Remember the year when I had to design 6 fireplaces with zero experience? Well, I learned the vocabulary quickly, but it wasn’t until recently that I learned some of the implications of the type of fireplace you choose if you are renovating, because there are things that I wish I had considered earlier on and knowledge that would have changed some of my choices. So I’m going to walk you through my current knowledge of the different types of fireplaces and the pros and cons of each + my big fireplace design mistake.
I’ll start with my mistake because I think it’s super important and it’s juicy. I literally had no idea I was doing anything wrong until a few months ago when I spoke with Josh Salinger from Birdsmouth and Brian Stewart from Electrify Now (I’ll call them my “home sustainability consultants”). First off, they want you to know that all fireplaces, except electric fireplaces, are not good for the environment. It’s a real bummer and I do have a case to defend the intentionally chosen and not-oft used fireplace below. But first my mistake.
For the fireplace at the mountain house, in the living room, I wanted a roaring flame but didn’t want to have to deal with wood, ash, etc. So we did the easy/fast choice – It was already plumbed with a gas line so we bought gas logs and boom, it was a gas flame with faux logs. Sounds fine, right? Well because it’s not a direct vent (with glass encasing) the heat actually gets sucked out of the room and pushed out of the chimney. It produces very little actual heat and even worse it’s just burning fossil fuels, emitting fumes into the house – lovely interior air pollution.
The fact that I didn’t know that, that I cavalierly chose “gas logs” without walking through the internal and external implications tells me that clearly there isn’t enough information on the market. Y’all, there are a lot of lobbyists involved so it’s really hard to avoid misinformation. Brian and Josh both told me the same thing – it ups your energy bill while not providing heat, polluting your home, and burning fossil fuels! My gas bill the first month of quarantine when we lived there full time… was $400. FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS. I couldn’t believe it until I tracked my behavior. I really just leaned into anything that felt cozy. I would light it in the morning and basically, it served as my own personal ambiance for a few hours a day (while the heat was on – oy). The gas companies have done an excellent job of rebranding “natural gas” as not bad to use in excess. I didn’t know. We immediately reduced the usage drastically and now only use it if we are snuggling around it or if the power goes out (it does provide some heat if you are sitting right on the hearth).
DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP!
Now before you go into a shame spiral because you are realizing that your current fireplace is also an open gas log flame heat sucker air polluter, just know that this was the norm for decades to install, done before the information was available. It’s not your fault. My advice would be not to demo it out tomorrow UNLESS you use it for heat in which case you are likely spending so much money on heat and fuel in the winter that you might want a better solution. For now, we are keeping ours at the mountain house, just using it very sparingly – like a special occasion. Remember replacing something has a lot of pre-consumer energy spent, too – it’s not always the right solution. Using less often might be a better one.
HOWEVER, if you are building or remodeling now and haven’t made your fireplace decision, consider not doing gas logs with an open flame (you’ll see your other options below). If not for environmental reasons then think of your gas and energy bill. A lot of contractors don’t know this or aren’t really thinking about it. So you are going to have to advocate for your home/bills/planet. And listen, I know that the open flame is awesome – more real looking, more romantic than gas and so much easier than wood. It felt like the perfect middle til I realized it is definitely not.
A BIG CAVEAT – I have done a ton of research but I only have personal experience with some of these fireplace types. Real information (especially the “cons”) is hard to find as so many of the articles that come up are “written” by fireplace companies. So I really cobbled together the information in hopes that it’s as accurate as possible, but please do your due diligence before making a choice. And my job here is NOT to make anyone feel bad for their fireplace choices, just give information so you can make the best-educated one for your house and family. I love having a fireplace more than most people I know. I now understand that it’s not environmentally friendly, but it’s also not really an option to not have one in Oregon in the winter in an old farmhouse. We are still deciding on what we are using where (and if our living room is grandfathered in for wood burning) so this isn’t me saying don’t have a fireplace. For those of us in long winter climates, it’s important for warmth and frankly a big winter mood booster. I just love having the information to make the best and smartest choice when remodeling. It’s like buying winter boots – we don’t need them to survive, but the right pair in the winter can certainly make a difference in your life. But if we are going to invest in boots or shoes, let’s do it with our eyes open, and don’t wear them in the summer 🙂
The Old School Wood Fireplace
Oh man. It’s kinda hard to beat. It’s a true crackling, romantic fireplace that makes the house feel insta-cozy and “MAN” has been obsessed with sitting around it for centuries, understandably. It’s nature’s television and no one has ever been bummed to sit around one.
The Pros: It’s the best flame, it produces a lot of heat that warms your house and shadows that dance around (ambiance and romance is at a 10). You don’t have to deal with installing a gas line or a high bill in the winter if you use it a lot. The wood is really affordable to burn (especially if you cut your own). It is not a fossil fuel and you don’t have to buy an actual fireplace thus making it less of an initial upfront investment. I also love that there is zero tech involved. No electricity, no remote, nothing to date the house.
The Cons: Actually making a fire from scratch isn’t always easy to start or keep going – it requires some time, skill, maintenance, kindling, etc. So much so that you might not do it very often as it might not be worth the work. It also creates ash which you have to clean frequently and chimney maintenance/care. And lastly, the smoke is bad for both your interior pollution (especially if you have asthma) and exterior air pollution (different than burning fossil fuel, but still if we all did it it would be very smoky outside). Also, chimney cleaning and repair can be expensive and high maintenance. And yes, of course, you have risks of catching your house on fire (This just happened to Rachel Ray). So technically it’s less safe.
Also just logistically you might not be able to install a wood fireplace NOW, per state codes. I think it’s more of a question of if you have a working wood-burning fireplace should you keep it or convert it to gas (this is truly a personal and lifestyle decision – see above and below).
Log Lighter: AKA Real Wood Logs, With A Gas “Assist”
This is an exact combo of both gas and wood, and the pros and cons are kinda obvious. This is a fireplace that looks like a normal wood-burning firebox (it is) that burns wood, but it is plumbed so that natural gas can be turned on (via a key) and lit (with a lighter or match) to start the fire. It’s a big rush of flames that you keep on for 2-5 minutes or until you feel confident that the wood has amply caught fire. We recently stayed in two houses that had gas assists to help start the wood fire and honestly we LOVED IT and it might be changing our mind about our wood fireplace.
