over a piece of plywood, paper/foil side down. Lay a two-by-four on top, temporarily compressing the insulation to a manageable thickness. Then run a standard utility knife along the edge of the lumber, through the insulation and down to the plywood.

• Insulation expands once unpackaged, so leave it wrapped until you are ready to use it.

• Many insulation products release hazardous particles. If you choose to install insulation yourself, wear full protective gear and a dust respirator.

• Do not install insulation directly adjacent to any element of the home that gets hot, such as recessed lighting. It’s a fire hazard.

• If you’re insulating your attic, take care not to cover the vents, as they are essential for maintaining adequate airflow in the home.

Increase Your Comfort Level This Winter with a Humidifier

In the winter months, when heating systems are really chugging away, indoor air can become dry and staticky. A whole-house humidifier is a great way to add back a little moisture. Here are the basics.

Whole House Humidifier


Scratchy throats, frequent nosebleeds, dry skin, and static electricity can be common occurrences in winter—particularly when the combination of heated air and tightly insulated houses reduces humidity levels indoors.

GeneralAire Drum Style Humidifier

GeneralAire drum-style humidifier at

“With frigid temperatures gripping most of the country, heating systems on full blast, and houses all buttoned-up against the cold, the air in a home can get pretty dry this time of year,” points out Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer The solution to improved health and comfort, however, can be as simple as adding a humidifier.

Although everyone knows the old adage “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” few people understand the relationship between the two. The actual heat a body feels is a combination of both temperature and humidity. The minute you turn on your home heating system in the winter, it begins to remove moisture from the air. Dry air feels cooler than moist air, so in a dry interior, in order to maintain a temperature that seems comfortable, you end up raising the thermostat higher than necessary. By adding humidity back into the mix, you can alleviate the dryness, lower the thermostat, and still feel comfortable—saving money on heating bills in the bargain.

“Not only can low humidity dry out your skin and throat, and generally make you feel uncomfortable,” says O’Brian, “it can contribute to other health issues—from making you more susceptible to colds and flu to aggravating conditions like asthma, allergies, and sinus problems.” Children and pets—especially birds—can be particularly sensitive to dry indoor air.

“Extremely low moisture levels can even be damaging to your home, causing wood floors and fine furniture to warp and crack, interior paint to dry out, chip and flake, and wallpaper edges to shrink and peel,” O’Brian notes. “And, if you think those static shocks are painful to the touch, think of what they are doing to your electronics!”

Honeywell By Pass Whole-House Humidifier

Honeywell bypass humidifier at

The simple answer to alleviating all these problems is to install a humidifier, which can be used to increase the moisture levels in specific rooms or throughout the entire house. Indoor humidity levels of 35 to 50 percent are considered to be the most comfortable, depending on personal preference.

Most people are familiar with single room humidifiers, which use cool mist, warm air, or steam vaporization to increase humidity in a room. There are also a variety of whole-home humidifiers that can be installed directly in line with your heating system to increase humidity levels throughout the entire house.

While there are various types of whole-house humidification systems, nearly all are controlled by a device called a humidistat, which allows you to set the exact level of humidity desired. Depending on the type of system you choose and the size of your home, a whole-house humidifier will use from 1.5 gallons up to 12 gallons of water per day when the furnace is operating.

Drum humidifiers are commonly used with forced-air heating systems. Drum systems feature a sponge attached to a drum that rotates slowly through a water reservoir. Warm air from the furnace passes through the sponge and picks up moisture, then the moist air is distributed throughout the house.

Bypass humidifiers are connected between hot and cold air return ducts. They use the pressure difference between the ducts to force heated air to pass through the humidifier and return to the furnace. Such humidifiers don’t contain a foam drum but rather a series of plastic discs with small grooves on both sides that allow for sufficient evaporative surface area without requiring a great deal of space.

