It may be the first week of spring in Chicago, but there’s still a bone-chilling wind blowing off Lake Michigan. As a result, at this writer’s house we can’t ignore our addiction to the warm glow of the family-room fireplace.
At the end of every day, there’s the quiet conversation over a glass of wine while sitting in front of the hearth. Our fireplace was set up as a traditional wood-burning unit, but being carefree urban dwellers we opted for gas logs, and the luxury of a remote-starter system.
As extravagant as it may sound, we also have a ventless gas-log fireplace in the living room of this newer North Side home, but we only light it via remote during the holidays or when the temperature falls below 20 degrees.
Hearth purists likely would say a wood-burning fireplace—with its ambiance, crackle and scent—is a more romantic option. And, most Realtors would agree a fireplace is a coveted and valued feature in today’s homes.
According to a 2012 survey, buyers rank fireplaces as one of the three amenities they’d most like in their house. And, 60 percent of new homes come with a fireplace, compared with only 36 percent in the 1970s.
Although fireplaces generally are not accounted for specifically in home appraisals, a National Association of Realtors survey reported that 46 percent of home buyers would pay more for a home with at least one fireplace.
“If you own a high-end residence, buyers expect a fireplace and often are willing to pay more for a home with one,” said Chicago Realtor Sara E. Benson, president of Benson Stanley Realty.
“In Chicago each working fireplace adds $5,000 to $6,000 to the value of an average home,” Benson estimated. That’s $10,000 to $12,000 in additional resale value in a dual-fireplace house.
However, wood-burning fireplaces also can be a costly headache for the novice homeowner. Readers of The Home Front may recall the 2014 column reviewing this writer’s adventures with hearth and home. In the 1970s, there was the stucco bungalow, built in 1911 in the landmarked Irving Park Villa neighborhood. It had a smoky fireplace with a shallow hearth and a broken damper.
That was followed by English Tudor home built in the 1920s in the Sauganash neighborhood. The home sported a massive stone fireplace in the living room that belched smoke. It needed a new flue liner, damper and removal of a squirrel’s nest from the chimney.
Later, a mid-1980s rehab create a skylight-filled loft-living space in the attic and install an energy-efficient, wood-burning fireplace with glass doors and a blower to provide supplemental heating for the house. However, lugging heavy logs up two flights of stairs and hauling ashes down was not fun.
Next, was the hearth love affair with the 12-room Italianate Victorian in the Old Town Historic District. Built in 1872, the home featured four amazing fireplaces faced with glazed ceramic tile. But, the old fireplaces couldn’t pull a puff of smoke up the chimneys. They needed flue liners, dampers and chimney rebuilding and logs with modern starters.
“A wood-burning fireplace is expensive, an energy waster and just plain too much work for the average homeowner,” observed Steve Alleyne of Firefixer, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in vent-free service and repair.
“First, you’ve got to buy the logs, which can cost $225 to $300 per cord (a cord measures 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long) for mixed hardwood or pure hardwood,” Alleyne said. Plus, there likely will be delivery and stacking charges.
Once you get the fireplace logs burning, 90 percent of the heat goes up the chimney, said Alleyne, a Chicago firefighter who has worked as a fireplace fixer and installer for two decades.
“If the fireplace doesn’t have an ash dump, you are left with a mess to clean up, and, you’ll need a professional chimney cleaning every other year to keep combustible creosote at bay,” he warned.
Many of these chores can be removed by converting a wood-burning fireplace to a natural gas burner and installing gas logs. A deluxe set of gas logs costs from $750 to $1,500. For push-button lighting, you also can add a variable-thermostatic remote for about $200.
Another choice is installing a direct-vent fireplace insert, or relining an existing old flue and installing a new damper for chimney venting.
What’s the most energy-efficient option? “The ventless gas fireplace is the best choice if you want to keep the most heat in the room,” Alleyne advised. “A ventless fireplace is 98-percent efficient, and can save up to 40 percent on your gas bill.”
Ventless fireplaces are affordable heat source because the burner is small and it is less expensive than running the furnace full blast during chilly months, Firefixer noted.
“Vent-free fireplaces are very popular in high-rise condominiums and rental apartments because no flue or chimney is necessary and these units are much more affordable,” said Alleyne.
However, even vent-free fireplaces need an annual cleaning and maintenance check to reduce carbon monoxide emissions, and a professional safety inspection each autumn before the harsh winter months.
“Annual cleaning and service is needed to remove dust from the logs and prevent the burner pilot from getting clogged, which could lead to carbon monoxide buildup that sets off your carbon monoxide detector,” Alleyne noted.
Firefixer does the job for an inexpensive $145 service call, which includes replacing batteries for remote starters, fresh embers, lava rock and a seasonal warranty. Visit www.firefixer.com.
Many homeowners have a ventless fireplace but do not regularly use it because of lack of knowledge. If there is an issue with vent-free gas-log combustion odor, Firefixer recommends burning the gas logs for one hour with a window open at the beginning of the season.
For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.