How to Choose the Best Fireplace For Your Home

No need to ignite a heated debate! We give you the scoop on selecting the best fireplace for your home


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wood-burning stove

Invasively cold temperatures, bundling in endless layers, and driving on slippery ice are all legitimate winter gripes. But lending the season a romantic sheen is an alluring contrast: the cozy fireplace. Who can find fault with dark, windy nights when you’re sipping wine and being soothed by leaping, animated flames? Installing this timeless symbol of warmth and conviviality (including less fussy renditions that don’t require a chimney) is easier than ever. Paul Ackert, general manager of Poughkeepsie-based Fairview Hearthside, weighs in on five different fireplace options, from the idyllic and old-fashioned wood-burning version to portable electric ones. 

Wood-Burning

Stoking a wood-burning fireplace on a regular basis is challenging, notes Ackert, but some homeowners just can’t shake the starry-eyed notion of owning one. “They want the open-faced one you see on Christmas cards,” he says. And who can blame them? The flames, the occasional shooting sparks, the dwindling logs — all these sensory images create an appealing aura of comfort and rusticity. But Dutchess County native Jane Whitman, who had two wood-burning fireplaces in her old Hyde Park home, says their picture book looks weren’t worth the maintenance efforts. “They were a lot of work and often didn’t burn right,” she points out. Playing woodsman night after night — forced to kindle a constant supply of logs — is certainly a commitment, but in the end, the heat these dreamy fireplaces emit isn’t very efficient. What heat is generated just gets sucked back up the chimney “like a vacuum,” Ackert points out.

Pros: 

  • Wood-burning fireplaces are easy on the eyes, creating a warm, magical feel that hearkens back to simpler, old-fashioned times. 
  • It’s hard to compete with the authenticity of red flames shooting from logs.

Cons: 

  • A chimney is necessary. If chimneys aren’t inspected regularly, however, the build-up of soot and other substances can be flammable.
  • Wood-burning fireplaces don’t efficiently heat homes. The majority of heat they produce travels right back up that mandatory chimney.
  • For every beautiful, roaring fire comes the required — and pesky — post-burn cleanup of ash.

Special Considerations: 
Opting for a wood-burning fireplace with cast-iron doors strengthens the impact of the heat. This feature also doubles as a safety measure to protect from flying embers.

Design Tips: 
Most fireplaces are of the masonry variety, crafted from bricks with a brick chimney above to match, creating a well-worn, intimate feel. Those that are pre-fab, containing a metal firebox with refractory bricks, look decidedly industrial. To add a sense of drama, incorporate a peek-a-boo glass screen. Heighten rustic appeal with touches such as a wood-framed surround or stone veneer. 

pellet stove

Pellet Stove

This type of stove is reminiscent of an old-fashioned fireplace. Through the glass, flames flicker strong. But there is a big difference because the pellets, in dried form, are a renewable energy source. “It’s a good alternative,” says Ackert. “The stove is much lower maintenance than a wood-burning fireplace. You can pack them with 50 pounds of pellets and let it run for 24 or 48 hours.” 

Pros: 

  • Wood pellets burn cleanly and efficiently. 
  • Pellet stoves offer relatively good warmth compared to other fireplaces.
  • Ash pans at the bottom of the stove make for an easy cleanup session.
  • Like a washer or dryer, pellet stoves can be installed on most exposed walls, giving homeowners tremendous flexibility.

Cons: 

  • Pellets are sold in large, heavy bags that require ample storage space.

Special Considerations: 
Firewood may come cheaply, but when in pellet form the price goes up significantly. 

Design Tips: 
Pellet stoves have a charming look and are most often fashioned from heavy-duty cast iron with enamel finishes. 

Gas

The expediency of no-mess, no-chimney-required gas fireplaces is certainly attractive to many homeowners. Ackert says this type is most popular with his customers — Whitman among them — because of its direct heating capabilities and nominal installation efforts. After her husband passed away, Whitman moved to a Poughkeepsie condo building and embarked on a remodel of her new home that included an easier-to-tame gas fireplace for the living room. “I love it. It’s thermostat controlled and I push it on and off with a button. It heats the place up and it looks great,” she says. Instead of relying on wood logs to feed the flames, gas fireplaces instantly become warm at the flip of a switch. Because venting takes place through a PVC pipe in the wall instead of a chimney, gas fireplaces also have the flexibility of being located wherever homeowners see fit. 

Pros: 

  • Ceramic logs turn on instantly with a light switch or remote control; no kindling required.
  • All components are enclosed in a burn chamber behind a sealed piece of glass, which makes cleaning up a cinch.

Cons: 

  • For some homeowners, seeing a flame spew from ceramic logs, instead of wood ones, is lackluster.

Special Considerations: 
Ventless inserts may have a higher efficiency rate, but the exhaust they produce is emitted into your home and can be alarming. Direct-vent units, which draw in outside air and expel the exhaust outside, are a safer bet.

Design Tips: 
Most often surrounded in granite, slate, and marble — sometimes stacked in pieces of different shapes and sizes — gas fireplaces can also set a luxurious tone to living spaces. “Even ceramic tiles will work,” Ackert notes, but “it must always be a non-combustible material so it won’t ignite.”

electric

Electric

Just like a refrigerator or toaster, an electric fireplace is essentially an appliance. The good news is that it doesn’t actually produce live, burning flames, so the lifespan of this durable piece is long. It can also be moved from room to room, wherever an outlet beckons. But with neither wood nor gas giving it a push, this type of fireplace doesn’t produce much heat. Although this may be a drawback on the home front, it makes it ideal for commercial settings like hotels and restaurants, says Ackert, “because they provide a nice ambiance but there’s no danger of guests touching anything hot.”

Pros: 

  • There are no worries regarding toxic fumes with electric fireplaces.
  • Conveniently, these are the only fireplaces that are mobile.
  • The electric fireplace is far more affordable than wood-burning and gas versions,.
  • Plug an electric fireplace into an outlet and its fire instantly springs to life.

Cons: 

  • When power outages strike, the fireplace will go out. 
  • The electric fireplace is a fake version of the wood-burning one, and purists might not be able to come to terms with its lack of spontaneous dynamism.

Special Considerations: 
In the summer, air conditioners are what jack up the electric bill; in the winter, electric fireplaces will certainly be the biggest culprit.

Design Tips: 
Although wood veneers can give the electric fireplace a country home look, try something more contemporary like a tempered-glass panel. 

Bioethanol

Given the penchant for sustainable design these days, eco-friendly fireplaces that run on bioethanol — clean-burning fuel made from an alcohol produced by the fermentation of carbohydrates — are fast becoming another “high-end” option. “By and large, they are modern and linear, but even though they have a nice flame, they offer minimal heat protection,” says Ackert. 

Pros: 

  • They run on neither gas nor flame — nor electrical outlet for that matter — and there is no smoke, ash, soot, or exhaust to contend with in the aftermath.
  • It’s easy to clean.
  • For the most part sleek and good-looking, a bioethanol fireplace can double as a striking design feature.
  • These fireplaces even make great additions to commodious backyards.

Cons: 

  • They are the most expensive type of fireplace. 
  • Bioethanol fireplaces just don’t offer as much heat as gas.

Special Considerations: 
The fuel comes in either liquid or gel forms, the liquid tending to burn a little longer than the gel. 

Design Tips: 
Tempered glass and brushed steel give these fireplaces a polished and fashionable edge.

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