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Fireplace Designs Desert Hot Springs CA

Fireplaces top many homeowners' wish lists, but reality rarely matches the romance. In fact, a recent survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association found that most people who have a fireplace don't use it. Why the chilly reception? During conventional, or open, fireplace operation, warm air gets sucked out of the house and up the chimney.

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Fireplace Designs

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Fireplaces top many homeowners™ wish lists, but reality rarely matches the romance. In fact, a recent survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association found that most people who have a fireplace don™t use it. Why the chilly reception?

During conventional, or open, fireplace operation, warm air gets sucked out of the house and up the chimney. Meanwhile, in come cold drafts -- more work for your furnace. Older masonry fireplaces reach 10 percent fuel efficiency at best, and only when they are in operation! The heat they do radiate often funnels back up the chimney once the fire dies down.

A fireplace insert turns the opening into an energy-efficient gas appliance: a gas log set installed within a steel or cast-iron heat exchanger and sealed with a tight-fitting glass front. The insert brings in only enough air for combustion. Air passing between the insert body and its outer casing warms up before it flows into the room. Sealed glass fronts reveal the fire but block the usual flow of excess interior air up the chimney. This insulated, closed-combustion system regulates the fire and raises its temperature.

If you™re tired of cold chimney drafts, high heating bills, and the mess of storing and burning wood, it™s simple to retrofit a fireplace insert. Inserts burn several fuels, but we™ll focus on gas: no logs to haul, no ash to clean out, no visible emissions. Just point and click for instant, radiant heat and realistic flames.

In With the Good Air

This is a direct vent insert. Direct Venting is often the best solution for homes with negative pressure problems.

The three types of inserts differ in how they intake clean air and exhaust combustion by-products, which affects their installation and efficiency.

Natural-vent (also called top-vent or B-vent) units use the natural buoyancy of hot air to exhaust burned gases, as with a conventional chimney. These inserts take in combustion air from inside the home and exhaust combustion gases outside it. Natural-vent units generally cost less than direct-vent units but can sometimes be overpowered by the suction of a furnace, range hood, bath fan or clothes dryer, pulling the combustion products back down the chimney.

Direct-vent inserts -- the best-selling type -- have two 3-inch vent pipes on top. One pulls fresh outside air into a firebox; the second sends emissions back out again. Because they consume no warm interior air, direct-vent models are draft-free and energy efficient. The dual-vent system avoids potential air-pressure problems in tightly sealed homes.

You could exhaust a direct-vent insert without a chimney. Any outside wall will do. This installation flexibility also keeps costs down. Direct-vent gas fireplaces are sometimes called zero-clearance because most can be installed close to combustible materials.

Vent-free inserts draw air from inside the home and recirculate the heat and combustion by-products. Because they need no vents or chimney, they™re a solution for cases where the chimney is unsafe, has been removed or is already venting a furnace. Catalytic filters, like those on a gas range, convert gas emissions into carbon dioxide and water vapor.

The Right Fit

Choose the size of your insert according to your fireplace dimensions and the heat output you want. Most manufacturers produce inserts in two or three sizes, so one will probably fit your fireplace. If your fireplace dimensions differ slightly from standard insert sizes, look for faceplate trim kits that bridge any gaps between the insert and the opening. Size also affects BTUs; generally, the larger the unit, the higher the output.

By the Numbers

If you intend to use a fireplace insert as a supplemental, or zone, heater, note efficiency and heat output as you shop. AFUE (annual fuel utilization efficiency) is the ratio of heat energy delivered to the living space compared to fuel energy consumed; an AFUE rating of 80 means that 80 percent of the energy in the fuel becomes heat for the home. You can use efficiency ratings to compare models, but these advertised numbers are often determined under ideal laboratory conditions. Ratings of 73 to 78 percent are most common. A few direct-vent models are quoted as high as 92 percent, and vent-free units reach 99 percent.

While most hot-air furnaces deliver 100,000 BTUs or more per hour, gas inserts typically generate 10,000 to 40,000 BTUs per hour. A BTU (British Thermal Unit) is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one Fahrenheit degree. Each 10,000 BTUs can warm about 500 square feet of a typically insulated home -- enough to lower your heating bill and provide a cozy focal point.

