Replace or restyle it; contact a licensed professional for assistance
They’re cozy, pretty, and traditional, but they also can be dirty, costly, and dangerous: We’re talking about wood-burning fireplaces.
MODERN OPTIONS FOR AN OLD-FASHIONED FEATURE
According to data from the last decennial U.S. Census, 46% of American homes had a usable fireplace, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimating there are more than 17.5 million fireplaces nationwide. But while these longtime house features can help make a home sale, they can also make a whole lot of trouble:
- Air pollution—The California Air Resources Board (CARB) says most wood heaters, like fireplaces and woodstoves, release far more air pollution indoors and out than heaters using other fuels. In winter, when we heat our homes the most, cold nights with little wind cause smoke and air pollutants to stagnate at ground level for long periods. That air pollution contains carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen (which create acid rain), carcinogens, and many other toxic substances.
- Expensive inefficiency—CARB also notes that fireplaces rob your house of heat because they draw air from the room and send it up the chimney. Yes, you’ll be warmed if you sit near the fire, but the rest of your house is getting colder as outdoor air leaks in to replace the hot air going up the chimney.
- House hazards—According to the National Fire Protection Association, wood fireplaces can reach 2,000 degrees: a much higher level of heat than other fireplace options that can ignite combustibles near the fireplace. In addition, more than 25,000 chimney fires cause $120 million in damage nationwide each year.
Many greener, cost-effective, and safer replacement options are on the market to help modernize your old-fashioned wood fireplace, including:
- Gas—Gone are the kitschy, lukewarm gas inserts of the 1970s: Today’s gas fireplaces are literally hot! Modern gas inserts run the gamut from traditional looks featuring real-looking logs to sleek futuristic designs, all of which bring real warmth to your home without the wood smoke.
- Electric—Electric fireplaces don’t cause pollution and can be installed anywhere, no vent required, either inside or outside your old fireplace. They can be plugged into any standard household electrical (120V) outlet and can operate with or without heat.
- Pellet—Instead of logs, pellet stoves burn cleaner-burning compressed wood or organic pellets, and can be installed as fireplace inserts or freestanding heaters.
What’s more, many California air quality districts offer monetary rebates, refunds, or incentive programs to encourage residents to bring their wood-burning fireplaces into the 21st century with more environmentally friendly options like gas, electric, or pellet options. If you are unsure if your local air quality district offers an incentive program, call for information.
STYLE TIPS FOR OLD FIREPLACES
Don’t feel like replacing your fireplace? You’ve got lots of options to make that space sparkle without ever lighting a log! Sweep it out, scrub it up, and implement one of these hearth-warming ideas from This Old House:
- Log illusion—Fool onlookers with the appearance of a tidy hearth poised for lighting by stacking logs up … and then just walking away. For a slightly different approach, fill most or all of the firebox with chopped wood with the cut ends facing the room: an organic look that compliments earthy, natural living room decor.
- Cozy candles—Put big pillar candles on a tiered stand in the fireplace. If you choose to light them, use a fire screen to keep the flames away from your children, pets, and furnishings. For the twinkle without the trouble, use flame-free candles or string lights as safer options.
- Screen star—Safety accessories can be pretty, too. Find a fireplace screen with a design you love and let it work as a piece of art.
- Shadow box—Forget the traditional shadow box and tuck a hefty object inside the firebox, like a handsome architectural model or large family heirloom.
- Fresh paint—Keep it simple but dramatic with black or white, or create a conversation starter with a pop of color.
- Houseplant highlight—Show off a favorite plant in an unexpected spot.
- Summer front—Bring some old-house charm to your hearth by sourcing a summer front from a tag sale or flea market.
Whether you’re looking to style it up or switch it out, contact a licensed professional for any assistance you need with a wood fireplace revamp. The Department of Consumer Affairs’ Contractors State License Board regulates general engineering contractors and building contractors as well as dozens of specialty contractors; check a professional’s license at https://search.dca.ca.gov.