The Pros: Smell! Ambiance! Real Flames! And if I didn’t mention it above, wood fireplaces with real wood are the prettiest fireplaces visually to look at (no metal or glass obstructions, or faux anything). Now you still have to put in a gas line and for the minutes you are “assisting” you are burning gas, but it is way less gas than leaving it on the whole time. Once it’s started you get all the pros of a real wood fire (see above for those pros). It’s easier than building a normal wood fire, just as pretty and doesn’t use gas the whole time, and provides great heat.
The Cons: You still have the gas line, gas burning, gas bills – (same gas fireplace, see below) but just far less of it. But you also have the same risks of a real fire, and the maintenance of the firebox and chimney (see real wood fireplace cons). The wood doesn’t chop and stack itself, so you still have to make sure to buy and store dry wood logs. And check your state laws and codes – in a lot of states you can’t install a wood-burning fireplace, only direct vent gas or enclosed wood stoves. So this might not even be an option for you.
Gas Insert Into A Wood Firebox (AKA Converting Wood To Gas)
This is likely what many of you remodeling or updating older houses (not building or a huge remodel) are searching for. You keep the fireplace structure and dimensions but essentially add a more shallow gas “insert” to convert it from wood to gas and then you buy gas logs, not real wood. It would turn off via a switch or remote.
The Pros: These are easy to use, will heat the room, and are not complicated or expensive to install. You will still need to bring a gas line over and the expense is determined by how far it is away from your gas meter. You get the ambiance and the heat that you want from a fireplace without having to buy/store wood or build a from-scratch fire. You can usually control the level of flame and the heat.
The Cons: There are a lot that look super fake (not like that pretty one above from Heat & Glo). If you are in a traditional style home get the real logs, not the blue crystals, please. You are still burning gas so be frugal with when you have it on.
Gas Fireplace – Direct Vent
I have two direct vent gas stoves at the mountain house and seriously love them both. If you are building new or renovating extensively, like we are at the farm, this is likely your best option for heat, ambiance, ease, and budget. You build the fireplace with the specs of your “gas firebox” in place. You choose the style and color of the firebox, the surround, the logs and its installed as a unit.
The Pros: Great heat. We turn ours (by switch or remote) on level #5 for 15 minutes and the room is WARM. If we want less heat and less usage, we might leave it on flame height 2 or 3 for 30 minutes. It provides enough heat that you can’t leave it on for long which is fine – you heat the room to a comfortable temperature then flip it off. These burn gas, but at least they provide great heat. They can look really nice (I love ours) and are just super easy to use. When the power went out we used it for heat and it did such a great job – it is an electric ignition (most are) but you can disable it and light it with a lighter since it’s still natural gas. These aren’t crazy expensive – they do need to be near an exterior wall or go through the ceiling to use exterior air to circulate. Also, “direct vent” means that there is glass and it doesn’t pull air from your house (losing air) NOR emit fumes into your house – it’s totally sealed up. You still need a vent outside, but not a typical chimney so you need an exterior wall or to go out the roof. These are a great option if you are renovating enough to create a larger firebox, not just converting a wood fireplace to gas with an insert. Some of these can be in a typical fireplace frame with a mantel, etc, and others could be in a stove (We are getting both for the farm from Heat & Glo and I am SO excited).
The Pro/Con: The logs don’t look like real wood logs, but so many look pretty great, and for the convenience and ease, many find it worth it and opt over wood (we have).
The Cons: Not real wood, for those of you who are purists. They run on natural gas which is a fossil fuel. See below on how I’m rectifying this in my brain.
STAY AWAY FROM “NON-DIRECT VENT”
A word about non-direct vents: Listen, I’m not a scientist but from what I’ve read (and what common sense tells me) you need to have a vent in order to not pollute your home when burning gas. You can buy these online as some sort of convenient alternative but don’t. Many fireplace stores won’t sell these, actually. They aren’t safe (again, from what I’ve read).
Gas Stove Style Fireplace – Direct Vent
This is the same as a direct vent gas fireplace but shaped like a stove – a freestanding metal box with a “flu”. I haven’t used one before but am likely in the family room of the farmhouse.
The Pros: Same as above: Super convenient, ease, heat, very little maintenance, and real flame ambiance. It’s a real middle ground of ease + good ambiance/heat. They are safe (no access to flame or fumes) and they also take little to no electricity to burn. These can be pretty small and come in a lot of different colors and styles (old-fashioned or super mod) so are easy to integrate into any design. I think these are a great solid choice. They will still heat a LOT so you can’t just leave them on for ambiance or your house will be TOASTY but great to warm up the room and then be comfortable.
The Cons: The glass can get hot and they run on natural gas.
Wood Stove Style Fireplace
I love a wood stove, especially if there is a glass front. I’ve never bought or used one and I think there are a lot of codes around them. I’d imagine they have the same pros as wood (above) but provide a ton of heat through the actual surface of the stove (so like not near kids). I would be careful to put one in now as they are crazy hot (we almost burned our house down when we were little).
OK. So this is what many environmentalists will say is the future and in many ways I get it – it cuts out any fossil fuel burning. There are many areas, neighborhoods, and houses that aren’t tied into a gas line so this is your only option. And that’s ok!!! I’d rather sit by an electric fireplace than none at all and I’ve seen some in more contemporary new builds that were nice. I’m actually super curious if any of you have the Hollis model that is carried at Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn because it is SO CUTE. But here you go – my opinions on the electric fireplace.
Wait – What Are Electric Fireplaces?
They are relatively new and the technology is still improving every year (thus my hesitation). There are a few different technologies employed to create the “flame” but mostly water vapor/steam with colored lights. If that sounds like a Halloween decoration to you, you aren’t totally wrong. Some of them do look like that (thus my hesitation to full-on recommend them) but others can be a good solution for ambiance without gas.
The Pros: No gas lines or burning of fossil fuels. It DOES provide some heat (not a ton) and ambiance (just don’t look it in the eye). The free-standing stoves or fireplaces that are integrated into a mantel or piece of furniture are movable, so you have some flexibility as to where you want to put them (they just plug into a wall outlet). I’ve never had one so I honestly can’t talk too much about them functionally, but when I’ve been in rooms with them I’m glad they are there but I’ve wished they were gas or wood.
