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