Who doesn’t have a warm spot in their heart for a cozy fireplace hearth in the home?
Between a home in Chicago, and a mountain getaway, this writer owns three fireplaces—all sporting gas logs with remotes. My personal favorite is the stacked-stone beauty equipped with energy-saving glass doors, gas logs and a blower that practically heats the whole mountain cabin.
A vacation house the family recently rented on Folly Beach in South Carolina had a vintage wood-burning fireplace, but we never thought about lighting a toasty fire until late March temperatures dropped below 50 degrees.
The vacationers picked up a bundle of firewood and a tube of long fireplace matches and had visions of crackling logs burning in the hearth.
However, without dry logs, liquid starter and the proper kindling, the task proved to be tougher than sparking a camp fire in Door County, Wisconsin in the rain. The young, novice fire-starters tried tearing up shreds of newspaper and cardboard liberated from an empty 24-bottle beer carton. The result: only a flicker of fire, then lots of smoke.
A fellow vacationer jokingly suggested using the lint ball from the clothes dryer for kindling, but nothing worked, and the dream of a cozy fire at the beach house fizzled.
The Windy City’s current 30-to-40-degree weather and threats of April snow flurries means home and condominium owners likely will be using their fireplaces late into the month of May. If you can get your fireplace lit, a wood-burner—with its ambiance, crackle and scent—is the most romantic option, hearth purists say.
However, wood-burning fireplaces also can be a costly headache for the untrained homeowner.
“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. Call 773-951-7439, or visit: www.firefixer.com.
“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.
When you finally get those fireplace logs burning, 90% 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.
Homeowners who are planning to list their abode for sale this spring and want to lock-in a top-dollar price, should make sure the fireplace is in good working order, Realtors advise.
“A working fireplace—either wood burning or a gas-log unit—is a coveted feature that adds thousands of dollars in value to a home,” said Chicago Realtor Sara E. Benson, president of Benson Stanley Realty.
According to a recent survey, buyers rank fireplaces as one of the three amenities they’d most like in their house. And, 60% of new homes come with a fireplace, compared with only 36% in the 1970s.
A National Association of Realtors survey reported that 46% 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,” Benson said. “In Chicago each working fireplace may add $5,000 to $10,000 to the value of an average home, depending on the sale price,” she estimated.
Most of the chores involved with fireplace maintenance 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% efficient, and can save up to 40% on your gas bill.”
Ventless fireplaces are an 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,” he said.
“However, annual cleaning and service is needed to remove dust from the logs and prevent the burner pilot from getting clogged. A clogged pilot is a result of debris having settled in the fireplace, and will cause the unit to shut off,” Alleyne noted.
Firefixer also recommends opening a window for the first couple of hours after the log set has been cleaned and inspected for proper installation and log placement. “Running the log set without cleaning it first could produce char on the logs,” he said. “I’ve gone to houses where the whole wall up to the ceiling is blackened and from the fireplace they were using without ever having it cleaned.”
Vent free log sets are clean burning so long as logs are in proper position and they stay clean. Firefixer’s inspection will check for gas leaks, shorted wire connections, and everything meets building code requirements. He checks clearance for combustible materials surrounding the fireplace, inspects gas supply tubing and ventilation for vented units.
Firefixer does the job for a $145 service call, which includes replacing batteries for remote starters, installing fresh embers and lava rock, and a seasonal warranty.
Firefixer services all types of vented, and direct-vent fireplaces. Ventless 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, Alleyne noted.
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.
“If any problem occurs with your ventless fireplace throughout the October through May heating season—from bad log-starter batteries to an accidental shut off of the pilot light—we will make a return service call for free,” Alleyne said.
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.