Last weekend's cold, rainy weather was a good reason to make that first fire of the season, but because my fireplace is 90-some years old, having a fire tends be a real commitment. Gathering the wood, priming the flue, tending the fire and staying awake until the last embers cool take time and dedication — so for me, a fire typically requires a special occasion.
For hundreds of thousands of years, though, preparing for and tending the fire was a mandatory daily chore. Cooking and staying warm in the winter simply could not be accomplished without it. When gas and electric ovens and central heating became commonplace early last century, all of that changed.
Still, after an 800,000-year relationship with fire, we just can't seem to get it out of our system. Our bond with fire is elemental, as basic and instinctual as our urge to procreate — no wonder architects, builders, real estate agents and homeowners continue to glamorize the fireplace.
Much as we love our fireplaces, though, the common masonry box and chimney design is dirty and only 10 percent to 15 percent efficient — 85 percent or more of the heat goes up in smoke.
Technological advances to manufactured fireboxes and inserts over the past few decades have improved that efficiency rate to as much as 90 percent, but as the efficiency increased, the beauty of wood-burning open flames was sacrificed. The stylistic options of the fireplaces themselves were also limited, often not fitting in with every decor and sometimes just plain ugly.
Today, as efficiency continues to improve, wood- and gas-burning fireplaces are also becoming more stylish and eco-friendly than ever. As an added bonus, these modern systems require less continuing maintenance than their masonry ancestors, which means that that special-occasion fire just might be on the verge of becoming an everyday event.
With installed costs starting at a couple of thousand dollars and up, upgrading an existing fireplace or adding a new one won't likely jump to the top of the average home improvement "to do" list, but as energy costs continue to rise and super-efficient fireplaces and stoves become viable alternative heat sources, the long-term dividends might well be worth the investment.
Some of my favorite new designs for style and efficiency include models from Avalon Firestyles, Napoleon, Morso and Regency. Here are a few fireplaces that might suit, depending on your home:
Small spaces: Ideal for smaller spaces like bedrooms and home offices, the efficient Seattle Space Saver GS from Avalon Firestyles combines the convenience of a gas fire with even, radiant and convective heat. Designed to gradually bring up the temperature in the home without overheating, the Green Smart technology's "Smart Thermostat Mode" automatically adjusts the heat output based on temperature setting. Unlike most thermostats that turn flames on or off, Avalon's technology modulates up and down to conserve fuel while keeping the fire lit—so you also get to enjoy the fire's beauty as long as you want.
Modern places: The Napoleon LHD50 gas fireplace has a more contemporary look than the Seattle but offers many of the same benefits and conveniences. Warmth and efficiency aside, the design makes a modern statement with a long, narrow firebox that has the looks to become a focal point in any room. Its direct-vent design means it doesn't need a standard chimney and can be vented directly through a wall or roof.
Direct-vent technology draws the air a fire needs to breathe in from the outside and ventilates it out through the same flue system. In other words, the fireplace doesn't suck warm air out of your house and send it up the chimney.
Wood fireboxes and stove inserts offer efficiencies similar to that of newer gas models by sealing the firebox and not relying on inside air to help fuel the fire, and new technologies make them cleaner-burning than ever before.
Rustic tastes The Morso 5660 standard wood stove insert offers the efficiency of a wood stove with the look of a wood-burning fireplace, and its cast-iron surface has a rustic yet elegant appearance. Morso's advanced noncatalytic combustion system is environmentally friendly, drastically reducing smoke emissions. The 5660 features a combustion chamber that can take logs up to 20 inches long, is capable of heating an area of up to 1,300 square feet, and a simple control lever at the unit's base makes it very easy to use.
No space to waste The Regency Alterra CS1200 wood stove is a great freestanding option for houses without the wall space to accommodate a more traditional fireplace. EPA-certified for an environmentally friendly, clean burn, the CS1200 is designed to heat up to 1,200 square feet and provide warmth for eight hours on a single load of wood. Design features include a 20 percent larger viewing area for checking out the beautiful, dancing flames, a thermostatically regulated blower for comfort and a handy wood storage area at the base to help keep things tidy.
Of course, there are hundreds of stylistic and functional options available to fit just about every need. No matter what type of fireplace you might select, though, keep in mind that it is going to be a major focal point of your decor. Because fireplaces are structural, they are fairly permanent, and like the allure of fire itself, must be timeless.
Synonymous with fall and winter holidays and packed with nostalgic implications, fires and fireplaces are iconic. I can't think of one other single physical aspect of a house more commonly associated with the concept of "home."
Dennis Hockman is editor of ChesapeakeHome Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.