Fire has always held an irresistible fascination for mankind, starting with the very survival of our distant ancestors for warmth, light and for cooking. More recently in the evolutionary cycle, fire has been harnessed, controlled within fireplaces, again for heat, but later for prestige and atmosphere. Would it surprise you to know that three-quarters of those seeking a new home list a fireplace as a “must-have?”
It would seem that a fireplace represents more than what it is. The gold and red hot flickering of light and the crackling of burning wood can transport us to a distant time and place, to the roasting of marshmallows at family picnics, or making baked potatoes in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or maybe in our fantasy lives if not reality, to a sensual interlude on a bear rug in front of an open hearth.
The traditional masonry home fireplace has gone from serving the very practical and necessary purposes of producing heat for warmth and cooking, until iron stoves were invented for that purpose in the mid-1800s. From that time and until recently, the traditional fireplace was used mainly for prestige and ambiance as the focal point of the living room and family room.
Now, according to Gail Meeker, general manager of Fire Glow in Jefferson Valley, the recession has gotten people interested in the fireplace for supplementing heat once again. In business since 1961 when upper Westchester was in the throes of turning vast stretches of farmland into housing tracks, Fire Glow was very busy adding a lifetyles option to new homes.
“Today, people are using fireplaces to cut down on the expense of heating a home, and the best selling items are the fireplace inserts that make it more efficient,” Gail continues.
One wing of my home is an early 1700s saltbox with a fireplace for heat in the gathering room and one for cooking in the kitchen The central part of the house is from the 1770s when the fireplaces were used exclusively for heat and the prestige of impressive mantels. By Victorian times, the fireplace became the focus of a room for both heat and social interaction. Mantels went from the simple lines of the Georgian period to ornate decorative elements of the room, to which many decorative accessories were added. Today, people want to have a fireplace to save money on heating fuel.
If your home currently doesn’t have a fireplace and you want one, there are many options, depending on your living space and its intended function. Besides traditional masonry fireplaces for burning wood, there are also gas, electric, pre-fabricated, custom fireplaces and woodstoves. Very few people still have traditional masonry fireplaces because, when the chimney damper is wide open to allow smoke out, it also allows cold air in. Hence, especially in today’s economy, an insert of some kind, which is relatively inexpensive, is a smart choice.
Gas fireplaces, whether a free-standing unit or an insert, are the most common purchased today because they are convenient, lighting up with the mere flipping of a switch, and there is no mess to clean up. But to have one, you have to be lucky enough to have natural gas pumped into your home, “because propane is too expensive to use for that purpose,” advises Gail. The ceramic logs are so realistic that they actually appear to be burning.
There are several types of gas fireplaces. A top-vent gas unit is the type usually installed in an already existing fireplace and uses the chimney as the exhaust vent. A direct-vent gas fireplace, considered the safest and most efficient, features two pipes that lead from the fireplace to the outside. One pipe pulls in combustion air from the outside while the other pushes out the exhaust.
There is also a vent-free gas fireplace which manufacturers claim is best for heating and cost efficiency because all of the produced heat stays inside, but they are outlawed in some states, as well as in New York City, because it has been determined that there are certain chemicals within fossil fuels and their combustion by-products that should be classified as carcinogenic and dangerous to human health.
The greatest convenience, of course, is an electric fireplace, either as an insert or free standing. They require no wood, no gas hook up and no vents. Best of all, they’re portable and can be moved from room to room. They may not have the authentic traditional look, but designs are getting better all the time. Manufacturers claim that they are much more efficient and cost saving than gas units.
While most purchasers of the new fireplaces and fireplace inserts have in mind the heat efficiency they produce, there’s nothing like an open flame – or even the appearance of one – that ignites a special romantic glow to a room.
Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® and marketing practitioner who writes frequently as The Home Guru. For questions about home maintenance or buying or selling a home, he can be reached for questions or comment at Bill@PrimaveraHomes.com or called directly at 914-522-2076.