Home & Garden

The Return of Your Fireplace

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Don’t let your fireplace sit unused. Use these steps to upgrade its efficiency and appearance to make it a beloved focal point – and selling point – in your home.

Use these steps to upgrade the efficiency and appearance of your fireplace.

Use these steps to upgrade the efficiency and appearance of your fireplace.

Nothing ups the “wow” factor of your home like a cozy fireplace does, but it’s not very cozy if no fire is burning.

“I have people come into the store all the time and tell me they haven’t used their fireplace in years, because burning wood is just too much trouble,” says Kevin Obee, of Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St, Rockford. “You don’t want your fireplace to be a big empty box. You want it to be a source of energy and light and good feelings.”

Because wood-burning fireplaces are inefficient, messy and labor-intensive, conversions to natural gas fireplaces account for about 75 percent of the fireplace jobs performed by Benson Stone Company, says Andy Benson, owner.

“Most people today think gas is the way to go,” he says. “It’s easy to use, and a glass-insert gas fireplace can’t be beat for efficiency.”

Brad Vander Heyden, owner of Advanced Chimney Systems, 3486 Lonergan Dr., Rockford, concurs.

“Because of the amount of furnace-heated air a regular fireplace can suck out of a home – some 300 to 400 cubic feet per minute – many people are installing direct-vent inserts that separate air into two parts, in their gas fireplaces,” he says.

“The first part pulls fresh air into the insert for combustion, rather than taking air from your room; the other acts like an exhaust system, sending carbon dioxide outside. Because glass separates the system from the room, furnace-heated air from your rooms can’t be sucked out of the chimney. Likewise, the exhaust fumes and moisture released from burning gas won’t stay in your house.”

Along with selling and servicing fireplaces, Advanced Chimney Systems sells freestanding stoves and other alternative heating methods, glass fireplace doors and accessories, smokers and grills. It also conducts in-home service and chimney repairs.

Low natural gas prices are a factor in today’s fireplace decisions, too.

“Natural gas is extremely affordable by historical standards,” says Vander Heyden. “The most popular items we sell right now are high-efficiency gas logs and fireplace inserts.”
Benson believes the popularity of gas fireplaces will only grow.

“We see a lot of folks using gas fireplaces for zone heating – they can turn down the thermostat during the evening, when they’re gathered in the room with the fireplace, and stay nice and toasty. Then they turn it off and go to bed. And there’s no safety issue about leaving hot coals unattended, as there is with a wood-burning fireplace.”

Unlike wood fires, gas fires turn on and off with the flip of a switch or remote. Depending on the model, options like flame intensity, heat output and even electric ambiance lighting can be adjusted by remote control.

Understanding Your Options

There are three main categories of natural gas fireplaces: vented gas logs, vent-free gas logs and glass-insert fireplaces. Each has unique benefits.

“It’s about finding the best fit with your particular space and circumstances,” says Obee. “There’s not one right answer, although glass-insert fireplaces are by far the most efficient.”

Vented Gas Logs

These offer attractive flames on realistic-looking faux logs, are relatively inexpensive to buy, and can be vented directly out a wall, if you don’t have a pre-existing chimney. A professional will need to run gas lines to the firebox before the logs can be hooked up. A chimney flu or vent must be open when the fire is burning, which means much of the air your furnace has heated will be drawn upward into the chimney and sent outdoors.

“These give you a very pretty fire, with a nice big ember bed, and they give off about the same amount of heat as they take in from the room,” explains Obee. “The disadvantage is that they suck warm air that your furnace has already heated, from various parts of your house, and send it outside. This means the furnace may just keep running nonstop and other rooms may become pretty chilly.”

Vent-Free Gas Logs/Stoves

“This is a good option for warming up spaces that are difficult to heat with the furnace, such as a chilly basement or large rooms with vaulted ceilings,” says Obee. There’s no chimney involved, and therefore no issue of sucking furnace-heated air from your home. Much like a gas range, this fireplace burns gas with near-100 percent efficiency. The newer models offer attractive yellow flames; older models tended toward blue flames.

