a fire in its place

There's something primordial about fire, as if it's been burned into our DNA. “Discovering” and, more importantly, controlling fire was probably bigger than the iPad back in the day. Fire not only meant warmth and bar-b-que but also a social center for family and friends. When the fire was a-roaring, the cave folk all gathered and grunted around the flames. This long human history with fire has carried over into our present-day homes with fireplaces. Although very few warm their homes solely with fireplaces in these modern times, the hearth is still seen as the center of the house.

But are fireplaces green?

The City of Austin's green police say, in short, that fireplaces are uncool and, therefore, ungreen. The reason? Because these days fireplaces are for aesthetics, not heat, and they make houses less energy efficient because you’ve punched a big ole hole into your roof. And that pleasant smoky smell from the fire burning in your house? Where there’s smoke, there’s…carcinogens. So if you’re smelling smoke, you’re breathing cancer. Kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?

But what about wood-burning stoves?

A wood-burning stove is different than a fireplace in that a stove is enclosed and specifically designed to produce heat. And modern-day wood burners can be quite efficient, upwards of 86 percent. That sure beats the less than 10 percent efficiency of a standard open-hearthed fireplace. To be as green as possible, you want to purchase a stove that is catalytic: One that burns the gases and particulates to reduce emissions, similar to your car. The downside of catalytics? They can be ruined if plastic, other materials, or even the wrong type of wood are burned in the stove. And catalytic converters have to be replaced every six years.

Wood burning stoves tend to be stand-in-the-middle-of-the-room devices. However, wood burning stoves also exist as fireplace inserts which are made to be inserted into an existing fireplace or appear like a fireplace in new construction. With a glass front, you miss the snap, crackle, and pop of the wood, but you see the tongues of flame and feel the heat.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certifies wood-burning stoves as meeting certain emission limits (less than 7.5 grams per hour for non-catalytic stoves and 4.1 grams per hour for catalytic stoves). EPA labels also show the efficiency of the stove. Their web site:

lists stoves that have met the emission requirement and also lists the tested efficiency.

Gas fireplaces/stoves are another possibility. No wood, no ashes, no mess. Gas is also clean burning, so emissions are quite low. EPA doesn’t certify gas fireplaces or stoves because emissions are simply not an issue.

My bride is ambivalent about a fireplace, however it manifests itself, in the house. She’s not against one, but she not yearning for one either. I lean toward “for it” from the standpoint of having an expected focal point in a house at our price point, boutique heating on chilly days, and the romance of fire (from the grunting caveman perspective). Since we’re in the chilly season now in Central Texas, I’ve been paying attention to how much we might actually use a fireplace. I’m thinking we’d use it enough to justify having it. If I had a fireplace, I would have one burning right now.

For a fireplace insert in a modern/contemporary house, I found these:


and really not a whole lot of others. There are, however, quite a few gas inserts out there with modern pop:

many of which are quite stunning (and quite expensive).

In short, if we put a place for fire in our house, I want it to be green and to be efficient. In other words, to provide heat; I don’t want to be burning something just for the sake of having flames. I’m torn between a wood-burning insert and a gas insert. At first, I was anti-gas because I thought they were all about aesthetics. But after learning that they are essentially non-emitters and can be there for heat, I’m (ahem…) warming up to them. But a gas insert misses out on the ritual of gathering wood and setting it aflame. Gas is the fast food of fires. But when you’re hungry and when you’re cold, fast can be good.

One thing’s for sure: If we get a fireplace, we will not be placing a television above it.

More links on fireplaces:


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