Reinventing the Fireplace

Winter will soon be here, and many of us will find ourselves looking to the fireplace for added warmth in our homes. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, 60 percent of single-family homes feature at least one fireplace. The HPBA also finds that homeowners list fireplaces as one of the top three most wanted features in a home.

With a highly desired feature such as a fireplace, homeowners are asking for important design elements. Manufacturers agree that the trend is toward more realistic recreations of traditional masonry fireplaces that are also environmentally friendly.

Homeowners are requesting traditional and European styles for their homes, and especially for their fireplaces. They want taller and wider fireplaces that are flush to the floor. And with this traditional design, technology and environmental sensitivity are not lost. Homeowners want classic, realistic designs from the past with cleaner-burning technology of today, whether it is a wood, gas or electric fireplace.

In the past, gas and electric fireplaces were obvious choices for those who wanted cleaner-burning appliances, but most times they didn't offer the traditional look that's desired today. Thankfully for homeowners, the designs of these fireplaces are evolving as is the clean-burning technology in wood-burning units. Manufacturers are competing to be industry front-runners by providing gas and electric fireplaces that offer realistic, traditional design and wood-burning fireplaces that incorporate clean-burning technology.

Despite technological advances, manufacturers are facing challenges that may affect their product. A major factor is the stricter emission regulations found across the United States. Depending on the city, county or state, different emission codes exist. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certifies wood-burning fireplaces based on the amount of emissions they release into the air. EPA-certified wood fireplaces produce 2 to 5 grams of smoke per hour whereas noncertified wood fireplaces can produce 40 to 60 grams of smoke per hour. To see a complete list of EPA-certified wood-burning fireplaces visit

"There is popularity in gas fireplaces because in some parts of the country wood burning is restricted because of air-quality concerns," says Bob Dischner, director of marketing, Lennox Hearth Products. "We offer the Villa Vista wood-burning fireplace that doesn't affect air quality."

The Villa Vista fireplace is an EPA-approved clean-burning fireplace that can heat up to 2,500 sq. ft. with a 70,000-Btu catalytic combustion burner. It offers 72 percent heating efficiency and includes a flush-face front and masonry design.

Another factor manufacturers keep in mind when producing fireplaces is the growing number of Americans that live in urban areas and don't have access to wood, or the lifestyle that allows them to maintain a wood-burning fireplace. These homeowners are most likely to purchase a gas or electric fireplace that gives them the same look and benefits of a wood fireplace without the maintenance, venting or fuel requirements. "Gas fireplaces are growing (more popular) because of the urbanization of Americans and their limited access to wood," says Walter Moberg, president, Moberg Fireplaces.

Originally designed for a home on Fifth Avenue in New York, Moberg Fireplaces introduced the Georgian series gas-fired grating. It is similar to a gas log set except it includes a triple-burner system that maintains any of three levels of flame and heat: progressive flame, slowly growing flame or slowly dimming flame to replicate a real fire.

Flexibility of Design

Venting is a significant concern affecting fireplace design. Depending on the fireplace, each has its own venting and design limits. "Vent-free gas fireplaces will usually present a maximum of 40,000 Btu, which limits the size of the flame. You're not able to get the flame presentation that's desired," says Darin Klein, director of marketing, DESA FMI. "Wood-burning fireplaces are affected by the amount of venting provided. It is difficult to make high, tall wood fireplaces because of the venting that's required and the heat loss that will occur."

Wood-burning fireplaces require vertical chimneys, and routing a chimney can make a job more complicated than with a gas or electric fireplace. Wood-burning fireplaces have the potential for large flames but require more ventilation which limits the size of the fire. Because gas fireplaces don't require a vertical chimney, it is easier for these products to be taller and wider. Electric fireplaces require no venting and therefore offer ultimate versatility. Venting requirements also determine the placement of the fireplace within a home. "It allows designers to include fireplaces as a (decorative) fixture rather than a structural element," Moberg adds.