Honeywell Humidifier Digital Control

Honeywell humidifier digital controls at

Whole-house humidifiers are typically controlled by humidistats, devices that sense the moisture in the air and allow you to maintain the desired level of humidity; they come in both manual and digital models. As the humidity level in a space drops, a set of electrical contacts in the humidistat close, turning the unit on. When the humidity level rises, the electrical contacts open, thereby turning the unit off. Some models have a dual function and can be used to control a dehumidifier in the summer months, when excess moisture becomes a problem.

The amount of humidification you need in your home is determined by the total square footage of the house, as well as the home’s construction and insulation. Online retailer offers a handy calculator to help consumers determine the best product to meet their needs. The company offers a large selection of humidifier products and packages from leading manufacturers, and highlights informative articles and instructional videos on its Web site.

For more about humidifiers and heating products, visit


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Quick Tip: Installing Blown-In Cellulose Insulation

Many homeowners choose to contract a professional for this work, but if you want to save money and do it yourself, you ought to have little trouble installing blown-in cellulose insulation.

If you need to insulate your attic, blowing in cellulose insulation is an easy job you can do yourself by renting a blower. To install the insulation, blow the cellulose in up to the level of your floor joists. Cellulose is made from recycled newspapers and is treated with boron, a natural pest repellent and fire retardant. For best results, be sure to distribute the cellulose in an even layer. In an attic with two-by-six joists, you can achieve an insulating factor of R-19.

For more on insulation, consider:

Blown and Sprayed Insulation
Bob Vila Radio: Insulation R-Values
Blowing In Cellulose Insulation (VIDEO)

Electrical Panels 101

Let's take some of the mystery out of those wires and switches that lurk behind the door of your breaker box. Come along and take a peek with us, but don't touch!

Wiring a Breaker Box - Electrical Panel


In your home—in everyone’s homes, in fact—the seat of electrical power takes an unassuming form. Concealed by a nondescript metal door, the breaker box doesn’t look very impressive, but it’s the reason you can turn on the lights, the blender, the air conditioning, and the TV. The breaker box, or service panel, operates as a central relay point: It takes power from the street, then feeds that power to the different electrical outlets and hard-wired appliances throughout your residence.

Most people open the breaker box only when there’s a problem—for example, when a circuit needs to be restored after tripping. And that’s the way it should be. Homeowners are wise to be hands-off with electrical elements, especially those they don’t understand. Make no mistake: The breaker box is dangerous. Hire a licensed electrician if you think the panel needs attention. The goal of this article is merely to explain a bit more about all of those mysterious wires and switches.

Double Pole Service Disconnect
At the top of the breaker box, the switch that’s bigger than the others is commonly referred to as the “main.” (Technically, it’s called the double pole service disconnect.) This is where, after passing through your electricity meter, two hot wires from the utility company hook up to your house. Each wire carries 120 volts. If you were to put this switch into the off position, the electrical current to your house would be broken and your dishwasher would suddenly stop running. Turn the switch back the other way, and your dishwasher—not to mention your refrigerator, home office computer, and bedroom alarm clocks—would come back to life.

Hot Bus Bars
From the main breaker, each one of the two hot lines from the utility company passes into its own bus. To the eye, a bus looks like a regular metal bar. One bus runs vertically along the left side of the panel. The second bus runs vertically along the right side.

Neutral Bus
A third metal bar, the neutral bus, receives the electrical current back again after it has exited the breaker box and flowed throughout your home doing its work.

Wiring a Breaker Box - Diagram


Circuit Breakers
The circuit breakers straddle the hot bus bars, and if there’s an overload—say, from too many appliances running simultaneously—the affected circuit trips and automatically suspends the electrical current. In addition, circuit breakers serve as the origin points for the wiring that runs to different parts of your home. That’s why there are labels (with the names of rooms or major appliances) next to the individual switches. Each circuit has two hot wires feeding into the breaker, as well as a neutral wire that connects to the neutral bus. Together, these three wires exit the breaker box and go on to provide the juice for their designated circuit.