The Cons: These don’t look like real flame, which can be fine for a restaurant wall (for ambiance) or a contemporary loft, but for an older home (like the farm) I fear that they would date it immediately and look cheap. We shopped for one – I was determined to do the “right thing” so I dragged Brian to a couple of stores, but even the higher-end models that I saw in person were a fast “hell, no”. Now I haven’t seen a lot of these in person because since they are relatively new to the market, so many of the “best” aren’t in store yet but there MIGHT be some out there that are good!!!
My advice? Buy this one – The Hollis and wait a few years for this to all shake down – technologically. I would be scared to permanently install a cheap one OR invest in an expensive model knowing that the technology might get so much better and then replacing it would be HARD. Get one that is movable so that should the technology get wildly better and you want to replace it in 10 years you could still move it into a less used room (even a kid’s room or dining room would be nice). I will say this – I think that electric fireplaces are the wave of the future, but I don’t know if we are there yet so I am personally wary to invest in the current technology in a permanent way in my home. Now in the victorian house or in our barn (which we might turn into a studio for the next few years), I could totally see it going there with less regret/ramifications as we need heat and sure, some ambiance. But again, I fear it would it’s too new of technology to install so permanently into an old farmhouse.
Again, NO EXPERIENCE HERE, so I feel odd even writing about pellet stoves, but it is a new alternative that is not a fossil fuel and is a newer option that people are talking about.
The Pros: It’s electric so way fewer emissions and you can set and leave it with a controlled temperature all day. Also, the actual pellets are usually made from recycled wood waste and burn cleaner than regular wood which is also a great perk.
The Cons: Because it requires electricity it will go out if the power goes out so you will need to get a generator if you want to avoid that. They are also apparently more expensive to buy (but less expensive to install. They do require a direct vent or a chimney system). Lastly, they need to be cleaned more often.
I’ve never used one so I have zero experience, but I have done a decent amount of research (although most of the “studies” or articles are by fireplace companies that sell it). You probably need a quick explanation of what this even is before we get into the pros and cons. Bioethanol fireplaces are a new option on the market touting the most eco-friendly title. They run on fuel made from wheat, corn, sugar, starch so they are proposing that it burns really clean, emitting nothing dangerous at all into your home, despite no chimney or venting. They are pretty modern so shoving one into an old farmhouse doesn’t feel right, but for a new build or a more contemporary/postmodern space it could be an option.
The Pros: They do provide heat although it’s unclear how much – is it just warmth or if your electricity was out would it heat the room? You don’t need a chimney, venting, or gas lines so you could literally just buy one and shove in a room that needs warmth/ambiance (there are many freestanding versions). It is a REAL flame, unlike electric fireplaces so it dances, produces shadows, etc.
The Cons: It’s new and therefore under-researched for long-term safety both with combustibility and emissions/fumes, IMHO. I saw one study where it was concluded that it did emit dangerous toxins into the room, but then I realized that it was a study done by a wood lobbyist which is hilarious. Another con is that currently they look uber-modern and are harder to integrate naturally into more traditional or older style homes. It doesn’t burn a fossil fuel (that we know of as of now) so it is technically environmentally friendly, but I don’t know, when it comes to burning anything I think there are ramifications – like how do they make it in the first place? Is that process friendly? But the biggest con to me is the cost of the fuel – it’s $110 for 4 gallons, which is about 60-70 hours worth of fire (It took me a while to do the math on that one, I don’t think it’s a well-publicized con). You might think that 64 hours is a lot, but in the middle of winter if you are chilly and wanting to watch a movie with it on, you’ll go through that in a month easy. Assuming you only use it 6 months a year, it could still add up.
So there’s all my fireplace shame and research bundled up nicely into one post. I hope this was helpful and if anyone has any more info please share with the class! Just remember to be kind. We are all still learning which makes these conversations and we handle ourselves in them that much more important. xx
Opening Image Credits: Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp | From: Mountain House Reveal: Our Light-Filled Neutral & Textural Living Room
It’s always interesting to see your research into things like this. I’m really surprised you think a wood-burning stove is dangerous though – they’re by far the most common real fire option in the UK – they have the added benefit of not polluting your house nearly as badly as an open fire and of heating it so well that you won’t need to use the heating as much. You can also get ones with a back boiler that heats the water, so your radiators are heated by the fire, which is a really cheap way to heat the whole house with one fire (though I think not many US houses use water-filled radiators so perhaps less useful there) and giving you hot water if the power has gone off. We have fire regulations around chimneys and hearth and surrounds needing to be safe and people with small children combine them with fire guards. Real fires make your rooms smoky and are less efficient and when not on the chimney draws warm air out of your room, compared to stoves which close off the chimney so when not in use. Anyway, different strokes, but surprising to see that rejected so… Read more »
Yes, thank you for this comment! Woodstoves are super popular in the northeast US and a reliable heating source. My kids and I grew up with wood burning stoves; I don’t know what the safety concerns would be as kids learn pretty quickly not to touch things that are hot, and we never had to gate the stove. And stoves have gotten cleaner and cleaner in terms of emissions. We are always grateful for our wood stove when we lose power (think winter storms) or when our super fancy clean geothermal heat pump system breaks down… again… 🙂
Wood burning stoves are also very common in the midwest, particularly for underinsulated areas in a home or a multi-use outbuilding. They certainly CAN pose fire risks if they’re not installed correctly (I work for an insurance company and we handle plenty of fire claims arising out of poorly installed wood burners), but they are a very efficient form of heating a home, last a long time, and are NOT dangerous if installed correctly. And, if you look abroad, you can find many modern examples of gorgeous wood burners that are also more efficient than the ones manufactured and designed in the US. For example, we bought a Danish wood burner when we did an addition/renovation on our MCM home and it is a total game-changer when it comes to heating what’s supposedly a three-season space.
I agree about the wood-burning stoves. I lived right on the Chesapeake Bay (cold breezy winters) and we never really used anything but the stove to heat the entire house AND we made pots of chicken soup on top. We are building a new home and New England and know we need a secure backup heating source so this will most likely be our option. And I read the comments from the insurance girl! We will make SURE it is put in properly! Some of the stove manufacturers will actually help!
Wood stoves are super popular in my area (rural SW Canada). Nearly every single house on the island I live on has one. The power regularly goes out, is sometimes out for days, and not many have gas lines. If they do, the gas is usually only for the kitchen stove, not heat. There are modern wood stoves that have some sort of converter type thing (I’m not a technical person) that reuses the smoke and burns it again, making them use less wood and produce fewer emissions. Most families with kids has a fence/gate around the stove. They don’t look pretty but are great for safety and peace of mind. We use ours daily from October through April as our main heat source and cut wood from fallen trees in our property. They need to be installed properly by a certified technician for house insurance reasons (and safety) and be cleaned regularly, but they are absolutely a viable option for many.
