Hearths Desired

The alternatives to heat-wasting open fireplaces.

There is something primal about our attraction to fire. Our prehistoric ancestors vastly improved their prospects by learning to use this force of nature. Bringing a controlled flame indoors marked a leap forward for civilization, and even today the hearth remains a symbol of security, hospitality, personal comfort, and the pleasures of family life. So it's natural that many people still want a fireplace or some type of hearth appliance in their house.

"We have a ton of new products right now," says Nick Risser, a buyer for Kent who knows the heating and ventilation business inside out. Whether your top priority is utility or convenience, he says technological advances and innovative design have vastly improved the options.

If you want the appearance and ambiance of having a fire, without having to carry wood and clean out ashes, an electric fireplace may be a good fit. In a den that seems a bit dark and boxy, or a living room with a blank wall that's crying out for an eye-catching feature, this is a way of creating a focal point around which furniture can be arranged. If you have an unused masonry fireplace, an electric insert will provide some warmth and ambiance in the room at a reasonable cost.

Forget about those fake fires you may recall from decades past, with plastic logs backlit by a glowing bulb. Today's electric fireplaces are sophisticated electronic devices that recreate the three-dimensional visual effect of burning wood. In addition to having remote control, some models are programmable, and capable of duplicating the natural burn cycle - so the fire builds slowly, then instead of having to be shut off abruptly, the flickering flames will gradually subside, followed by the slow fading of glowing embers.

Mantle trim may be contemporary, or highly ornate. "We see the colour trends changing too," Nick says. "You used to see a lot of light oaks, and it's switching to more cherry, espresso and walnut colours."

One of the newer design trends is the "media mantle," which has space above the fireplace for a flat-screen television. "It's almost a renaissance," says Gary Cramer with Dimplex, a leading manufacturer. "It's a space-saving thing. People may have room for a fireplace or a TV, but not both. For the constraints of most people's houses it's a really practical solution. It started as a more contemporary piece, but then it became obvious this doesn't suit everybody's décor. We have dozens of different styles, from über-contemporary to quite traditional."

An electric fireplace can provide supplemental space heating for the room where you spend time with the family or entertain friends, making it possible to save energy by keeping the rest of the house a little cooler. The fire can also be operated without heat, so in summer you can continue to enjoy the ambiance without cooking yourself out of the house. On some models, the blower incorporates an air purification system, which may be advantageous in a newer home that doesn't have a lot of drafts to bring in fresh air.

Whatever features you choose, one of the advantages is that these heating appliances can go just about anywhere. No calculating clearances to combustible surfaces, no cutting holes in the wall or ceiling for a chimney or a gas line.

"It's just standard plug-in. Just take it out of the box and assemble it and it's ready to go," says Nick. "They're pretty quick and easy."

Like electric baseboard heaters, electric fireplaces are efficient in terms of their energy consumption, but if you want to reduce your overall heating costs and rely less on volatile energy commodities, a wood or pellet stove may be the way to go. Both types of solid fuel heating appliance are available in a wide range of styles, most of which feature a glass door for viewing that authentic fire.

Today's stoves are more energy-efficient than they used to be, burning less wood, and the business of removing ashes is easier now that most models are equipped with an ash drawer. It's still necessary to clean the chimney to prevent the fire risk associated with creosote build-up-you can either hire a professional chimneysweep to do the job at least once a year, or get a proper brush and do it yourself.

If you don't mind committing some time and thought to the endeavour, burning wood can significantly reduce your energy costs, and it offers the security of being able to stay warm during an electrical blackout. If done right, it's also good for the environment. Nick points out that most new stoves are certified by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), with advanced emission control systems.

"Homeowners are surprised when they buy an EPA stove," says David Lively, sales manager for Eastern Canada and the U.S. with SBI Woodstoves. "When you reach a certain temperature, there's no smoke - it's just heated vapour, and that's what the industry is pushing for. That's a huge drop in pollutants, and it's benefiting us all."

"It's called secondary combustion," Nick explains. "Once you get the log burning, it basically looks like a second flame on top burning the gases, and your fire lasts longer."

But that technology only works once the fire is burning hot, so it's important to avoid buying an oversized stove that you will end up operating far below its capacity.

"No one really comes in and says, 'I need a 50,000 BTU unit.' Generally the first thing you've got to determine is the square footage you need to heat," says Nick. "We have stoves rated from 1,000 to 3,600 square feet, which is huge."

If you have an older house, you should also take into account heat loss due to air leaks and poor insulation. Talk to a Kent representative and compare the capacity ratings of various models. Some people bring along a rough sketch showing the floor plan and dimensions of the house, which may also help to choose a location for the stove that will allow for optimum heat distribution.

Proper sizing is also important for pellet stoves, though they are more forgiving with respect to operating at low heat demand, since the fuel is metered into the firebox only as required. This is a large part of the appeal of pellets. While no two pieces of firewood are identical in size and shape, pellets are highly uniform, allowing for automated, hands-off operation. Another advantage is that pellets don't need to be seasoned; when you buy them they have very low moisture content, so they burn extremely clean. EPA certification is the norm for these appliances as well.

Both wood and pellet stoves are available as inserts, to make use of an existing fireplace. If you don't have a fireplace but you want that combination of aesthetic appeal and serious heat, it's worth checking out zero-clearance units, which can be framed in flush with a wall. "That's pretty impressive for a wood stove," says Nick.

Whether you choose an electric fireplace that requires no effort on your part, or a stove that makes you an active participant in home heating, you're tapping into an instinct that's engrained in our DNA - a desire not only to be warm, but to see the source of that heat as you sit back and soak it up.