There's a chill in the air; is your fireplace ready?


NOTHING LIKE a few chilly nights to remind us that winter is just around the corner.

If you haven't already done so, you should check your heating system to see whether it is working properly. Don't wait until it gets really cold to find out there's something wrong, because by then all the heating contractors in the area will be swamped and you could be without heat for a couple of days.

If you use a fossil fuel, you should have the chimney cleaned periodically. This is especially true with wood-burning fireplaces.

Fireplaces, which fell out of favor in the energy-conscious 1970s, are back in demand in these days of 10-mile-per-gallon SUVs and two-story spaces in homes. And fireplaces and wood stoves have changed over the decades, becoming more energy-efficient and more versatile. In fact, the choices are almost limitless.

Gas fireplaces come in many shapes and sizes, and they are easy to install almost anywhere, as long as you have access to gas and a way to get the gas line to the location. The flue required by a gas fireplace is much smaller than that for a wood-burning one, and some can be vented horizontally through a wall.

They also offer many features to enhance their function, such as heat circulators to increase efficiency and glass doors to help prevent heat from escaping the room. You can get pilotless ignition (no matches required), a thermostat to control the temperature in the room and a remote control to regulate the fire.

Many people like the idea of a gas fireplace because gas is clean and efficient, and there's no need to find wood, split wood, stack wood or clean up after burning wood. Gas fireplaces cost about $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the type of unit and difficulty of installation.

Wood-burning fireplaces are available in the prefab variety. They are constructed in a metal box with a fire brick liner inside. The box itself can be installed with a 1-inch clearance to combustible materials (such as wood framing).

The chimney is also made of metal. Most are made with three walls, one inside the other, with a 1-inch space between them. The chimney requires only a 2-inch clearance to combustible materials. The low clearance requirements of this type of unit allow it to be installed easily in most houses.

However, unlike the gas flue, a wood-burning chimney must be vented a required distance above the roofline. Often the biggest objection people have to this type of fireplace is the big pipe sticking out of the roof. Sometimes you have to run the chimney through a second-floor closet or out and up the exterior wall to clear the roof.

Whatever the fuel is, you can finish the inside of the fireplace in a number of ways. To use brick or stone, you would need to have a foundation to support the weight. The lighter alternatives include ceramic tile, slate or marble as a surround and hearth. There are also manufactured products, such as cultured stone, that are much lighter than the real thing, though they look quite realistic.

Prefab fireplaces are relatively inexpensive, about $2,000 to $4,000, depending on the type of unit, the installation and the finishes.

Masonry fireplaces are a different animal, however. They are usually too difficult to install in an existing house, but if you are building a new house, the only problems might be expense and placement.

In a house Ron is building for Charles and Kathleen Minicapelli, the couple wanted a real wood-burning fireplace in the family room, which is above a walk-out basement. The foundation walls to support the fireplace would have to start in the basement anyway, so they wanted to know how much more it would cost to add a fireplace in the basement as well.

The cost of the basement fireplace is about $6,000; to add the second one was only about $700 more. To Charles this was a no-brainer. Even though the basement wasn't going to be used as living space yet, it made sense to install the fireplace for the future.

With that decided, the next thing to do was select the finishes. They decided that the outside would be brick matching the foundation walls, and the inside of the basement would be the same brick. Since one of the fireplaces would have to be offset to allow for the other one's chimney, the couple decided to have a log box built next to the firebox opening in the basement.

Upstairs in the family room, however, they wanted a different look. The room has a cathedral ceiling and a large window on each side of the fireplace. Having everything symmetrical in this room was important to the owners. The couple decided the wall would be Sheetrock, with a decorative surround and some kind of masonry hearth for the fireplace. Kathleen, searching the Internet, found a surround she liked. It was made of cast plaster. But the manufacturer was in Montana and it would cost about $2,500.

Instead, the Minicapellis are looking at wood mantles and reconsidering the hearth and surround finishes to come up with something more reasonable in cost that will still give them the look they want. With all the options available today, there's no doubt they'll find it.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and former president of the Remodelers Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for the Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at Or write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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