Traditional Wood Burning Fireplace: Are They a Thing of the Past?

By Dave Cripps

It wasn’t that long ago when the fireplace was the center of home.  There is just something about coming in from a cold winter day and settling in by a fireplace hearth. Nothing can compare with the old world charm of a natural wood burning fire that provides a feeling of warmth, comfort, and peacefulness. Many homeowners today still desire them but are unsure if they are still available or if they can still have them installed.

According to a study by Environment Canada, “Using an older non-efficient wood-fire stove for only nine hours….produces as much fine-particle pollution as does a car in a year.” Not a great statistic. However, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) have developed standards for low-emission appliances. In the USA, all wood stoves and fireplaces sold must be certified as having low emissions. When compared to conventional fireplaces and older wood stoves, a CSA/EPA-certified appliance sometimes described as advanced-combustion or high efficient wood burning fireplaces emits substantially reduced pollution emissions. In Canada the low-emission certification is required only in British Columbia. Older, existing wood stoves or products purchased outside of British Columbia are exempt.

So where does that leave you. An approved zero-clearance / factory built fireplace is still a viable option if you would like to have a fireplace added to your home. It has a light-weight insulated chimney. This means it can be added to the house without adding a foundation, making it an option for any floor of the house. There are a few things you need to consider when choosing the location for your new fireplace.

One is to ensure your desired location has enough space to accommodate all the correct clearances required to install the fireplace safely. Although they are called zero-clearance, most fireplaces do have clearance requirements that will be specific to each model. The amount of heat you are hoping to achieve will determine whether you want a basic open front, mid efficient or high efficient EPA model. Glass doors are a requirement on all fireplaces, as well as, an outside combustion air source connected directly to the appliance. You will also need to install a carbon monoxide detector.

You will also want to consider the chimney requirements. As a fireplace is a natural vented appliance, the chimney must terminate above the roof. The chimney is required to vent 24” higher than any point of the roof within a 10 foot horizontal line. You should refer to the installation manual for what the minimum vertical height of the chimney must be as again, these heights will be specific to the model to ensure a good draft. It is a good idea to install the fireplace chimneys within the structure of the home and as straight as possible. Most manufacturers do provide elbow or offset kits in either a 15° 30° or 45°. If you must use an elbow kits to shift the chimney for any reason, the lesser degree of the elbow, the better.  If you must install the chimney at the exterior of the home, the chimney should be enclosed in an insulated structure to maintain a warm chimney. A fireplace with the chimney installed within the home will be much easier to light and operate then one with the chimney installed on the outside.

If you considering installing a mantel on your fireplace, you need to refer to the specific fireplace installation manual for the proper clearances. Keep in mind that most manufactures will test for mantels up to a maximum depth of 12”.  A wood burning fireplace will also require an minimum 18” non-combustible hearth extension. Again, you will need to refer to the installation manual as some appliances now require thermal or K factor for protection from the heat, as well as, sparks. Tile on the floor may not be enough.

As with all home improvement projects, check with your local authorities having jurisdiction for specific and permit requirements before starting the installation. It is a good idea to consider having your fireplace installed by a WETT certified professional.

Your new fireplace will require some regular maintenance. Do not completely remove the ash from the bottom of the fireplace. Always leave about 1” of ash to help reflect the heat back up to the fire. Dispose of ash in a metal container with a lid. You never know if there is still some hot coals there. It is recommended that fireplace and chimney system be inspected and cleaned yearly (more often if you become a heavy user) by a WETT certified chimney sweep.

As a friend of mine once told me, The best things in life are like a fine bottle of wine, a great cappuccino or a fantastic meal may cost a little more and take a little extra effort, but in the end it is worth it. Maybe this is the time to get yours.