Another versatility benefiting fireplace design is the increase in popularity of zero-clearance fireplaces. Zero-clearance fireplaces have a metal or fire-brick lining and a metal pipe for a chimney. These units require zero clearance between fire and combustible materials. In contrast, masonry fireplaces are brick or mortar and have a brick chimney, and also require a foundation, which limits them to ground-level installations. Zero-clearance fireplaces range in sizes so they can be tailored to the room in which they're being placed.

"Most gas and wood fireplaces are zero-clearance with steel or sheet metal behind the wall," Klein says. FMI uses fire brick to line its fireplaces for a more realistic masonry appearance. The Victorian by FMI is an example of a zero-clearance design as are all of its models. It is a direct-vent gas fireplace offered in 36- or 42-in. models. The 36-in. model heats between 22,000 and 32,000 Btu, and the 42-in. model offers between 22,000 and 35,000 Btu.

"Zero-clearance (fireplaces) can be installed with a lot less money, and the time to install them can be a matter of hours (compared to) masonry fireplaces that take days or weeks," says Roger Gripton, vice president of sales, Napoleon Fireplaces. The NZ6000 wood-burning fireplace from Napoleon Fireplaces is a zero-clearance unit. It is fire brick-lined with a firebox of 4.8 cu. ft. It offers low emissions and high efficiency with its non-catalytic design that is EPA-certified. It uses outside air for combustion, and the aerodynamics of the firebox allow the doors to open without drawing smoke into a room.

Eye Catchers

Many homes that include traditional masonry fireplaces include tall ceilings and traditional architecture with the placement of the fireplace in the center of family living. "Often, a fireplace dominates the room; it's certainly a focal point. It offers light and warmth to even a large room - it's often the central feature of a home," says Jim Buckley, president, Buckley Rumford Co. Because the fireplace usually dominates a room, it's not surprising that homeowners want to match the fireplace to the design style of a home.

Most of the aesthetics of a fireplace are found on the surround and mantel. "The mantel will pay respect to the proportions and arrangement of structural form," Moberg says. "All traditional materials such as wood mantels with stone or tile surrounds are still being used. But new materials are being applied such as cast stone and various combined, compressed wood structures. These materials allow architects to express themselves more than a saw and hammer." Marble, brick and stone are also holding their own.

The invention of ceramic fiber has made the fireplace industry much more versatile and creative. It's a material that is similar to fiberglass insulation but can handle intense heat, similar to the material on the outside of the space shuttle. "Once molded, this material can look like fresh wood or bricks," Dischner says. With ceramic fiber, manufacturers can produce more realistic-looking gas logs, glowing embers and coals for better aesthetics.

The Madison by Napoleon Fireplaces is a traditional style, direct-vent gas fireplace with ceramic fiber log set. It also includes burner technology that presents a glowing flame and ember bed. It's available with an arched wrought iron door with faceplate, arched door in hammertone copper or pewter, rectangular door in hammertone or pewter, and panels in old-town red brick, sandstone brick, sandstone herringbone and porcelain reflective panes.

The Next Step

Manufacturers will continue to revolutionize the fireplace with more realistic characteristics. The firebox will continue to evolve in both gas and electric versions to offer more of a masonry appeal. "We need to think outside the box, figuratively and physically," Moberg says. "There is competition among manufacturers to create realistic fireplaces that emulate the look of open, wood-burning fireplaces."

Homeowners, manufacturers and design/builders will continue to have fuel concerns. Also, emission regulations will get tighter, and manufacturers will produce fireplaces that function better and emit fewer particles into the air. Efficiency will continue to be a concern, and fireplaces will be offered that produce more heat using less fuel and money, and that deliver more return heat into a room.

"There will be a growth of emission regulations for fireplaces in the coming decade," Moberg says. "There will be a reformation of the fireplace, and wood-burning design will allow for less polluting."