Walking in the door while visiting old friends, I couldn’t help but noticing all of the old books stacked in their fireplace. My eyes have always been drawn to their fireplace as the focal point of the family room — a beautifully crafted, custom-built stone mantel fireplace, which has always been the center piece of their gorgeous brownstone in Lincoln Park (just outside of Chicago). But now, it was filled with 3 big stacks of old books. Huh?
“What’d you do with your fireplace?” I asked. “Oh, it was just dead space,” my friend replied. “We haven’t used that fireplace in years. Too messy.”
While I was impressed by her creative use of the space, I was a bit surprised by the fact that she had effectively retired that beautiful old fireplace. While my family absolutely adores our own fireplace, admittedly, it’s a creature comfort that definitely has its downsides. Having to deal with starting, cleaning and maintaining a wood-burning fireplace is undoubtedly pretty cumbersome.
My friend’s creative design choice actually got me thinking about some alternatives for our own fireplace. How we might be able to get the same enjoyment out of our fireplace but with something cleaner, less fussy and maybe even less expensive?
Wood-Burning Fireplace Pros& Cons
Let me start by saying that wood-burning fireplaces have tremendous sentimental appeal for homeowners, myself included.
I am VERY sentimental about our fireplace, one that I’ve grown accustomed to and associate with fond memories as a child growing up in the Northeast. The ceremony of sitting around a warm fire on a cold night, with the aroma and crackling sound that appeals so greatly to our senses. There’s just something so comforting about sitting by a fire on a cold winter night, reading a book and drinking a glass of wine.
I must say, however, that the thought of filling our fireplace with old books was not an option for me. But my friend did get me thinking about alternatives because she was right about one thing: wood burning fireplaces are messy – very messy.I decided to do some poking around online first, just to get my facts straight.
One of the first things that I was surprised to discover was how inefficient that wood-burning fireplaces are. In fact, they lose up to 90 percent of the heat produced by the fire out the chimney. They also produce more smoke pollution than I ever anticipated they could. A whole lot more.
Wood-burning fireplaces that aren’t properly maintained give off fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, which can be problematic for young children, asthmatics and those with upper respiratory sensitivity. (The EPA.gov website outlines all of the air pollutants that wood smoke produces known to cause respiratory health problems and cardiovascular illness.)
So, if you’re going to maintain one, it’s absolutely essential to get your fireplace inspected and professionally cleaned every year to avoid fire hazards and eliminate the soot and tar buildup that emits pollutants and toxic gases into your living space if not removed.
Aside from the potential health concerns, there are a few minor inconveniences to consider as well. Hauling wood from the outdoors on a cold, wet, wintery evening might not sound like much trouble, but it’s more of a hassle than most people are prepared to deal with.
Maintaining the fireplace on a yearly basis might also seem trivial, but cleaning ash and soot from the firebox regularly, as my friend pointed out, is one of those factors to carefully consider.
Electric Fireplace Log Insert Pros & Cons
Another option to consider is an electric fireplace log insert. Now, I realize that traditionalists, like myself,might not consider an electric fireplace option as a legitimate alternative to a traditional fireplace. After doing my homework though, I discovered that electric fireplaces are indeed a very worthy alternative.
Electric log sets are very clean, extraordinarily simple to use and can quickly and easily be dropped into your existing fireplace hassle free.Log inserts won’t require external ventilation, and once they’re plugged in to any standard 110-volt household outlet, there’s no maintenance to speak of and no time-consuming cleaning. No ash, soot, fumes, pollutants or toxic gases.These units will operate for as little as 8 cents per hour (with flame),are safe for children and pets and can easily be turned on and off with the simple flick of a switch.
One major downside, however, is you won’t get the aroma or the natural look and feel of a traditional fireplace. Some traditionalists, no matter how you cut it,just don’t like the idea of a ‘virtual’ fire, no matter how efficient it might be.
All in all, the whole experience of a wood-burning fire is very appealing to those with more traditional sensibilities. While the sight, the sound, the smell and the feel of a wood burning fireplace simply can’t be replaced for some people, the efficiency and ease-of-use that an electric fireplace provides is more than enough to overcome any sentimental attachment that we have grown so accustomed to with traditional fireplaces.
Anne P. is a home improvement and eco-friendly minded interior design expert from ElectricFireplacesCanada.ca