Author – Marge Padgitt
Homeowners have many options for gas or wood-burning fireplaces, but the choices can be somewhat confusing if all the facts aren’t readily available. The internet can be a good source for research, but there are a lot of sites that don’t provide accurate or thorough information so making a choice can be difficult. The following should help to assist homeowners in making the important decision about what type of fireplace to install in their home.
Masonry Chimneys and Fireplaces:
Cons about chimneys: Masonry chimneys need regular maintenance, like any other appliance in the home. A professional chimney sweep should inspect the chimney and flues annually and sweep as necessary to remove flammable creosote. All gas and wood-burning flues serving furnaces, water heaters, and fireplaces have annual wear and tear. The inspector will check for clogs, gaps, cracks, and correct sizing to be sure there is no Carbon Monoxide leakage or backup.
If the mason did not use the correct mortar between the tile flue liner sections, it will eventually wash out and need to be replaced. This can be expensive, and is unfortunately very common.
If soft bricks are used rather than hard bricks, the chimney will deteriorate over a short period of time, spall, and eventually need to be rebuilt.
Pros about chimneys: Masonry chimneys and fireplaces are very long-lasting, beautiful, and with the right choice of brick or stone and design of the structure, complement the home’s exterior and interior. The home builder should take a cue from the neighborhood and can’t go wrong with the choice of a masonry chimney if other nearby chimneys are also masonry.
Cons about fireplaces: If the fireplace is constructed in a standard squared box-style as most masons are used to building, the fireplace will be 0% efficient. Most of the heat will go up the chimney and only the area in front of the fireplace will feel warm. The fireplace takes a lot of combustion air from the house, making rooms further away feeling cold. The longer the fireplace is used, the colder the house will get.
Gas logs may be installed in a masonry fireplace, however, high-efficiency non-venting gas logs often have issues that prevent us from recommending them at all. Non-venting gas logs create moisture and sometimes mold, often create a bad odor that won’t go away, and must be installed in a fully functioning masonry fireplace and chimney. They are not a cure for a damaged chimney. Standard gas logs are also 0% efficient and require a clip on the damper to keep it open a bit so Carbon Monoxide will not overcome the occupants if the damper is accidentally left closed. With the clip, warmed house air escapes through the flue during winter.
Pros about fireplaces: If the fireplace is constructed in a Rumford style, with angled sidewalls, shallow depth to specifications, smooth curved throat and smaller flue, the fireplace will be about 40% efficient. The warmth generated is quite noticeable compared to a standard fireplace design. Only a few masons know how to properly build Rumford fireplaces so homework will be necessary to find the right mason.
High-efficiency gas or wood-burning fireplace inserts may be installed in a masonry fireplace. These units are very popular and will increase fireplace efficiency by 75%. There are different levels of quality, so choose a reputable brand rather than a cheap model that won’t perform well or last long.
Manufactured Chimneys and Fireplaces:
Cons: The manufactured gas or wood-burning fireplace is commonly used because of the low price compared to a masonry fireplace and chimney. However, these are temporary fireplaces and must be replaced after about 15 years. There are many different levels of quality with “Builders” grade being the cheapest and least durable. Unless the homeowner asks for choices, Builders grade is what they will get. The chimney chase is constructed out of wood and covered in stucco, siding or man-made stone. Wood chases eventually rot, and maintenance is needed on a regular basis. Annual inspection and sweeping as necessary is required.
High-efficiency wood-burning fireplace inserts should never be installed in a manufactured fireplace. To do so is against code.
Pros: Manufactured gas and wood-burning fireplaces are less expensive than masonry and can be installed quickly. If a high-efficiency model is chosen it will provide heat. Efficient models are closed systems and must be operated with the door closed, but a large viewing area is provided. A Class-A stainless steel chimney must be used with efficient fireplaces which raises the price, but the trade-off is lower energy bills and a warmer home.
Direct-vent Gas Fireplaces:
Cons: Not for the person who enjoys a real crackling fire. Gas line must be installed.
Pros: Direct-vent gas fireplaces do not require a chimney – just a vent through the wall. Today’s DV fireplaces come in many styles to fit any décor from traditional to modern. These units are very efficient and produce heat – and will work even if the power goes out.
Cons: The most expensive type of fireplace due to the expertise needed and time required to build. There are only about 28 Certified Heater Masons in North America. This is old-world technology that came to the U.S. about 35 years ago. The owner must purchase wood or cut wood. A central location is needed for the heater to work to its maximum potential, therefore, it is best used in new home construction. A larger footprint is needed for the masonry mass than a standard masonry fireplace.
Pros: Masonry heaters are the most efficient type of wood-burning heater available. While they look like a regular fireplace with a door, they are far from it. The appliance is site-built out of masonry with channels that trap heat and radiate it to the home. No gas, electricity, fans, or ductwork are needed to distribute heat.
Green home builders like masonry heaters because they use the renewable resource of wood and use less wood to produce heat than high-efficiency wood-burning stoves.
The chimney may be brick or Class A, depending on the look desired. A masonry heater requires little maintenance and produces only fly ash rather than creosote. An inspection and cleaning should be completed every three years by a professional heater mason/chimney sweep.
~ Marge Padgitt