Here in NW Connecticut, a neighbor on one side has only heated his house via wood stove for over 40 years. On the other side, a pellet stove has served for way over 40 years. So, they definitely work for heating. THIS stove I would love to have the Wittus Modern Shaker Stove. Google it and swoon
We love our wood stove (southern Alaska rainforest) and I recommend them IF you have cold winters or wet weather and a reasonable supply of wood. For us it helps thoughtfully use wood scraps from my husband’s work (construction) and wood from trimming trees and maintaining our wooded property. Luckily we are so wet here wildfire is rare- but I know for many areas keeping wood debris to a minimum is important. Ashes go in our compost to temper our acidic soil (for the garden) and we can boost our temp to toasty when we like. Never had a problem with our boy being near it- it’s like heights- the understanding kicks in and then it’s fine.
I’m kind of laughing at the manufacturers’ claims that bioethanol burning emits nothing dangerous – burning carbon (and yes, wheat, sugar, etc are carbon) of course creates pollutants – there’s nothing that burns 100% clean. It’s merely a question of how much. Talk about blowing smoke! 🙂
Right!! Ethanol is ethanol and when you burn it the combustion products are the same!! (C2H5OH + 3 O2 → 2 CO2 + 3 H2O + heat) In other words – Carbon dioxide, water, and heat. It does NOT matter how you made the ethanol in the first place. Now, bioethanol may be more sustainable to produce, but that’s another conversation.
If we’re talking about bioethanol produced from corn, it may actually be worse for the environment overall than gasoline: https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/us-corn-based-ethanol-worse-climate-than-gasoline-study-finds-2022-02-14/
No one should feel bad for not knowing this, though. These companies spend BILLIONS to hide and obfuscate information about sustainable choices if it interferes with their bottom line. As for as they’re concerned, the more confusion and misinformation out there, the better.
How do we feel about about faux fireplaces? Ie. those just for aesthetic purposes? No vents, no flames, no gas, no heat, etc. etc. I’ve seen some vintagey looking fireplace mantels with candles inside. Can they be done cute or is this a NO WAY? Thanks!!
I’m in. Elsie at a beautiful mess installed at least 2 in her latest house. I think she did a great job and it’s the route I’m going with our next house!
That’s what I did at my last house and we LOVED it! Instant gathering space in what what otherwise an undefined middle room, no venting / expensive installs to worry about. I picked my own tile and hearth stones very inexpensively. It was a really cool DIY project. I also built in an electrical outlet just in case, way down the line, someone wanted to install a better looking electric fireplace, but like Emily, I could not find a SINGLE one that I thought was worth spending any money on, aesthetically.
For sure in our house i just miss the whole mantel/hearth feeling, even if no actual heat source/fire. Truly thinking of one day faking a mantel zone with candles or logs in the “firebox” but don’t know if it will just feel beyond faux. Gonna check out Elsie/beautiful mess for inspo.
I have a friend who built a faux fireplace amongst some bookshelves, which I thought would be cheesy. She painted the back black and put in a small tv. She tunes it to a YouTube fireplace video and it is remarkably effective!
Thank you Alice, great idea!
We have a real fireplace but had a fire in another house many years ago (not from a fireplace) so we are not interested in using it. Instead, I have three log end tables in the fireplace with a few candles on top.
this falls into the “no way” category for true design lovers, but I am VERY happy with the ambience I get from setting my TV onto a youtube channel that plays a crackling fireplace. It honestly brings me so much joy.
Thank you for leaving your comment about YouTube and crackling fire! I bought a dvd for my TV for this but YT videos are even better, I did a search and I am going to be really happy to explore this! Thank you Jasmine!
I have two gas fireplaces in my house, but I kind of prefer to just put on the YouTube fireplace too!
I love this idea. I haven’t tried it myself but I can imagine arranging a bunch of candles (think D.S. & Durga “Portable Fireplace” candles–ok, they are very pricey at $65 each but the idea is candles that smell smoky and woodsy) in a brick or tiled fireplace alcove and having it look and feel and smell really cozy in an elegant way.
I think this is a great topic and appreciate your effort to help your readers make better, more environmentally friendly choices. But I think you might have missed a couple of cons of burning wood in an open fireplace (which I agree is lovely to sit around). A traditional word burning fireplace is very inefficient in the same way that your open gas log fireplace is – as much as 90% of the heat goes up the chimney. And, according to the Sierra Club: A fireplace can emit up to 8 times as much global warming CO₂ per unit of heat as an efficient wood stove. If you choose to heat with wood, using sustainably harvested wood in an EPA-certified stove (or possibly one of the newer hybrid fireplace inserts with a glass front) is the recommended choice. But, because burning wood releases about 75 percent more CO₂ than natural gas (and violates air quality standards in many places) gas is often the better choice (unless it comes from fracking – gah!). Efficient gas fireplace inserts emit only around half to two-thirds as much CO₂ per unit of heat as the best wood stoves, while natural gas emits far less toxic… Read more »
And one more thought about real (wood burning) fireplaces is when they have two sides they rarely draw well which we discovered after buying our place and getting the chimney cleaned. So insert it was and it is truly the most loved thing in our home besides the handmade bed and table. And yes, we can definitely say that one day electric will also be a not environmental choice…
An efficient gas insert is also more efficient than many a gas furnace. Our house came with both, but for much of the year in Portland, we can heat our living/dining/kitchen area (where we mostly hang out) with JUST the gas insert. If you don’t like the look of an insert in an older home, you can always add a screen in front, like we did in our last house:
Our house was built in 1950 and came with a basic wood burning fireplace. We are keeping it as is on the theory that we could use it for heat in the event of losing electricity. Our next door neighbors live in a very similar house and used their fireplace for heat throughout the 1970s oil crisis. They simply could not afford to buy heating oil so they slept on the living room floor with their two sons.
It is more work to build and maintain a wood fire, but the upside of that is that it’s a good built in limiter. We don’t use the fireplace or our outdoor fire pit every night. That also makes having a fire feel more special bc we can’t just flick a switch.