There are two main types of breakers:

• Single Pole: These consist of one switch, handle 120 volts, and can be either 15 or 20 amps.

• Double Pole: Handling 240 volts with amperage ratings from 15 to 70, these look like two switches joined together.

Hardwired lighting, electrical outlets, and baseboard heaters typically require 15- or 20-amp breakers. Water heaters and dryers are best served with 30 amps. Meanwhile, electric ranges take 40- to 50-amp breakers, and such things as the air conditioning system may be served by an even larger breaker or a subpanel.

The wiring into a breaker must correspond to its amperage. Twelve-gauge wire suits 15- to 20-amp breakers; 8-gauge wire goes with 40- or 60-amp two-pole breakers.

In the maze of wires that inhabits your breaker box, there’s one more to be aware of: the grounding wire. Typically a bare copper wire, it connects the neutral bus to a metal water pipe (or to a metal rod buried in the earth). Grounding prevents currents traveling through frayed wires from carrying on to metal surfaces they weren’t intended to reach.

Quick Tip: Water Softeners

Water softeners eliminate dissolved minerals from the household water you bathe in, clean with, and drink.

If hard water is a problem in your house, you might want to look into getting a water softener. The scale in your water can build up stubborn deposits in the plumbing, decreasing water flow and reducing the life of your appliances. A water-softening system uses tiny resin beads to attract and remove calcium and magnesium ions from the water. It’s powered by the water’s flow, so it won’t add to your electric bill.

For more on plumbing, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Water Filtration
8 Common Water Problems (and Their Cures)
Top Tips for Troubleshooting Low Water Pressure

Pro Tips: Wood-Burning Fireplaces

An open hearth with a crackling fire is cozy and romantic, but if you also want it to be a source of practical, economical warmth, consider installing a closed, high-efficiency fireplace unit.


Everyone loves the imagery of chestnuts roasting on an open fire—but wait just a minute! An open fire may be great for chestnuts, but is it the best option for winter warmth? Traditional wood-burning fireplaces certainly look impressive, but operating one of those classic hearths may be costing you a lot of cold, hard cash.

Related: 12 “Different” Ways to Store Firewood

“A decorative wood-burning fireplace is just that: decorative,” explains Harold Wagner, national sales manager for Fireplaces Now. ”More heat goes up the chimney than goes into the room. Lighting a fire in a decorative fireplace is like opening a window and putting a fan in it. With a 2,000-square-foot home, it would only take two hours for that fireplace to suck out all the heat from the house.” For the budget-conscious, experts recommend high-energy-efficiency closed fireplace units.

A high-energy-efficiency fireplace operates up to 90 percent more efficiently. Whereas a traditional fireplace sends heated air up the chimney, in effect completely wasting the heat, a more advanced system distributes that heat, usually by means of a blower. In such an arrangement, excess heat from the fireplace reaches the furnace, from which it travels to other rooms. “These systems are more expensive,” Wagner says, “but they can pay for themselves in five to seven years.”

So long as your fireplace creates and distributes heat effectively, there’s a lot to recommend wood as a fuel source. For one thing, unlike oil or gas, wood is a renewable resource. Rachel Romaniuk, marketing coordinator for Regency Fireplace Products, reminds homeowners that “well-managed forests are a sustainable source of energy that helps us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” And with prices for nonrenewable fuels on the rise, wood represents an affordable alternative.


Shopping for a wood-burning fireplace, stove, or insert? Seek out an EPA-certified unit that emits no more than 7.5 grams of particle pollution per kilogram of wood burned. Further considerations include “room size, house type, and climate zone,” says Chad Hendrickson, brand director for Quadra-Fire and Harman at Hearth & Home Technologies. He recommends getting advice from a local dealer, someone familiar with the conditions typical of your geographical area.