Gas inserts use fans or blowers to circulate heat. Sister brands Continental Fireplaces and Napoleon Fireplaces add 14,000-BTU burners behind their log sets to turbo-boost efficiency when needed. Variable-speed controls modulate the output. When you don™t need as much heat, Regency Fireplace Products, Waterford Irish Stoves and other makers provide a turn-down valve, which reduces gas input by 33, 50 or 75 percent, depending on model. A 75 percent turn-down rate drops 40,000 to 10,000 BTUs and adjusts dancing yellow flames to a gentler fire pattern. For even more control, turn the fan down or off and rely on the heat radiating from the ceramic glass front.

Not Your Father™s Fire

Gas insert manufacturers know one model does not fit all tastes. Check out these hot features and options.

Conversion kits Inserts burn either natural gas or liquid propane, but not both. If the model you like uses a fuel that™s unavailable to you, get a kit to convert the unit to your fuel type.

Log sets Ceramic fiber logs look more realistic than the concrete type, and they heat up faster. Logs come in several looks, such as charred, split, broken and driftwood. Most are installed above a bed of "glowing


Burners and flame effects Gas flames are now more yellow than blue to mimic a wood fire. Manufacturers claim ceramic burners won™t rust or split like conventional steel and tube burners. The Travis Ember-Fyre burner produces a varying flame pattern that wraps around split logs. There are no exposed tubes or metal parts -- just realistic dancing flames and glowing embers, even when turned down low. Empire Comfort Systems adds glass chips to its burner tray to create flickering flames. Majestic Fireplaces and Vermont Castings tweak air-gas mixtures and the locations where they mix.

Controls Sit back and create your favorite fire. Most makers offer thermostats to regulate the heat automatically. Wall-mount or wireless remotes go way beyond "on

and "off.

They adjust flame height and fan settings, and can double as programmable thermostats.

Ignition systems Heatilator, Quadra-Fire and other brands feature a standing pilot, like a gas water heater. Gas inserts need electricity for the blower to work, but a standing pilot means there™s always a flame -- even during a power outage.

Style statements Some models offer dozens of face and trim options. Steel or cast-iron surrounds come in designs from traditional to craftsman and modern. Choose from colorful porcelain enamel finishes or specialty metals, such as copper and brushed nickel. Specify optional gold trim or heat-storing soapstone inserts. Bay-window styles yield a larger viewing area than flush fronts. Ceramic interior panels imitate the firebrick in a masonry fireplace.

Installation and Safety Concerns

To choose the best insert for your needs, visit a specialty hearth products showroom or heating contractor/dealer. These outlets stock a better selection than home centers and offer experience and advice.

Before you shop, measure your fireplace: front opening height, front opening width, back width, distance between mantel and fireplace opening, distance between fireplace opening and electrical outlet, hearth depth, hearth thickness. Sketch the location of your fireplace in relation to doors and windows, and note the ceiling height.

Also decide whether you want a primary heat source or an insert that provides ambiance plus supplemental heat. If the former, have an experienced contractor conduct a heat-loss/gain calculation for the proposed location to help determine the BTUs you require. At many hearth retailers, this service is free.

In the showroom, compare flame effects. (Ask if the dealer has boosted the gas input rate to be sure the flames you see match what you™ll get.)

Many dealers also recommend installers. Professionals certified by the National Fireplace Institute will assess your construction, obtain building permits and make sure the installation meets codes. For example, some areas prohibit continuously burning pilot lights; others bar unvented inserts. The installer will also adjust the flame and ensure that the insert is airtight so it heats efficiently.

Safety features on gas inserts include front child-safety catches and childproof remote settings. Many pilot-light units have a safety shut-off: If the pilot gets blown out accidentally, the valve shuts off to stop the gas flow.

By law, vent-free inserts incorporate an oxygen-depletion sensor, which shuts the unit off if the room™s oxygen level drops below 18 percent.

The Cost of Comfort

Prices for gas inserts vary according to firebox size, type of steel construction, type of fuel, venting method, heat output and decorative options, but most cost between $1,000 and $2,500. Installation costs also vary, from $425 to $800 or more, not counting vent pipes.

The HPBA estimates these comparative fuel costs: natural gas $0.50 to $2.25 per 100,000 BTUs; propane, $1.08 to $3.50 per 100,000 BTUs. Check your area™s prices for natural gas and propane. If your local cost for natural gas is $1.00 per therm (one therm = 100,000 BTUs), a 25,000-BTU insert costs $0.25 per hour to burn.

Kathie Kull is a freelance writer based in Camden, Maine.

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