Create a focal point with the perfect fireplace
Let’s face it: The appeal of a fireplace in action is pretty much timeless. Sure, most of us aren’t relying on one as our primary heat source anymore, but that hasn’t diminished the ancient spell cast by dancing flames and a toasty hearth. A fireplace remains a coveted addition to a home, whether for the utilitarian value, the aesthetic value, or—often enough—both.
These days, you’ve got quite the array of choices when it comes to the design, mechanics, and location of your fireplace. Let’s take a closer look at the different kinds of fireplaces, from built-in wood- and gas-fueled models and simple electric or alcohol-fueled setups to those handy-dandy fireplace inserts that can totally transform an inefficient or unusable masonry firebox.
Just in case you don't want to read each fireplace style thoroughly (although you should), here are the links to the main fireplace options:
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It doesn’t get any more “old-school” than a wood-fueled fireplace: the true "hearth," which for ages was the practical centerpiece of a home.
Wood Fireplace Advantages
We’ll point out from the outset that no other kind of fireplace can compete with a wood one in the ambience-and-atmospherics department: Not many people can resist the crackle, snap, and perfume of burning logs, after all. A wood fireplace doesn't require electricity and is the most authentic and traditional form for enjoying fire.
Wood Fireplace Disadvantages
Wood fireplaces, at least traditional masonry ones, aren’t actually very efficient when it comes to heating a room. Much of the air that they warm—as much as 90 percent, in fact—simply hightails it up the chimney via convection along with the combustion gas and smoke. That’s not all, either: This draft—essential for continuing combustion in the fireplace—sucks in warm air from your house, often cooling the room down if its effect overpowers the radiative heat emanating from the flames. A wood fireplace is often only about 15 percent efficient, which is pretty darn paltry.
There are other potential drawbacks to a wood fire besides the general inefficiency. Sparks leaping out from an open fireplace can injure you or catch fire, for one thing. A wood fireplace is also unquestionably messy, generating large quantities of ash and soot—unburned carbon leftovers from the combustion process—which necessitate regular cleaning of both the firebox and chimney.
Heavy coatings of soot and creosote, a tarry byproduct of incomplete combustion, can hamper airflow in the fireplace and chimney, diminishing draft and making it hard to keep a fire going; in a vicious cycle, this can lead to more draft-constricting deposits, in addition to excess smokiness. Creosote buildup inside the flue can also ignite to cause chimney fires: a major hazard, needless to say.
Both to ensure a good draft and minimize the chance of a chimney blaze, it’s important to have your chimney inspected and swept on a regular basis. Burning well-seasoned wood—firewood that’s sat and dried for at least six months and ideally a year or more—is crucial. Hardwood logs generate more heat and generally result in less creosote accumulation than softwoods, which aren’t as appropriate for burning in an indoor fireplace.
Speaking of the firewood itself, that’s another potential disadvantage to the wood-burning fireplace, depending on the fireplace owner's abilities and priorities. After all, it’s work to procure a source of quality firewood, whether you’re felling it yourself—a lot of work—or buying it from somebody else. Then there’s the splitting and stacking involved. (Though, it must be said, some folks enjoy this manual labor. As the old saying goes, a wood fire warms you twice: Before you even get to the burning of it, you warm up prepping and piling the firewood.) The “footprint” of your wood fireplace isn’t just the hearth, firebox, and chimney system, but also the space required for storing the firewood.
Boosting the Efficiency of a Wood-burning Fireplace
Besides burning the right kind of wood in the right condition (i.e., fully seasoned), and besides keeping your firebox and chimney clean, there are various ways to make a traditional wood-burning masonry fireplace more efficient. There are small upgrades you can make: using andirons, for example, which provide a raised, airflow-improving platform for burning wood as well as a means for it to eventually fall to the coal- and ash-bed below for more complete combustion.
You can also use a tubular grate in the firebox, meant to improve circulation and direct fire-heated air into the room, as well as tight-sealing glass doors to cut down on the loss of warm room air up the flue draft and on cold-air intrusions from the chimney. (Speaking of, making sure your damper is properly sealing—and perhaps rigging another damper to the top of your chimney—is an important basic way to reduce inflows of cold air.)
You can also place a cast-iron or steel fireback on your hearth or inside the firebox, which captures more of the heat generated by the wood fire by absorbing it and then radiates it into the room.
What is a Fireplace Insert?
But the most comprehensive way to make your standard masonry fireplace more efficient is to install a fireplace insert. This is a metal firebox that essentially functions as a modified wood stove within your fireplace, heating air that circulates between the firebox and its shell and then warms the room rather than escaping. These inserts exhaust gases and smoke via a stainless-steel flue liner mounted within the masonry chimney. Such a fireplace insert can boost the heat output of your masonry fireplace several times over.
A cleaner, lower-maintenance, and more efficient alternative to a traditional masonry wood-burning fireplace is the gas fireplace, which generates its smokeless flame by burning natural gas or propane.
Gas fireplaces can take several different basic forms, and may be either vented or ventless.
What is a Vented Gas Fireplace?
The most common vented gas fireplaces draw fresh air in from outside via one pipe and exhaust combustion gases and fumes back out via another (or via a flue): a two-pipe setup known as direct-vent. Another, older vented kind is the “B-vent” system, fed by inside air but exhausting to the outside via one pipe.
As This Old House notes, direct-vent systems range between 70 and 85 percent efficiency, while the B-vent version is on the order of about 50 percent. Direct-vent gas fireplaces tend to be pricier to install, however, than their B-vent analogues.
What is a Ventless Gas Fireplace?