Unless you are an experienced do-it-yourselfer, leave the installation to pros. Best qualified are those with National Fireplace Institute certification. Hendrickson suggests contracting with “installers who understand building code requirements and the pitfalls of impractical designs.” Even if you plan to handle some aspects of the job yourself, Hendrickson stresses that “the venting system is a critical area requiring professional involvement for the safety of your family and your home.”

With a high-energy-efficiency fireplace, routine maintenance is a must. Collin Champagne, NFI Master Hearth Professional for eFireplaceStore, summarizes: ”Regularly sweep ashes and frequently inspect the chimney for excessive creosote buildup.” The more wood you burn, the more often your chimney must be cleaned, but as a rule of thumb, you should expect to hire a chimney sweep “at least once per season.”

You might never have thought so, but the firewood used actually matters. Wagner, of Fireplaces Now, says, ”If a consumer burns a lot of low-end wood, they will need more frequent chimney cleaning.” It’s therefore recommended that you stick to good-quality hardwood stored a safe distance from the fireplace.

“With proper installation and maintenance, a wood-burning fireplace can be an economical and energy-efficient addition to any home,” Wagner concludes.

The Heat’s On! Which Is Better, Radiant or Forced-Air?

If you are in the market for a new heating system, be sure to consider the benefits of radiant heat over forced-air. Not only is radiant heat 30 percent more efficient, it also provides a more even, continuous level of warmth.

Radiant Heating vs. Forced Air


In the radiant floor vs. forced-air heating debate, radiant floor always wins because it provides a quiet, even heat and eliminates the allergy problems often associated with heating ducts. But there’s another reason why radiant floor heating is superior to its blowy cousin—it’s simply more efficient.

The Problems With Forced Hot Air Systems

Anyone who’s ever lived with a forced hot air system is familiar with the challenges of this type of heat, which is akin to warming your home with a series of hot-air hand dryers mounted in the ceiling or floor. The room warms quickly, but then cools equally fast, forming a yo-yo heating pattern that can prompt you to constantly adjust your thermostat, causing your furnace to turn on and off, wasting energy.

Forced hot air systems are also subject to something known as parasitic heat loss. Because the air from the furnace and air handler has to travel through a series of tubes to get to its intended room, there are many opportunities for it to leak wherever there are small openings in the ducts. Also, the ducts for this type of system often travel through cold attics or basements, increasing the chance that heat will be lost as the warm air travels to the rooms in your home.

The warm air released by forced-air systems either pumps out through grates in the ceiling, where it tends to stay, or it shoots out of vents in the floor and flies quickly up to the ceiling. The result is stratification—a situation where the top of your room is warm (sometimes as much as 10 degrees warmer) and the center and bottom part of your room is cooler. This means you’ll turn your thermostat up higher to get the heat to reach the portion of the room in which you actually live. All this air movement also has the paradoxical effect of cooling you. Think about being outside in the sun on a cool day. You might feel comfortable in a short-sleeved shirt until a breeze blows. Forced hot air systems create breezes in your home all the time.

Finally, it is difficult to create zones with a forced hot air system. As a result, you have to heat your entire home to one temperature, or, if you have a dual-floor system, you have to heat an entire level. Because you might need heat only in the few rooms you occupy the most, you are effectively throwing money away by warming empty spaces.

The Energy Benefits of Radiant Floor Heating

A radiant floor system solves all of the inefficiencies inherent in forced-air systems, with some studies showing that they are as much as 30 percent more efficient.

Because the heating panels are in direct contact with the floor, there is very little parasitic heat loss, as there are no long pathways for the warmth to travel. Air doesn’t shoot out of vents in this kind of system, so there are no breezes to contend with, which allows you to keep the thermostat lower. The blower in a forced-air system typically requires nine times the electricity used by the pumps in radiant systems. Plus, the heat is also more consistent with radiant flooring. Rather than getting blasts of warm air that dramatically raise the room’s temperature, radiant heat provides a continuous level of warmth, which means less fussing with the thermostat.