We also appreciate that it gives our kids many opportunities to learn to build a fire, stack wood, etc. They can see how much work it was to cut and stack the wood vs turning on a gas fire and having no concept of the fossil fuels burning up.
Electricity is most often produced with fossil fuels with help from Wind or solar. So you are still using fossil fuels with an electric fireplace, just less directly. Also wood fireplaces can also suck heat out of the room and up the chimney just like your open flame gas log fire did. We had a wood fireplace in our 1920s bungalow and man did it suck the heat out of the house. On the other hand, we heated with wood growing up and there is nothing as toasty and amazing as wood heat. It was a lot of work cutting logs, splitting and stacking wood, hauling it to the house on a snowmobile sled, chopping kindling sticks etc. But the adage “heating with wood warms you twice” is so true. We did all of the work in the fall and winter and it was a great workout. Wood is a renewable resource and selective harvest of mature trees when done responsibly allows for new trees to grow. But like you said, no matter the heat source, there IS an environmental impact. In a place like CA it’s rarely a need to have excellent heat. In Northern MN it’s not optional.… Read more »
Yes. The key is TRULY sustainable sources. Many, many people throughout the world burn old growth wood. Why? Because ut actually burns longer, much longer. Buuuut, it csnnot be replaced unless replanting is allowed to grow for 100 years = not gonna happen.
We need to remember that wood burned = captured carbon that’s released when burned = same as burning fossil fuels which are also captured carbon.
Both equal carbon released as a pollutant into the atmosphere.
I’m curious- doesn’t wood that’s left to rot outside also release carbon as it turns back into dirt? Is burning it just speeding up the process it would naturally go through anyway?
Wood that composts in the presence of oxygen is digested by bacteria and fungi, which use the carbon and don’t produce methane. Basically the bacteria and fungi put the carbon that would be made into greenhouse gases back into the dirt.
Ah I see. Thanks for the helpful explanation!
Really well explained!
Are you sure that people burn old growth wood for heating fuel? That is not true where I live, wondering if you have any information to back that up?
I don’t really disagree with any of your points, we are pretty much on the same page. But I do want to clarify something you mention: yes, using electricity that comes from fossil fuels is still using fossil fuels. However, the way an energy company uses fossil fuels is different and it provides electricity for many (using more fuel, yes, but…). There are economies of scale and technology that are happening at the power plant that don’t happen when individual homes use their gas fireplace, oven, whatever. This means that the environmental impact for an individual or family is lower if they use electricity, something a lot of us are trying for.
Until there is a powerful, government-backed focus on getting the biggest polluters and wasters of energy to change practices, changing what we can at an individual level is all we can do. Using electric appliances in our home is one way. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t everything, but it’s something.
Are you saying that it’s more efficient to produce electricity using natural gas and then convert it back to heat is more efficient than just using natural gas directly to produce heat? I’m very skeptical of this. Using heat to to produce electricity has a built-in inefficiency. (It’s the Carnot limit! A typical gas-powered plant is only 42% efficient.) Then there are additional losses through the electrical grid. A modern natural gas furnace can have an efficiency over 90%, although perhaps their is some natural gas leakage in the residential delivery system.
There are several states that generate more than 50% of their electricity from non-fossil fuel sources (WA, SD, IL, NH, CA, ME, VT, ID, IA). As the grid gets cleaner (and it will because it’s cheap and getting cheaper) so will our electric devices, I don’t think this should be understated. The US electricity mix is 60% fossil fuels, 20% nuclear (good) and 20% renewables (best). https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3
However, you certainly can’t heat a house with an electric fireplace in MN, so that’s where electric heat pumps come in, yay!
Of course, it’s understandable having a back up heat source for cold areas/power outages. Reducing how often we use non-clean energy sources is an admirable goal.
We have a direct vent gas stove in our small Colorado cabin and it’s great. Up there heat comes from propane anyway, and the little stove runs on remote, heats everything up quickly, and has an automatic shut-off with temperature-specific control. Gets cleaned every few years. I’m not sure about the pollution factor of propane. It is a fossil fuel for sure, but I’ve heard it burns “cleaner”? That is anecdotal hearsay, but we do like this stove. Also helpful that is runs without electricity in an area that gets well below zero on winter nights.
I live in the UK in a 1900 Victorian House. As Elle pointed out in a her comment, most people here have a wood burning stove but we were worried about the potential indoor pollution and also the cost of having a flue put in to the chimney (we were quoted thousands to do this), so instead we opted for a bioethanol fire which we are huge fans of. Attaching a picture to show you CAN get them looking more traditional (at least in the UK).
You might want to look into closed wood fireplaces. My friends have them in Germany. They are safe because they are closed by a glass (and vented), and they are more energy efficient so they can be used like heaters not just for ambience. They look like real fireplaces, but heat the house more. And in some places in Europe they install fireplaces with a “water jacket”. Water is heated in the fireplace and you can distribute heat around a house. These probably work in smaller homes, studios, etc. Could be an option for those who do an extensive remodel.
PBS did a special on production of pellets. It sounds awful, polluting, and completely life destroying for those who live miles away wood mills. It’s not always done from scraps. The report said the industry is driving massive clear-cutting of U.S. forests in the Southeast and harms the health of surrounding communities.
Yes, it’s important to source pellets from spurces that produce tgem from WASTE PRODUCTS.
Yes, Rusty. However, the average consumer doesn’t know the source of their wood pellets. They are sold on the pros when installing the stove. But don’t research which brand or product is the most safe. They might not even know that some pellets are produced by clear-cutting. That information might not be available.
Absolutely! Unfortunately, most people do not do the thinking prior to purchase and focus purely on desire, convenience and looks.
Pellet stoves also emit extremely dangerous particulate into the air. So they are advertised as being safe and efficient, but the reality is that they are contributors to poor air quality that affects vulnerable populations.
We are lucky to have both a wood burning fireplace and a pellet stove in our house. We close off the family room and with the pellet stove going the room stays nice and warm. It is a great heat source. Compared to our fireplace it does a much better job of warming a room. The fireplace is in our living room and while it does warm it up after having a fire for quite a while it just doesn’t do as good of a job as the pellet. The fireplace was what made us fall in love with the house, it has raised hearth with lovely bookshelves on either side however we tend to stay in the family room on really cold nights. We are hoping to move and would love to have another pellet stove. Relatively easy installation as long as you have walking space around it, they do get hot. Not the best option with little ones running around!
