FEW THINGS associated with winter conjure up more pleasant memories than a fireplace. As children, we toasted marsh-mallows, warmed our hands after a snowball fight and huddled close to the fire telling eerie ghost stories far into the night. As young lovers, we snuggled together in front of the fireplace to plan our future between kisses. As adults, we escape from a frantic day by slipping into a robe and slippers, grabbing a good book and getting cozy in a comfortable chair near the fire to read the evening away.
Northerners may marvel at the number of fireplaces in Dallas (in fact, it is said that Dallas has more fireplaces per capita than any other city in the United States), considering our reasonably mild and short winter. But need is not so much the motivation for having a fireplace as are desire and atmosphere. Nothing contributes more to the ambiance of a room than a blazing, crackling fire.
If you are among the fortunate ones whose home came equipped with a “WBFP” in real estate lingo (wood-burning fireplace, to the rest of us), you may have a host of questions about your hearth area that you never knew whom to ask.
THERE ARE three basic types of fireplaces: masonry, prefabricated and freestanding.
Masonry fireplaces are the original brick models built by a mason or bricklayer. They are not difficult to include when building a new house or adding a new room but can create many problems if added to an existing house. A masonry fireplace, while beautiful and traditional, can be rather costly. Prices start at $2,000 to $3,000 and may go even higher depending on the brick and stone you choose, the size of hearth and the other options available. While it does add charm to a house, most homeowners find that a masonry job adds no more resale value to their property than does a prefabricated fireplace.
Prefab (also called zero-clearance) fireplaces can be placed next to an existing wall. Melanie Blumer of the Hearthside Shop says to remember that although these are called prefab, they aren’t necessarily cheap.
The fireplace itself sells for $1,500 to $2,000 plus professional installation, which may run from $250 to $500, depending on the extras.
Prefabs are sold everywhere from handyman stores to fireplace shops and are designed so that the weekend handyman can do the installation. Some companies even have the step-by-step procedure on videotape. A prefab fireplace can be put in any number of places. It can be pushed up against an existing wall or put in a corner. Some people cut a hole in the wall to fit the fireplace flush against the wall. Of course, this means that the back part of the fireplace must protrude into the garage or some other area.
Free-standing fireplaces stand in the middle of a room or in a corner. They are usually made of metal and are finished with either porcelain or enamel, creating a very contemporary look. Some of the more expensive -and beautiful -models are made of nickel, brass or copper. Freestanding fireplaces range in price from $500 to $2,000, depending on the finish, plus the cost of the chimney (usually $250 to $350 for a one-story house).
Some free-standing units are built to be installed as close as 8 inches to a wall. This could be a very important consideration in rooms where space is at a premium, such as the bedroom.
A free-standing fireplace is even easier to install than a prefab and can usually be completely in place in three or four hours. Most require a hearth; but in a slab house, this could be as simple as tearing up the carpet and installing a tile hearth.
Some people yearn for a fireplace that’s unique, and nothing will do for them but a custom design. Thomas L. Gaddie, owner of The Fireplace Doctor, has been designing fireplaces in Dallas since 1956. One of his most unusual designs was an octagonal fireplace in which the eight sides extended from the hearth to the top of the chimney. The tremendous hearth that surrounded it was a stairstep design.
Gaddie says the rustic Santa Fe-style fireplace is in demand again today. These stucco fireplaces have arched or rectangular openings and pyramid-like peaked tops, and are usually built across a corner. They were popular during the turn of the century.
Gaddie sees each fireplace as an individual work of art. “An individual built each one, and each one is individual,” he says. “Science has to go into the design [of a fireplace]. There’s more to it than having a place for the wood and a hole to get the smoke out. Smoke will go anywhere there’s an opening, but most of it may be going into the room. If a fireplace is built right, the harder the wind blows, the better it should work. Too many are just the opposite.”
Before you have a fireplace installed or attempt to do it yourself, check the building codes and permits necessary in your city. Make sure you understand all of the safety factors involved. Melanie Blumer says to check with your insurance company. Installing a fireplace often changes your fire insurance policy. And if your house burns down after an unreported installation, some companies may cancel your policy.
If you opt to have a professional do the installation, make sure you find a reputable person to do the work. Fireplace shops and chimney sweeps often have referral lists. Blair Kilgallen of Olde World Chimney Sweeps recommends finding someone who has specialized in fireplaces for several years rather than someone who merely builds houses. Even with his referral list, Kilgallen advises customers to talk to two or three of the contractors and get references from each before deciding.
Jeanette Kopko, vice president of the Better Business Bureau, remembers one fireplace installer who managed to get 28 complaints lodged against him at the BBB over a period of years. One of the worst was from a customer whose fireplace roof collapsed into the firebox, and the brick on the face of the fireplace cracked. The contractor was hard to track down: It seems he did business under four different names.
Kopko says to avoid unscrupulous or unreliable contractors:
get more than one bid.
ask references how long ago the workwas done to see if the fireplace can withstand the test of time.