Another major benefit of radiant over forced-air heating is the fact that 50 percent of the heat it produces comes from infrared, a form of invisible light. This type of heat works best as you get closer to it (think about a light bulb); therefore, because radiant heat is embedded in the floor, it will keep you warmer than heat that congregates up near the ceiling. This saves energy not only because you can lower your thermostat, but also because radiant systems need to produce heat in just the 75 to 80 degree Fahrenheit range, as opposed to the 120 to 140 degree Fahrenheit temperatures generated by forced-air systems.


Photo: Warmboard

An Even More Efficient Radiant System

So, there’s little doubt: Radiant systems will save you money and energy usage over forced hot air systems. But is there an even more efficient form of radiant floor heating? Yes.

The company Warmboard makes thin radiant flooring panels that are superconductive. This means that the heat from the hot water channels each panel contains is easily and quickly transferred to the surface of the floor. This means that a significantly lower water temperature can produce the same room temperatures as less responsive systems. In fact, it’s estimated that the water used in Warmboard panels can be as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit lower than in other products, which results in an energy savings of 10 to 20 percent—and that’s above and beyond the savings you’d see just switching to any radiant floor system.

Further savings can be realized from Warmboard’s nimble panels because they heat and cool quickly. This is not the case for other radiant systems that might rely on thick concrete to heat up before releasing their heat to the room. Such systems can then require quite a long time to cool after the thermostat is turned down. Warmboard panels, in contrast, are extremely responsive to adjustments in the thermostat, which means less energy is used in getting the room warm, and greater comfort is achieved when you need to cool the room down if you’re feeling too hot.


This post has been brought to you by Warmboard. Its facts and opinions are those of


Quick Tip: Zero-Clearance Fireplaces

Zero-clearance fireplaces save homeowners from so many of the hassles normally associated with time spent around the hearth.

If you like fireplaces but your home doesn’t have one, a zero-clearance fireplace could be for you. It can be set on your subfloor and within an inch of other combustible surfaces. With glass doors, heat from inside the combustion chamber is circulated into the room through vents at the bottom and at the top, and room heat won’t escape up the flue. They’re lightweight, so you can place them anywhere, and you can install one within a day. Always check your local building code.

For more on fireplaces, consider:

Fireplace Maintenance Checklist
Pellet Stoves: An Eco-Friendly Heating Option
Gas Fireplaces: A Showcase of Design and Innovation

Planning Guide: Fireplaces

Fireplaces not only add exceptional ambiance to a home, they can provide valuable, cost-efficient heat as well. If you're not lucky enough to have a fireplace in your house, you can certainly have one installed—but first review the options.

Is there anything better than sitting beside the fireplace on a chilly winter eve? Not only does a fireplace provide decorative charm and the practical benefit of warmth, but it can also add to the value of your home. In fact, by some estimates, homeowners recoup 130 percent of the amount they invest to build a fireplace, with 78 percent of home buyers rating fireplaces as a desirable amenity. If your home doesn’t have a fireplace, that’s OK: With careful planning, you can add one.

As you begin your research, the first thing to know is that fireplaces generally fall into one of three categories: masonry, zero-clearance (also known as pre-fabricated or manufactured), and gas. Of course, each design has its pros and cons. So before you decide to build a fireplace of any type, it’s essential that you consider the different options in light of your project budget, your aesthetic sense, and the particulars of your home’s construction method and architectural style.



How to Build a Fireplace - Masonry


The most expensive option is a wood-burning masonry fireplace. Arguably, it’s also the most attractive and impressive-looking. When the average person envisions a fireplace, this is the kind that comes to mind. A masonry fireplace consists of a brick or stone firebox, a brick or stone chimney, and, more often than not, a wood mantel.

It’s a lot easier to build a fireplace like this in new construction. Adding one to an existing home presents myriad challenges, but it certainly can be done. Before you do anything else, identify the room in which you plan to locate the fireplace, then make sure its floor joists are reinforced. Neither brick nor stone is lightweight. When used in the quantity necessary to build a fireplace of average size, these materials are hefty indeed, so building codes require that the house framing be modified to accommodate the increased load.

