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Smoking out the drafty fireplace.


Are you aware that whenever a fire burns within your traditional masonry fireplace, a draft begins to suck expensive room heat up the chimney? Then you may want to consider turning that masonry monster into an efficient room or zone furnace, either by installing a prefab fireplace insert or by putting a wood stove in front of it. For an investment of $500 to $1,000--more or less, depending upon the features of the unit you buy and upon whether you want to do part of the work yourself--you can go from "zero efficiency' with your open hearth to a 40 to 75 percent heating efficiency when the job is done. And you don't need a computer to tell you that the savings are plenty.

Space Heaters

First, you have to ask yourself: "Am I willing to trade my open hearth for the security of a cozy room?' If not, then you'll need to look at and perhaps purchase an inexpensive kerosene space heater. Why a space heater? Because you should provide a means of replacing the room heat that's going to get sucked up your chimney through that lovely-to-look-at, but terribly inefficient, open hearth while your fire is dutifully burning.

High-Efficiency Prefab Fireplaces

"The problem with [nonmasonry] fireplaces is, you can't enjoy the looks without sacrificing efficiency and vice versa,' says Rick Strange, of Sun Valley, Inc., an Atlanta fireplace distributor that sells more than 6,000 prefabricated units a year. Therefore, if room heating is part of the goal, spend the extra money and buy a unit rated for maximum heat efficiency.

A basic open-hearth prefab job, rated at nothing better than zero efficiency, sells in most parts of the country for about $500 installed. Granted, this basic unit may have the looks of a great fireplace, but it isn't going to deliver the heat you want. On the other hand, a top-of-the-line prefab fireplace, priced at $1,200, carries an efficiency rating of more than 40 percent because it pumps out 55,000 BTUs per hour. In addition to better design and construction, the more efficient fireplace has three important features missing from its cheaper cousin: a pair of tempered glass doors that seal off the firebox to prevent warm room air from escaping up the chimney; a damper device that allows combustion air to enter from the outside; and a fan-and-duct arrangement that continuously heats and circulates room air while the fire is burning.

An experienced contractor can install a prefab fireplace in the typical home in one to two hours. (This does not consider the time required to build the chimney frame, or "chase,' as it is called in the trade. The chase--usually costing a few hundred dollars--must be completed by either the homeowner or his remodeling contractor before the fireplace installer arrives.) The Wood Heating Alliance in Washington, D.C., says about 1.47 million fireplaces were installed in American homes during the last year. Sixty percent were prefabricated units and 40 percent were masonry.

Higher-Efficiency Fireplace Inserts

What about the homeowner looking for ways to make his existing fireplace generate more heat? He has only to look at high-efficiency inserts. These inserts are nothing more than wood-burning, closed fireboxes incorporating the same tempered-glass doors, outside air dampers, and circulating fans typical of the more efficient prefab fireplaces. Some inserts act like wood stoves in that they mount out from the existing fireplace and include heat exchangers that maximize the burning process. The cost of an insert can range from considerably less to about the same as the cost of installing a complete prefab fireplace. Some of the inserts even rely on a gasburner hook-up that resembles a burning log, but the efficiency gained from inserts of this type may be offset by the cost of the natural gas or other commercial fuel used to light the fireplace.

Ultimate-Efficiency Wood Stoves

For those who insist on the ultimate in warmth, an existing masonry fireplace can be turned into a toasty zone furnace simply by converting it to a wood-burning stove. Although such a conversion may push heat efficiency as high as 75 percent, nothing comes without cost--the homeowner who goes with the wood-burning stove must realize he is trading his open hearth and flickering flame for a heavy, and not-so-romanticlooking, black iron box. (True, many wood stoves are available with elaborate brass doors, legs, and hinges, but such ornamentation is not without additional cost.) Wood-stove prices range from about $500 and up, depending on features. The maximumefficiency units, with catalytic-combustion chambers, start in the $1,000 price bracket.

Can you install your own fireplace? If you know a trowel from a flapjack turner, the answer is "yes.' Most factorybuilt units come with complete instructions for installation. As with other do-it-yourself tasks, the homeowner often does a better job because he takes the time to do it right. Statistics available from the Wood Heating Alliance show that 45 percent of the fireplace inserts installed last year were do-it-yourself. If that isn't persuasive enough, 72 percent of the wood stoves purchased last year were installed by the same means.

Gary Satterfield, the WHA's technical director, has two cautions for homeowners contemplating any purchase or installation. First, don't buy anything but a tested or listed appliance, which will have the testing laboratory's "approved' label on the front of the fireplace, insert, or wood stove. Second, if you're paying someone else to install the unit, "let your fingers do the walking' for one of the technicians who have passed the Solid Fuel Safety Exam given by the Wood Heating Education and Research Foundation.

Then light up and sit back--the toast of your envious neighbor-hood for being so smart.

Photo: A blazing fire on an open hearth will keep a body within a range of five feet warm, but it may also rob your house of expensive BTUs.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:use of prefab fireplace inserts
Author:Hayes, Jack
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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