I live in an old house that’s almost 100. She can be a bit draughty, though I’ve taken steps to alleviate this around doors and windows and am currently installing double unsulation in the roof (a new metal roof was installed a few years ago with double-rated isulation, but I’m adding another on-ceiling layer before this Aussie winter). It’s ordered and I can’t wait til it arrives! 🤗 The walls are all brick, double brick externally and single brick internally. Coz she’s old, the walls are thick! This is good thermal mass. With so many homes in tgexUS being built of wooden frames, the obvious choice is to insulate INSIDE the WALL CAVITIES with environmentally friendly insulation (most are flame retardant too, so good in case of fire). Unfortunately, I currently have two natural gas heaters. One closed system, highly efficient, flued (no flame, remote controlled with auto turn-off via thermostat) and the other, a gorgeous, beautiful to look at, woefully inefficient fake coal-burning-looking flued flame heater in the living room. It’s pretty, but sooo inefficient. 🤐 I am on the bones of my butt financially, since my ‘great toxic relationship escape’ and cannot afford to change either. What I’m… Read more »
Oh! And a hee-uge tgank you to Emily for being brave and havingthis conversation to start with!
Kudos, Boss Lady! 😊💞
Timely, as I select 2 new fireplaces for a client. Thank you for your research and sharing. As designers we don’t often make these deep dives into something that is “someone else’s area”. It is all the better for us to have a good understanding of the impacts of what we are recommending.
Hi Rusty, you might already know about this, but I’ve found the Facebook page My Efficient Electric Home so helpful for smart cost-effective ideas on retrofitting old homes. It’s Aussie so advice is tailored to our climate.
My immediate stumbling nlock is being financially crippled by leaving the toxic relationship. (I gave up $ to get him away from me)
More insulation was the most cost effective thing that I could do, since my brother will install it for me.
Little, tiny, elephant steps by all of us cover an immense surface collectively.
Thanks for the links, I will also be replacing my ac with a heat pump when the time comes.
Everyone can contribute to the planet in different ways and there is no judgment when one has to make choices for their well-being. Take care.
Thank you so much for this post! I appreciate all the research you did as well as your candor about what you still don’t know. This gives me some new ideas!
As a former chimney sweep, the soot traveling up the outside of the stones of the mountain house fireplace has always made me anxious, because you just don’t want to see that in a properly working fireplace. I wonder if the gas logs caused that, or if that’s left over from a time when wood was burned in it.
That’s since the renovation and svhmearing of the stones. So, recent. Emily’s said she’s concerned about it too.
Just two quick thoughts. I wanted an electric fireplace for our bedroom but during the remodel hubby had to install a large electrical outlet for it (kinda like you cant just plug an electric oven or a clothes dryer anywhere). It needs a specific voltage. Just an FYI. Also, we have stayed in airbnb homes with open wood fireplaces…so beautiful but they always have an old campfire smell stuck in the walls/furniture/furnishings. Really stale. Not the pretty sitting around the campfire smell. My parents home has a woodstove that theyve used often over the 30 years in their home (with metal doors on the front) and their home has never had that days old stale campfire smell. Again, just throwing out a few thoughts. 🙂
We use a pellet stove to heat our entire house in a cold climate. It works really well and I love it. It’s a contained system, so there is no smoke or fumes in the house. No starting fires, because the stove does that automatically. Good ambience with the fire and it gives us really good heat. We use pellets that come the scraps of a lumber mill–they come in 40 lb. bags that we have to store and then refill daily. We do have a generator for backup that works in emergencies. And we have to clean it weekly, but it’s generally cleaner than a wood-burning stove. It also doesn’t get quite as hot as a wood burning stove can, but we do have to be somewhat cautious. I’ve also lived with a wood burning stove, which I feel likes needs more of a mention, since they are popular with people who want actual heat (instead of just design). Wood burning stoves heat a home really well and can be one of the most inexpensive ways to heat if you can cut your own firewood. I have burned myself on one once, but I lived with one with small… Read more »
This is an excellent round up of pros and cons but I would like to add a personal experience – my next door neighbors’s wood burning fireplace sent my husband to the hospital several times. The smoke can cause irregular heartbeat in people like my husband with a-fib. Even after explaining this to the neighbors, they still felt like they just ‘loved to use the fireplace’ – honestly, wood burning fireplaces and fire pits are a health hazard and an environmental one, is maybe consider other ways to feel cozy?
Wow, I had no idea this could happen with Afib. Thank you for sharing. I’ll think twice in the future…
What about the stove you will be cooking on, will it be gas or electric? Don’t the same concerns apply to gas ranges?
Yep, the same considerations apply! Emily wrote a great post a while back about why she’s buying an induction range
I think they decided on an induction stove.
In addition to all the other problems of a wood-burning fireplace, many areas (including Portland and SF Bay Area) actually have burn bans/spare the air days in winter, when you’d want to use your fireplace.
As a native Oregonian I would highly recommend a wood stove. There are plenty of aesthetically pleasing options available. In Oregon we often lose power during storms and this may be your only heat/cooking source for a week if you don’t have a generator. A gas insert pairs great with a wood stove for ambiance and heat for a different area of the home.
Solar panelswith an inverter and battery.
Not sure how well that would work for often overcast/rainy and possibly snowy areas of the world.
Agreed, plus the cost of batteries for solar panels is insane. We just had a 14.5 kW system put in and the batteries alone would have added an extra 10-15k to the cost of the project which already cost us 30k. Not really a valid option for most people.
Another blogger I follow has a “catalytic stove,” which she makes sound so idyllic. https://www.frugalwoods.com/2016/11/02/this-month-on-the-homestead-from-leaves-to-snow/
Our fireplace is in the middle of the house, so it does heat the home better than being on an exterior wall. We converted the wood burning fireplace to gas when we did our last renovation, the living room where it is located. The pros were turning it on with a button, no ash removal/hauling in wood, and rarely when the power goes out here in a blizzard we CAN use it to heat the main room in the house with the blower.
Everything in life lately is controversial….so you just have to make thoughtful, informed choices.
LOVE this, so helpful! One thing I was surprised to find is that “gas inserts” into old wood burning fireplaces make it SUPER hard to get your house insured. Not sure why? but it’s almost impossible (at least here in Oregon).