Related: 10 Accessories for the Fashionable Fireplace

Further considerations include the dimensions and thickness of the firebox, the size of the damper opening, and the type of chimney and liner used. Local building codes typically give detailed specifications for each of these details as well as for the minimum distance between a fireplace and combustive materials.

Talk to your builder about the merits of an air-circulating system, which forces the fireplace to draw in cooler air from the room. Once that air is heated, a low-voltage fan pumps it back out into the home. Without such a system, masonry fireplaces can steal warm air and send it up the chimney, resulting in higher monthly heating bills. A nonmechanical way to address this problem is to build a fireplace with a slanted firebox, which inhibits warm air from escaping to the outside.



How to Build a Fireplace - Zero Clearance


In comparison with masonry fireplaces, zero-clearance fireplaces are much easier and less expensive to install, requiring significantly less construction work. Because they are lightweight and have firebox enclosures that always remain cool, zero-clearance fireplaces can sit directly over hardwood floors and within a few inches of existing walls. For rooms of any size, but for small rooms in particular, homeowners have found that zero-clearance fireplaces are a sensible, more than satisfactory option.

Wood-burning, gas, and electrically powered zero-clearance models are all available, with the difference between them largely being a matter of lifestyle and personal preference. When it comes time to make a purchase, the real question is, “How big?” You can determine the ideal size for a zero-clearance fireplace with some simple math. Measure the width and length of your room, then add those measurements together. The number of feet you calculate will be the best size of the opening—in inches—for your fireplace. So, if your room measures 12 feet by 15 feet—for a total of 27 feet—then choose a model with an opening of at least 27 inches.

Normally, zero-clearance fireplaces vent through a lightweight metal tube that extends through the ceiling. Some models, however, contain an external air-venting feature, one that draws air from the outdoors. By not having to draw air from the room, these fireplaces can operate up to 70 percent more efficiently. But whereas zero-clearance fireplaces can usually be installed anywhere, these more efficient designs must be situated on an exterior wall.



How to Build a Fireplace - Gas


While they don’t offer the sounds and aroma of a wood fire, gas fireplaces create lovely ambiance and often supply more warmth than wood does. Plus, gas fireplaces are much easier to start—say goodbye to all that newspaper!—and there’s no cleanup or danger of fire from errant embers to worry about.

Environmental friendliness is another reason why gas fireplaces have become more popular. A wood-burning fireplace pollutes; a gas fireplace pollutes less. That’s true in part because gas models feature thermostatic controls, enabling the homeowner to operate the fireplace as if it were a traditional heating system. If you’ve ever cracked a window when a wood fire got a little too hot for comfort, then you know that, delightful as they are, traditional fireplaces do not excel in energy efficiency.

Like their zero-clearance cousins, gas fireplaces don’t need a ton of room. For a standard unit, the main installation requirements are 1) a connection to the gas supply line and 2) an adequate venting mechanism. Deal with the first requirement by positioning your fireplace near the propane or natural gas line, or in a room to which it would be both feasible and cost-effective to run an extension. The second requirement—venting—can be handled in a variety of ways. You can do it through an existing chimney, by installing a new chimney, or most simply, through a length of lightweight metal tubing that leads from the unit to the outdoors.

Note that unvented gas fireplaces are available and increasingly common. They use catalytic converter technology to cleanly burn all the fuel that is fed to it, with little to no off-gassing. But be advised that some have expressed concern that unvented gas fireplaces might not always succeed in burning 100 percent of the propane or natural gas. So for safety’s sake, remember to site yours near a window that can be cracked on those occasions when you are enjoying a fire at home.

No matter what type of fireplace you decide on, familiarize yourself with the maintenance and cleaning techniques required for it to work safely and effectively.