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A fireplace connects with something imbedded within the human spirit. Tens of thousands of years ago our ancestors gazed in wonder, gratitude and contemplation at the crackling flames that sustained their lives, just as we do. To us, those flames are a luxury rather than a necessity. But is a roaring fire any less fascinating to us than it was to those prehistoric cave dwellers who relied upon it completely for warmth and cooking?

Romance aside, there are practical reasons to enjoy a home fireplace. A study by the National Association of Home Builders show that having a fireplace can add around 10% to the value of a typical house.

Now for the bad news - it is hard to imagine a more uncomfortable and inefficient form of home heating. Old-fashioned woodburning fireplaces are energy losers. They suck heat out of a room and up a chimney. The toasty feeling you get sitting near the flame disguises the fact that the air a few feet farther away is colder than it would be without the fire. Stand in the most distant corner of a room with a fireplace, and you will feel colder than you would without a fire going.

A roaring fire can suck as much as 1,500 cubic feet a minute of interior air up the chimney. That is air heated by your furnace or boiler. As the warmed air goes up the chimney, colder air from outside the house is being sucked in to replace it. Fireplaces pull more heated air from inside the house than it puts back in. The colder it is outside, the more pronounced this effect; and the bigger the fire, the greater the energy deficit.

When the fire burns out, the open damper continues to draw heated air out of the house. Dampers should be closed when the fireplace is not in use.

Several things can be done to reduce the energy lost to a burning fireplace. The simplest measure is to install glass doors in front of a fireplace. Tight-fitting doors can reduce the amount of warm air being sucked out of the house from 1,500 cu. ft. a minute to as little as 50. Of course, this involves something of an aesthetic tradeoff, since flames will not burn quite as spectacularly as they would without the doors.

Gas fireplaces, either natural gas or propane, are much more energy-efficient than woodburning units. Options such as a thermostat, multi-speed blower and electronic ignition can make these fireplaces almost as efficient and convenient as a central heating system.

Also, some manufacturers have adapted clean-burn technology used with stoves. These high-tech fireplaces look pretty much like a standard manufactured unit, but employ heavier gauge metal, refractory brick fire box liner, high temperature ceramic insulation and ceramic glass doors to burn more efficiently. Other manufacturers employ catalytic converters for cleaner and more efficient burning. Combustion air gets drawn from the outside rather than using warm room air.

Besides saving energy, high-efficiency fireplaces also contribute to cleaner air. According to the EPA, during winter months in areas where woodburning stoves and fireplaces are used extensively, up to 80% of particulate air pollution can be traced to these devices. These pollutants contain numerous carcinogenic compounds. To meet federal clean air standards, many communities are regulating the use of wood stoves and banning fireplaces in new construction.

Even stoves using the latest technology can be a problem if not installed and operated carefully. A high technology stove should not emit visible smoke. If you have one of these devices and see smoke pouring out of your chimney, it's a sign that something is wrong with the installation or operation.

If you do operate a stove or fireplace, do not neglect the chimney. Creosote buildup on the inside of a chimney routinely catches fire, causing numerous homes to burn down each year. Make it a point to have someone come once a year to inspect and clean your chimney.

Also, get a fireproof hearth throw rug to put in front of your fireplace. This will prevent sparks or ashes from causing a fire or damaging your floor.

Take special care to make sure that the flue is not obstructed. If a chimney or vent is blocked, it may cause carbon monoxide or nitrogen dioxide to build up inside the home.

Fireplaces help take the sting out of winter for many people. Just be sure to follow the precautions.



Noritz: Your tankless water heater specialist

Noritz: Your tankless water heater specialist

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