Also, if anyone is interested in those pellet stoves, they make gravity fed ones that don’t need electricity! I have my eye on one of these for our patio, but other brands make them for inside to! https://woodpelletproducts.com/product/wood-pellet-patio-heater/
Just chiming in here for team wood stove. I had a new one (made in Vermont!) installed in my cottage and it basically heats the entire 1500 square foot house,. I load it up in the morning to get a nice hot coal and then add a log every hour or two before loading it up again at night. My unit burns INCREDIBLY efficiently – once it heats up it goes through a catalyst filter that filters out basically all the bad stuff. Because it is solid cast iron, it also releases a ton of radiant heat throughout the day. It is definitely not low maintenance – she needs attention throughout the day to keep going, but I never mind. I feel deeply connected to my stove – I love feeding it and having that mindful connection to the fire, its weirdly grounding. Living up in rural Quebec where if the power goes out you will actually freeze to death, I love knowing I can stay safe and warm if the grid goes out. Here’s my stove if anyone is interested. I like the nice, clean lines. Nothing fancy, just gets the job done. https://www.hearthstonestoves.com/product/green-mountain-60/
I had been considering getting rid of my wood stove- I’ve lived in the house 2 years and never used it, but my heat is electric, and living in upstate New York, I don’t like the idea of losing electricity and not having heat. And it’s not even an issue of fire wood- I have a bunch! Just really need to take the time to schedule a chimney cleaning, and I think I would use it more if it had a glass front, so you can see the flame. Now I’m wondering if it’s possible to get new front doors for it…
Ooh thanks for sharing your stove! I’ve been eyeing a wood stove for emergency power outages, and I’d love to buy a US-made one 🙂
I have lived in homes with an open wood burning fireplace as the only heat, a wood burning stove and a gas insert (both with natural gas furnace as primary heat source) and agree that they all made the room the wood burner was in very cozy but left the other rooms in small houses cold and the upstairs loft space unbearably hot/dry. After my husband and I built our own home with radiant floor heating I scrapped my notion to add a wood stove (a sweet little stack stove from Chiltons) later if necessary because I had never had experience with radiant and our western Washington climate is now considered extreme. Turns out a well built, energy-efficient house doesn’t need a whole lot of extra heat and the warm floors, furniture and fixtures (our warmboards are really good at thermal transfer-think “warm toilet seat”) don’t even have me missing the cozy flames. Now using that extra space for our record collection!
My comment is not any kind of fireplace related but just about something I’ve noticed…a couple of posts have had a smattering of images from your new book. The whole thing I love about a new interiors books is the joy of new images that I haven’t seen before. Given that ‘The New Design Rules’ publishes on 12 April is there any chance that til then blog posts could refrain from using images that will be published in the new book?
I’m surprised that you didn’t say anything about wood burning fireplace inserts – maybe that’s what you mean by “wood stove style fireplace”? They are efficient and EPA rated – I can heat my whole house with one (and have a hearth gate for my kids, it’s no big deal). They do not have the same pros as open wood hearths – traditional wood fireplaces are usually kind of a heat suck and cannot be used to heat your whole home. After all the fuss you made about not getting a gas range I find it surprising that you didn’t look into it more. I think your “consultants” are perhaps biased in one direction vs providing all the information. 🙂
We’re purchasing a home in (and moving to) Portugal where gas prices are quite high so gas is 100% out for us anyway. We’re going with a pellet stove. It’s actually going to be installed to blow heat through a ventilation system into the other rooms as well. And we can get the pellets from any store.
I hope you will check WHAT your pellets are made from.
Another wood stove option? Look into soapstone wood stoves. They are beautiful. We have one on our terrace level. The stone gets warm and radiates into the rooms. The fire is visible. Safe, beautiful, efficient. Upstairs we have 2 non venting gas fireplaces, one in a masonry fireplace, and the second a unit that you place into the framing. They are both on thermostats so we don’t have to turn on and off. They heat our entire first floor, over 2000 sq ft (actually mostly one, we don’t use the second one often). Our bills are very reasonable compared to using the gas furnace. In addition, one needs to consider how well insulated your home is. You may have the most efficient fireplace, but if your walls, doors and windows are not well insulated, you are throwing money away in any case. Electricity can be very expensive in many parts of the country, so factor that in. If you build a masonry fireplace, build a Rumsford style. One of our fireplaces is that. They are made to certain dimensions and boy do they throw the heat out into the room!
Before you convert to gas assists in your fireplaces, try Stokes!! They sell them online and in a lot of Whole Foods and other stores—they’re a little paraffin/hardwood sawdust (waste from the Pompanoosic Mills furniture factory in New England) firestarter. You break off one egg carton piece and it replaces all kindling, newspaper, etc. Literally starts a roaring fire in a couple minutes with zero effort. We are hopelessly hooked on wood fires and my husband hasn’t shut up about Stokes since he started using them 5 or 6 years ago! https://www.stokesfirestarters.com/
There is another kind of fireplace that burns wood but directs much more of the heat into the room instead of up the chimney. This type is also much better than the standard at sucking smoke away. It’s called a Rumford fireplace, and they’ve been around since the 1790’s. They have a shallow firebox with walls that angle inward and a thing called a “smoke shelf” built into the chimney that helps create the draft that pulls the smoke away. Here’s some more info: https://www.rumford.com/articleWhat.html
I don’t know if it’s possible to retrofit an standard fireplace with this design (maybe?), but for a new build it might be worth looking into.
I’m ambivalent about this post–I’m really glad you are talking about this issue, but I also find it shocking that not only do you not come out and say directly that electric heat, in whatever form, is the only responsible way to go when renovating or building new. There is so much information available about pollutants, indoor and outdoor, when burning anything–gas, oil, wood, pellets–that we cannot ignore or soft-pedal this message. I get that this blog is directed towards hobbyist/consumers, and not professionals…so maybe that makes it even more important that you come out more strongly to your audience.
I live in the mid Atlantic area so our winters aren’t super cold but we do have the heat on normally from November through March and sometimes through April.
I do have a fireplace but have not used it since I moved in 4 years ago. However my electric bill in the winter is
crazy for one person. This past summer I put in a new heat pump system thinking I could shave some money off
my electric bill. So far that hasn’t happened.
So no matter what people say about electric heat it can be expensive depending on your electric company and therefore many people in my area supplement with a wood burning stove or fireplace as we have plenty of trees.
