Planning Ahead to Select the Ideal Fireplace

Planning Ahead to Select the Ideal Fireplace
by Robert Koby.
All too often the fireplace in a new home or renovation is an afterthought, chosen with less consideration than cupboard handles or baseboard moulding. But the center piece of the home’s main room should be chosen with at least as much care as the fridge, stove or other major appliances.

Contractors should understand that if they exclude the homeowner from the buying decision, they will continually be dealing with unhappy clients. As a fireplace retailer, I often see disgruntled customers after the building contractor’s work is done. The homeowners are unhappy with the appearance of their fireplace, or complain that it pumps out too much heat, or too little heat.

Projects are often budgeted at hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet for a few hundred dollars suitable solutions to the customer’s complaints could have been found during the initial decision-making stage.

The first step in choosing a fireplace is to decide what sort of look you want and how much heat you want the fireplace to generate. Conversely, choices based primarily on cost and size often result in the installation of inexpensive “builder’s special” fireplaces. These can be bought for as little as $600 to $800, and tend to be metal boxes with mechanical-looking flames.

If your primary consideration is heat, you will want a high-efficiency, closed fireplace. These can use two kinds of vent systems: a direct vent or what is known as a high-efficiency “B” vent.

Direct venting is generally around seven inches in diameter, and has two components, an outer air intake pipe that draws air in from outside and an inner exhaust pipe that vents to the outdoors. Direct vents allow for venting outdoors from the rear of some fireplaces, or off the top and out the wall, as well as straight up and through the roof. Prices for direct vent fireplaces range from $600 for very basic builders units to $4,500 for high-quality units with cast iron fronts. View our selection of contemporary fireplace designs to get a better understanding of this range in price.

A direct vent gas fireplace is often necessary because of vertical venting restrictions or the desire for efficient heat. A number of direct vent fireplaces can seamlessly fit into your design scheme. Quality direct vents with clean faces and no horizontal louvers result in a minimum of metal showing once the surrounding finishes have been applied.

There are also direct vent gas fireplaces available with classic cast iron fronts and porcelain enamel finishes. One popular option is direct vent models that duplicate old-fashioned ceramic coal burners. Some of these are also available with mantel surrounds and tile or cast inserts, which complement the fireplace’s finished appearance.

Direct vent fireplaces are very efficient and can be integrated into the heating system of a house, especially if zone heating is used. Gas fireplaces can be controlled by thermostats that are either basic or programmable.

If the homeowner wants a fireplace that looks like open-masonry, with an open front and a clean face that can be finished right up to the opening, the solution is vertical venting. Open-burning gas fireplaces usually use a standard “B” vent – a conventional flue system venting gases up a chimney just as with a wood burning fireplace. They can also use an “A” vent, which is the kind of manufactured chimney used for wood burning fireplaces.

The key to achieving the open-masonry look is to allow enough vent space for a quality fireplace. Too often the vent space, or chase, is restricted in the initial framing to only accept a small “B” vent, which limits builders to using the inexpensive equivalent of a direct vent “builders special”.

The best look for an open gas fireplace is achieved by installing an open, zero-clearance wood burning fireplace and setting a gas log set into it. Zero-clearance wood burning fireplaces are double metal boxes with a masonry interior and are available in many sizes and with clean faces that can be finished right up to the opening with non-combustible materials. They are less expensive than full brick and masonry fireplaces, and do not require major structural support. Their venting can be easily offset to avoid design problems using an air-cooled “A” type vent. These vents are typically 10.5 to 15.5 inches in diameter and require two inch clearance. The vent sizing has to be taken into account when the initial framing is done.

After the zero-clearance wood burning fireplace is installed, you can select an authentic looking gas log set. It’s a good idea to include the client in the decision.

An additional advantage of a zero-clearance wood burning fireplace is the option of removing the gas log set and burning real logs.

If the zero-clearance wood burning fireplace option does not work, consider a “B” vent fireplace. There are several “B” vent fireplaces dedicated to the same features, aesthetics and options as the direct vent.


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