The fire throws off a large amount of moist heat, quickly warming up chilly spaces. It’s important to understand that everything in the air that is burned will return back into the room’s atmosphere, and you will breathe it, since there’s no venting.

“This bothers only a few people who are extremely sensitive to chemical smells,” Obee says.

Ventless units are prohibited by law from installation in bedrooms or bathrooms, because of potential air quality issues. Since they give off moist vapors, condensation may build up on surfaces.

“On the flip side, it can be very nice to have more moisture in the air, especially during the winter,” says Obee. He doesn’t recommend them for smaller rooms, which are too easily overwhelmed by the intense heat this fireplace generates.

Gas Fireplace Inserts

As you might expect, the most expensive fireplace option to install is also the safest and most efficient.

“We install two chambers inside the chimney – one for drawing air into the fireplace and one for sending hot air back up to the outside,” explains Benson. “This eliminates the whole problem of a fireplace drawing heated air from your house and sending it outside.”

Because the fire is separated from the room with a glass insert, there’s no chance of unwanted vapors or gases seeping into the air you breathe. You can control how much radiant heat the fireplace sends into the room. The heat-proof glass doors of a fireplace insert can reach temperatures of 400 to 600 degrees, but this seldom causes a problem, says Obee.

“Children and animals can feel the radiating heat and naturally stay away from it. But if you’re worried about that, you can always attach a safety screen to it.”

Wood Fireplaces

While gas fireplaces have many advantages, they’re not for everyone.

“We still see people who love wood fires best,” says Obee. “They love the beauty of the flames and the scent of burning wood, and maybe they have access to a lot of wood. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they use seasoned wood and take care to have their chimneys cleaned regularly.”

Keeping Up Appearances

What’s inside a fireplace isn’t the only factor to consider. Sometimes an older fireplace makes a home look outdated. Since fireplaces are often the focal point of a home, this can be a problem. Luckily, there are easy solutions.

Benson sells several varieties of ThinStone and ThinBrick – thin versions of stone or brick that can be installed right over existing materials.

“There are many styles of ThinStone, but ThinBrick is pretty much that – thin brick,” says Benson. “It’s actually real brick, but no one will realize that it’s not full-sized. You can just stick it right to the wall.”

If you plan to update a fireplace and/or its facing, it may be a good chance to update the doors, too, which can betray a room’s age.

“There are these fireplaces that have ugly polished brass doors on them, and they’re very dated looking right now,” says Benson. “We have a lot of doors that are wrought-iron. Just replacing the door unit alone can make a fireplace look much more up to date.”

Kim Benson helps customers find cosmetic solutions for their fireplaces.

“We’ve seen a lot of people with newer homes replace the inexpensive ceramic tile surround that their homebuilder installed, with stone, brick or ThinStone. Sometimes they take it all the way up the wall, maybe adding in a mantel made of wood or stone slab,” she says. “Or sometimes they might cover that whole wall in stone. This can totally change the look of your home and it’s a project that a good do-it-yourselfer can accomplish in two or three days.”

ThinStone is made from real stone or brick, but is only a fraction as thick as the real thing, making it easy to install and much less heavy.

“You still use real mortar with it, and absolutely no one can tell the difference between solid stone or ThinStone, when it’s installed correctly,” explains Andy Benson.

Spark your ideas for fireplace updates by perusing the many full-size displays in the Benson Stone showroom. There are examples of designs that appeal to contemporary, traditional, rustic, vintage and sophisticated tastes, incorporating materials like sleek stacked stone (no mortar), small glass tiles, chunky Wisconsin limestone, simulated marble and much more.

“A lot of people are surprised at how much difference it makes just to replace a fireplace screen or glass door with a more decorative one,” says Obee. “Lately, people have been changing out their glass doors to attractive wrought iron or burnished copper ones, some with tinted glass that conceals the dirty floor under the logs. These items are like jewelry for the fireplace.”

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