SOLAR PANELS only need light, not full sun as many believe. Things have moved on from the initial panels back in the day.
I don’t understand your point. That we should all heat our homes with electric? In my area, electric is coal-sourced. Should I haul my gas range, pellet stove, and oil-burning boiler to the landfill and install electric heat pumps throughout my house (that don’t work well in sub-freezing temps?) The production and installation of those new items and waste of perfectly functional older items does not make for an equal balance in my mind.
Wood pellets can release carbon monoxide IN STORAGE (crazy! Just while sitting there … not while being burned). People have died from it:
our gas fireplace has an inside blower. We do use it instead of the furnace. It does warm the main area of the house and our monthly gas bill is $66. Our house was built in 2003/04. So I am not sure why your situation was so different…
Thanks so much for putting this together Emily! I have been looking forward to this post. As expected the post and the comments are very interesting and informative. We have a fireplace with a wood stove insert which we use on very cold days here in Canada. This winter in a fit of desperation we also bought a cheap, tacky electric fireplace (ie an electric heater which has fake green flames) to plop down at the other end of the house. This summer we plan to better insulate the house and eventually move the eyesore to the basement family room.
Now after reading the comments I want to make sure we buy newer wood next time we stock up.
I’m also inspired to grow a “connection” to the wood stove as some mentioned. I totally get how that can be healthy and restorative. It reminds me of my MIL taking care of her chickens every day!
Jenni Yolo (@ispydiy) has an electric fireplace and a pretty fire screen that disguises the fake flame (https://www.instagram.com/p/CaQXeSgLEOg/), so she can get the heat and coziness of a fire during the cold WI winters.
Thanks for this, Katie! We pulled out the 2 wood burning stoves in our place in the country because one was a big clunking thing protruding out from the fireplace in a smallish living room and the other my husband was worried about fire hazard. Also, the hassle of cleaning out fireplace ash and stocking wood to keep the house warm. But this post is reminding me the primary reason to move away from wood burning is the pollution it causes. Everyone burns wood out here it seems. People have big lots and plenty of wood. I understand not everyone has the option to switch to more earth friendly heating at this time but I hope we can have more sustainable choices in the future and support for those for whom energy costs are prohibitive and wood is free to switch to more sustainable options. Where I live, we had a choice with our energy company to go 100% renewable. Our local electricity is powered by solar during the day and geothermal at night so an electric fireplace would not be adding pollution in our case. I like the idea of putting a screen over it so it doesn’t look… Read more »
If you are interested in learning more about ethanol my brother in law owns and operates the largest ethanol/biofuel plant in the country. It is in a small farming community in Illinois. Please contact me and I will set you up.
Excellent post, but gosh you spent a lot of time on a topic that architects and others have previously written about just as extensively .. if not more.
We bought an electric insert and built our own box/mantle so that we didn’t have to compromise on design (wanted a clean look in the same White Dove that matches our walls and with a dark stained mantle, at just the right height). We have solar power, so it’s about as sustainable as any form of flickering flame can get when creating a fireplace out of nothing. We love it.
Chiming in to say that we reluctantly decided to forego a fireplace-equivalent entirely in our planned new build, based on the environmental concerns. We will be living in an area where the grid is predominantly non-emitting, but it does get cold in the winter, so we are focusing on creating a super-well-insulated home instead, along with solar+battery planned for backup. I’ve been exploring other light-based ambiance features to add to our living room in place of the fireplace — wood/light art, perhaps? Sculpture? If anyone is familiar with things others have tried on this, I’d be super curious!
We have a fireplace in our 80s California ranch that I really love and doesn’t quite fit into any of the many categories you covered It’s wood burning with glass doors that open when you are tending to the fire, but it heats via a Heatilator – outside air is moved around the (totally enclosed) metal firebox where it becomes hot from the fire and is then pumped into the home. It heats pretty well, keeps wood burning pollution from the home, and has that wood burning charm. I like it! In our bedroom at the other end of the house we just put an electric insert in a custom mantel bump-out for mostly ambience and some supplementary heat. It’s lovely too, for ease and atmosphere, though as you said don’t look it in the eye!
Be sure to find out the source of your electricity is where you live when weighing fireplace choices. Some areas still get electricity from coal burning, so you are still damaging the environment by using electricity. Until everywhere uses only environmentally friendly sources of energy, all choices still have an impact. I mention this because I moved to Colorado from California a few years ago and was shocked that a large percentage of our power in Colorado came from coal. It’s getting better over the years, but still shocking.
I think fireplaces are something we might reasonably just say goodbye to as we move toward more energy-efficient homes.
Really love my wood burning stove. Haven’t used the forced air furnace in nine years. Here in coastal norcal the temps do drop but rarely below 30.
Another option to consider for those who want to really heat homes using a fireplace is a kachelöfen, which are common in Germany. I’m lucky enough to live down the street from a ceramicist, Jessica Steinhauser, who builds these gorgeous stoves. They are works of art for sure, and can also provide toasty warm seating, and cooking. They are incredibly efficient. Needless to say, they are on my wish list for when we renovate!!! Look at some of the gorgeous stoves she has created https://shko.ca/ You can see how much creativity and craftsmanship go into each one.
The greatest heating device I have is an electric throw rug. It’s like an electric blanket but not for sleeping but is IDEAL if it’s just you that needs heating. Obviously it does not work if you live in a proper cold place, but if you live somewhere where it is not crazy cold (or in Spring/Autumn) it’s ideal because it heats you rather than the air around you so it uses about as much electricity as a lightbulb.
I work from home so there is no point in turning on the heater for just me, so I put my heated rug on my lap and I’m toasty all day. Also excellent for movie nights!
This is so helpful and thorough! We have wood burning with the gas starter and we’ve mostly liked it so far. However, we actually feel like it doesn’t put out much heat and a few times it’s gotten really smoky in the house. We learned to prime the flue and open a nearby door when it first starts, but once we almost left the house to sleep elsewhere because the whole house was so unbearably smokey and we have a newborn. Ended up sleeping on the floor in my husbands office because it was the only room bearable to be in.
I burn the “fireplace” gels mainly outside because I don’t like to breathe in weird stuff no matter how safe they claim it is. I notice a weird chemical smell even outside but it is great for the fire pit. Complete with “crackles” . I saw a design show that went to a fireplace shop that had fake ceramic logs with hidden compartments for two gel containers. I am sure that would look great in a fireplace.