Ventless gas fireplaces draw in air from—and exhaust gases out into—the room, and thus don’t require any flue or vent pipes. This works on account of their especially clean-burning nature. Because all the air associated with a ventless fireplace is staying inside, this kind of setup is very efficient from a heating perspective: close to 100 percent, in fact.
The entirely indoors mechanics of ventless gas fireplaces, however, have caused concerns, and indeed they’re banned in California, Massachusetts, and certain U.S. cities. Oxygen sensors are required to make sure a ventless fireplace’s inflow isn’t depleting oxygen levels to a dangerous degree. Emission standards and product testing ensure ventless gas fireplaces exhaust only small amounts of combustion gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide into the room, but be aware the water vapor given off as part of that exhaust can increase indoor humidity.
Gas Log Sets
Just about the simplest gas fireplace is a log set, which is simply an arrangement of ceramic “firewood” with a gas burner that can be placed inside an existing fireplace.
These are fairly cheap, but don’t give out much in the way of warmth (ventless log sets, as you'd expect, provide more heat to the room than vented ones). If you mostly just want a low-maintenance flickering fireplace in your home for its looks, though, a log set isn’t a bad way to go.
For a more efficient heating source, though, you can go with a built-in vented or ventless gas fireplace, or convert your existing fireplace with a gas fireplace insert much like the wood-burning kind.
Gas Fireplace Advantages
Besides impressive efficiencies and low maintenance requirements, gas fireplaces are attractive on account of their versatility: You can place them just about anywhere in your house, wherever you’d like a little extra warmth and some cozy vibes. As we’ve mentioned, a ventless kind doesn’t need a pipe or flue at all, but even a vented fireplace gives you more location options given it only demands some kind of outside connection, not the use of an entire chimney.
You can set up a wall thermostat with your gas fireplace to more meticulously control room temperature. And it goes without saying you can’t adjust your wood fire with a remote control from the lazy comfort of your couch, as you can with a gas counterpart.
Gas Fireplace Disadvantages
On the con side of things—besides the aforementioned issues with ventless setups—gas fireplaces don’t produce the “authentic”-looking flames of a wood fire, not to mention its attractive sounds and woodsmoke odor. The flames of vented gas fireplaces are a bit closer in appearance to those of wood-fueled ones as compared to ventless models.
Easier, more versatile, and safer yet is the electric fireplace, fed only by electrical current and emitting nothing in the way of combustion fumes or other byproducts. They can go essentially anywhere, including some truly creative and surprising perches.
Some electric fireplaces are basically pure decoration, while others incorporate a heating element to supply some associated warmth, though nothing like a gas or wood fireplace. These models give you the option of running flame-only settings if you don’t want the heater going.
Electric Fireplace Advantages
An electric fireplace is a good choice for taking advantage of a masonry fireplace that’s no longer safe to use with an actual fire, and for any situation where you want that friendly flicker with absolute minimal upkeep. It’s also ideal if your living situation—say, a rented apartment or condo—doesn’t allow for installing a gas or wood fireplace.
Electric Fireplace Disadvantages
Obviously you’re losing out a bit in the romance/ambience category with an electric fireplace, but sometimes its convenience—or simply the logistical limitations you’re dealing with—make it the best way to go. Keep in mind another obvious drawback of the electric fireplace, though: A power outage will render it useless—and in the dead of winter a power outage is often when you wish you had a fireplace to cuddle up in front of the most.
If you thought an electric fireplace was simple, a bio-ethanol fireplace—also called simply an ethanol fireplace or a “bio fireplace”—pares things down even more. A bio fireplace runs off liquid bio-ethanol fuel: aka denatured alcohol. The burner unit is simply a container into which this liquid is poured and then lit, producing a genuine flame.
No vents or flues are required, as the amount of combustion gases emitted is modest (though see below), and naturally you don’t need any gas lines or wiring. This makes bio fireplaces crazy-easy to install in any number of settings, from tabletop and wall-mounted configurations to freestanding structures in the middle of a room.
So bio fireplaces are simple to set up and use, and—unlike an electric fireplace—actually give you a flame to enjoy. What about the drawbacks? Well, for one thing, bio-ethanol is highly flammable and thus potentially dangerous; you need to store and handle it with care. Also, bio-ethanol fireplaces can influence air quality given the particulate matter they emit along with combustion gases, so it’s important to use them in a well-ventilated room.
You also aren’t going to get major heat output from a bio fireplace, though it can produce on the order of 5,000 or 6,000 Btus. And you can’t refuel until its fire’s out, unlike with a wood- or gas-powered fire. That said, a filled burner can produce flame for several hours.
Alcohol Gel Fireplaces
A cousin of the bio fireplace, a gel fireplace burns an alcohol gel for a ventless, freestanding source of flame and modest warmth.
A canister might put out 3,000 Btus or so, but you can light multiple ones at a time to introduce a bit more supplemental heat. The gel fuel produces a slightly crackly flame that at least nods in some small way to the bewitching soundtrack of a wood fire.
If you don’t have the space, the setup, or the desire for an indoor fireplace, why not install one outside to make your patio or yard the perfect fresh-air hangout?
Whether you’re going for a monumental stone wood fireplace and chimney or a modern ventless fireplace, there are many designs adapted for an outdoor setting.
One fun use of an outdoor fireplace or fire pit is cooking: With a simple grill setup, you can harness the energy of those flames for more than just cozying up around on a crisp evening and whip up some flame-kissed meats, veggies—even flatbreads and pizzas!
Lock Down the Perfect Fireplace for You With Patio & Pizza
Learn more about different fireplace designs and zero in on the ideal model for your home or yard by taking a gander at our full Patio & Pizza fireplace inventory!