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.
“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.