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A Cozy Fireplace Can Help Ward Off Chicago’s Icy ‘Polar Vortex’

December 2, 2019

After suffering through the epic “Polar-Vortex” winter in early 2019, many Chicago homeowners are looking forward to pouring a goblet of hot spiced wine and hunkering down around a cozy fireplace over the holidays, experts say.

 

Meteorologist Tom Skilling’s early December outlook is predicting a “cold upper air pattern” that calls for frigid Arctic air to hold over Chicago and the Great Lakes and reach as far as the Gulf Coast as the Jet Stream moves South.

 

Remember last January?  The icy knife of “The Hawk,” Chicago’s brutal lakefront blast, pushed the wind-chill to 30 degrees below zero.

 

That’s why wise homeowners are winterizing their digs, tuning furnaces, weather stripping doors and windows, adding more roof insulation, ordering fresh firewood, and making sure fireplaces are cleaned and ready to provide supplemental heat.

 

“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,” noted Realtor Sara E. Benson, president of Chicago-based Benson Stanley Realty.

 

“Homeowners who are planning to list their abode for sale next spring and want to lock-in a top-dollar price, should make sure the fireplace is in good working order for the holidays,” Benson advised.

 

“If you own a high-end residence, buyers expect a fireplace,” 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.

 

According to a recent survey, buyers rank fireplaces as one of the top 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.

 

Hearth purists say a wood-burner—with its ambiance, crackle and scent—is the most romantic option. However, wood-burning fireplaces also can be a costly headache for the untrained, or busy homeowner.

 

After years of lugging logs up two flights of stairs to a master bedroom equipped with a wood-burning fireplace in a vintage home in the Sauganash neighborhood, this writer opted for gas logs my current house.

 

“A wood-burning fireplace is expensive, an energy waster and just plain too much work for the average homeowner,” agreed Steve Alleyne of Firefixer, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in both vent-free and vented fireplace service and repair.

 

“First, you’ve got to buy the logs, which can cost $175 to $300 per cord (a firewood stack that 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.

 

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 ceramic gas logs costs from $750 to $1,500, depending on size.

 

For push-button lighting, you also can add a variable-thermostatic remote for about $200. Firefixer does the wood-to-gas conversion for $195, which does not include the cost of running a gas line and any necessary electrical work.

 

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,” said Alleyne. Servicing ventless units accounts for more than half of Firefixer’s business.

 

“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 settlement in the fireplace, and will cause the unit to shut off,” Alleyne said.

 

Firefixer also recommends opening a window for the first couple of hours after the log set has been cleaned and inspected.

 

“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 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 ensure everything meets building code requirements. He also checks clearance for combustible materials surrounding the fireplace, inspects gas supply tubing and ventilation for vented units.

 

Firefixer does the job for a $160 service call, which includes replacing batteries for remote starters, installing fresh embers and lava rock, plus a seasonal warranty.

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 information on Firefixer, call 773-951-7439, or visit: www.firefixer.com.

 

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.

 

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“The book is Escaping Condo Jail by Sara Benson and Don DeBat. I would say that anybody thinking about buying a condo, or even anybody serving on a condo board, or anybody who has any connection to a condo, this is must reading—all 600 and something pages. Thanks a lot for a great book!”

 

Steve Sanders, “Your Money Matters” WGN TV, December 22, 2014

By Don DeBat

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