Of course, we all know someone who has gone through all the proper channels to check out a contractor and still had a bad experience. Because this is “just one of those things” that can happen, Kopko urges you to get a very specific written contract before letting anyone begin work on your fireplace.
GAS LOGS have become a popular alternative to carrying in wood and shoveling ashes. If the term conjures up memories of Grandma’s gas-log set with small pilot lights leaping across an obviously fake log, you’re going to be surprised to see the Eighties version.
Today’s logs are either ceramic or aggregate and are cast from actual logs such as twisted pine, white birch or oak. Each log is separate so you can stack and arrange them on a grate as you choose.
Where those smelly, messy ashes once lay is now a base of silica sand that looks like ash and disburses the gas flame to look like glowing embers.
If you buy logs with steel reinforcements, the logs may last as long as 20 years. Jim Kresl of Tontine says one brand has a seven-year warranty. Even if the logs crack and fall through the grate the day after the warranty expires, you will still have saved money not having to buy real logs for that same period. While prices for a gas-log set (which includes five or six logs, the grate, burner and silica sand) can cost as much as $350, Kresl says the most popular average set is about $130.
Blumer says that gas logs can only be installed in bona fide wood-burning fireplaces. Older houses in East Dallas and University Park often have fireplaces designed only for space heaters; these are not vented properly for gas logs. For about $40, a licensed plumber can install the log set in a fireplace already equipped with a gas jet.
Gas-log sets put out a good deal of heat, so the only thing missing from a “real” fire is the aroma, and even that has been taken care of with Burningwood Twigs. Light one or two of the twigs, put them in their small grate and place the grate on the mantel or hearth for the earthy aroma of a fire. A small grate and a box of twigs sells for $3.95. Each twig will burn for about 15 minutes.
Some people don’t mind the fuss of a wood-burning fireplace as much as they hate the expense of buying wood and the fireplace’s frequent inefficiency. Enter the fireplace insert, a child of the wood-burning stove. An insert, which fits into a masonry fireplace and uses the existing chimney, stops the warm air from leaking out the chimney while letting you control the speed at which wood burns; it thus gets more efficiency out of the wood. Some statistics say that the average wood-burning fireplace is only 5 percent efficient; with an insert, 60 to 75 percent of the heat produced goes back into your house.
Inserts may cost from $400 to $ 1,500 depending on the size, the materials used (the doors are nearly always cast iron) and any decorative touches you may add. If an insert brings to mind a basic black box stuck in the firebox, you’ll be surprised to see how attractive they can be with a few added touches like brass or nickel trim, arched doors and etched glass.
WOOD-BURNING stoves have become chic again. They are so beautifully designed that aesthetics definitely must be one reason for their triumphant return. But, more importantly, they are practical.
With only 25 to 50 pounds of wood, these stoves can produce enough heat to keep a house with an open room arrangement warm throughout. In fact, Patsy Brown of B&B Wood Stoves says they “will run you out” if not regulated properly. In houses with many walls, a ceiling fan, blower or the fan on your air-conditioning unit will move the heat to the other rooms.
A wood-burning stove works simply by drawing the cool air inside, heating it up and blowing it out through the vents at the top of the stove. (These are also called circulating stoves.) Not all are airtight, which is something to look out for -airtight stoves produce much more warmth.
Wood-burning stoves have an added advantage: They produce enough heat to let you do some cooking on top. They don’t get hot enough to fry anything, but they will heat water so you can make coffee or can slow-cook foods like soups or stews.
Franklin stoves are popular these days. According to Patsy Brown, “Franklin” merely refers to the design. “Some are good, some are bad, but none are airtight, so they’re not efficient,” she says. “They’re pretty, but you may as well have a fireplace.”
Installing a wood-burning stove can be complicated, depending on where you want to put it. If you’re not mechanically inclined, Brown recommends hiring a professional to do the installation.
AS WITH many things, the cost of the fireplace itself is only the initial expense. After that, you’re tempted with beautiful tool sets, glass doors and a variety of decorative items designed to enhance the hearth area.
Tools are essential. You’ll need to reposition the logs and stoke the fire as well as sweep the ashes. According to Jim Kresl, a poker, shovel and broom are necessities; a set of tongs is optional. Black steel is the most practical material for tools, but most people buy these tool sets for their looks first, Kresl says. In most cases, you can bet that those gorgeous $500 solid-brass sets will never touch a log or an ash. The real work will be done by a few plain black tools tucked away somewhere nearby.
Glass fireplace doors have been around for about 20 years but have just recently caught on in Dallas. According to Melanie Blumer, the original intent for installing glass doors was for safety, especially when children were around. But during the past few years, glass doors have been recognized as energy savers. And, like the tool sets, their aesthetic appeal accounts for many purchases.
The obvious benefit of the doors is that they enable you to leave the fire unattended. With the doors and vents closed, the fire will continue to radiate heat into the room for several hours without allowing sparks to fly into the room. And heat will not escape up the damper.
Kresl points out that the doors are especially helpful during Dallas’ hot summers since they keep the cool air from going out the chimney. Blumer likens them to installing a storm door on your fireplace.
A fireplace door will make a fire burn up to two hours longer by letting you control the rate at which it burns. Without a door, there is a constant rise and ebb of the temperature as logs are added and a blaze burns down. But by closing the doors and adjusting the vents, you can maintain control of the air flow. This in turn controls the temperature and cuts down the amount of wood you burn.
Doors range in price from $65 to $250, and -as usual -you get what you pay for. The differences in the doors goes beyond the price. Kresl recommends buying a solid brass door as opposed to brass-plated. Brass plating doesn’t hold up well to constant heat and sometimes begins to peel off after only one winter.
Before you buy, pick up the door -the heavier it is, the better. An insulated frame of heavy gauge steel and thick (about 3/8-inch) tempered glass are marks of good quality.
Look for vents at both the top and bottom of the frame. With this construction, the bottom vent can feed the fire while the top controls the heat that goes into the room. Any other choices you make are usually purely aesthetics.
IT DOESN’T take a math wizard to calculate the savings of buying a cord of wood for your fireplace vs. buying a small bundle from the convenience store for each fire.
There are many outlets for firewood in Dallas, from huge nurseries to individuals who drive to East Texas and bring back loads of wood themselves.
Oak is by far the most common log burned in Dallas fireplaces. It’s harder than many other woods, which means it will be slower-burning and will last longer.
When you place an order for firewood, be sure to specify seasoned (dry wood, which burns faster and better but is also more expensive), green (freshly cut wood that is difficult to ignite since it’s still wet, but which burns more slowly) or a mixed batch. Mixed loads are generally recommended so that dry wood can be used to start the fire and green wood can be added to keep the fire burning longer.
Another thing to specify is the length the wood needs to be for your fireplace. The average length is 22 to 24 inches. If the wood is too long for your fireplace, the fire will smoke badly; if it is too short, it will fall off the grate and won’t make a pretty fire. Check with your dealer. Some places carry odd lengths such as 12, 16, 30, 36 and 48 inches, but they may charge about $20 a cord extra for special-cut lengths. Others merely deliver the average length; if you need it shorter, you can cut it yourself.
The standard measurement for wood is a cord. When properly stacked, a full cord of wood measures 2 feet wide, 4 feet high and 16 feet long. This measure is for 24-inch lengths of wood. Be careful that your dealer isn’t selling you shorter lengths and representing it as a full cord. In that case, what you’re really getting is a face cord -and you’re getting cheated. A half-cord is called a rick and measures 2×2×8 feet.
This year, a cord of oak wood sells for $150 to $160 in Dallas. Make sure the agreed-upon price includes delivery and stacking; otherwise, you may end up with a load of wood dumped in your backyard that you’ll stack.
EVERY TIME you build a fire in your fireplace, a form of unburned wood called creosote builds up inside the chimney. After years of this build-up, your beautiful fireplace and stately chimney can easily become a fire hazard. The only way to remedy this is to clean the chimney.
The choice of professional chimney sweeps is amazingly large in Dallas. There are those who come with their industrial equipment, do their job and leave with little fanfare, and there are those who strive for authenticity by coming attired in top hat and tails to do their work in efficient British style.
Blair Kilgallen is one of the top-hat brigade. “Centuries ago, British sweeps got no respect,” he says. “So they went to the local mortician’s and borrowed the top hat and tails. People began to recognize a sweep when they saw one, and the profession is a respected one now.”
While many people have their chimneys cleaned every year, Kilgallen says he recommends cleaning it after a cord of wood has been burned, which, in Dallas, is usually every two years.
A professional sweep will block off the opening from the fireplace to the room with an industrial vacuum cleaner to catch the dust and keep your house clean. Then he goes to the roof and uses wire chimney brushes and hand brushes to clean the chimney. An average one-story house takes about 45 minutes to an hour to clean. This cleaning will also get rid of any musty odors caused by rain dripping down the chimney.
Besides the fire safety aspect, chimney cleaning can also provide a time for a professional to inspect your fireplace and chimney for any maintenance work that might need to be done.
Thomas Gaddie says you can do some of this inspection yourself. After each season, look inside the firebox for any cracks. Make sure there’s no separation between the face brick (on the interior of your house) and the fire brick (on the inside of the firebox). If any mortar has fallen out, you can replace it yourself.
Open chimneys can become an open door to all kinds of critters who crawl in looking for warmth. Kilgallen says he removes animals quite often; but his most unusual find was a pregnant duck.
A chimney cap will alleviate the animal problem. Caps are highly recommended if you live near a lake or a wooded area with lots of birds, raccoons and other animals. The caps are available at a variety of places at a variety of prices. Hardware stores sell an inexpensive model. Custom-fitted ones are built specifically for a chimney opening, and, of course, cost more. “The custom cap fits over the entire [chimney] top,” Kilgallen says. “It’s hard to find a good fit with the cheaper ones.”
Some people claim an added benefit for the caps: They serve as spark arresters and can prevent fires on wooden roofs.
Chimney caps can cost as much as $150to $300 for custom-fitted caps. If keepinganimals out is your main concern, you caninstall a piece of screen over the entire topof the chimney yourself.