Fireplaces: Style and Substance

New technology makes it easy to add or replace a fireplace anywhere, while improving energy efficiency and indoor air quality.

May 31, 2003


Gas firepits can be installed poolside or on a deck, then finished with a prefab surround or custom stone or brick.

As a remodeling contractor, have you ever been asked to install a fireplace in a master bath, a basement, a kitchen or on a deck? Chances are good that if you haven't yet, you will be soon. Recent fireplace technology advances have created new and exciting possibilities in a number of areas.

Gas inserts

With the advent of clean air concerns, both inside and outside the home, wood-burning fireplaces are not as popular as they once were. Many existing fireplaces have broken dampers, chimneys that need constant cleaning and piles of ashes to be cleaned out. And, who really enjoys hauling in chunks of wood and making a big mess? Enter the gas insert, high-efficiency fireplace.

Combined with a thermostat or remote control, a gas insert fireplace is the perfect way to convert an old fireplace and a great upsell for the contractor. The average cost to provide and install an insert with gas line runs between $2,000 and $2,600.


The firebox of the Heat-N-Glo F-B Grand gas insert is molded out of one solid piece of ceramic fiber material, creating an attractive, authentic appearance. The Grand has an expanded viewing area for a full view of the fire.

Almost any existing fireplace can be retrofitted with a gas insert in a myriad of attractive styles. This is true for the traditional masonry fireplace as well as the prefabricated wood-burning fireplace. According to Matt Schulte, sales manager at Western Fireplace Supply in Colorado Springs, Colo., "Fireplace manufacturers are focusing on fireplaces that are more a piece of furniture than an appliance. Inserts are a cost-effective way to convert an existing, inefficient wood-burner to a high-efficient, gas burning fireplace."

Another benefit of gas inserts is they can be fitted with a fan kit for greater heat circulation. One serious drawback for many inserts has been the diminished viewing area of the fire, as it takes a smaller firebox to slip into an existing fireplace. Look for models with an expanded viewing area.

Installation of gas inserts is a fairly painless process (assuming you use a professional fireplace contractor). The good news for you is that the firebox, face and rear of the existing fireplace generally do not need any modifications. Two 3-inch diameter aluminum pipes or "liners" are installed through the chimney — one for exhaust and one for intake or combustion air. (Note: The owner should have the chimney swept and cleaned prior to installation of the insert.) The top of the chimney is capped to prevent cold air downdraft and to create a totally sealed system.


Most manufacturers offer a slim-line type of direct vent fireplace requiring minimal space, typically retailing around $1,500 or less (without installation). A rough opening depth of around 16 inches allows most direct vents to be installed in a variety of locations.

The most difficult part of the installation can be getting the gas line fed into the firebox, if one is not already present. Many traditional and prefab fireplaces have gas log starters, which makes the installation a breeze. The challenge comes with a masonry firebox and no gas line in sight. Slab-on-grade homes compound the problem. These obstacles can generally be solved with a creative gas installer and a flexible homeowner. Check with your local building official before getting too creative.

Direct vents

What if a home doesn't have an existing fireplace, but your client wants to add one? Innovative fireplace technology has solved that problem with the direct vent fireplace.

All direct vent fireplaces are "zero clearance" units, meaning they can be installed within 1/2 inch of combustible materials. They don't require a chimney and can be installed in areas not thought of a few years ago, such as in a basement or under a window.

There are three basic ways to install a direct vent fireplace. First, a corner location is probably the easiest. The loss of floor area is not too great, and it is fairly simple to frame and trim a diagonal space in a convenient corner of a great room or basement. The vent piping can go off to either side and then direct vent straight out the wall.

Next is the traditional cabinet style. Generally installed against a flat wall, the cabinet can be framed from the floor to ceiling or can terminate just above the firebox to create a niche or plant shelf. A custom or antique fireplace surround and mantel gives it just the right finish.

Finally, if losing floor space is an issue, a "doghouse" with a shed roof can be built on the outside of the house. In this manner, the front of the unit is installed flush with the interior of the wall, saving precious square feet of floor space. This is obviously the most expensive of the three methods due to the additional cost of framing, insulation, exterior materials and roofing.

Direct vents as well as gas inserts utilize sealed combustion chamber technology. This means that 100% of combustion byproducts are expelled outside the home and outside air is used for "make-up" or combustion air. In this way, the unit doesn't use conditioned or heated inside air, and cool air cannot enter the home through a chimney or open flue. The air quality in the house is not degraded, nor does the home's air pressure fluctuate.

Both direct vent and insert type fireplaces can be AFUE rated, meaning they are tested to the same standards as today's high-efficiency furnaces. These units can be used in the official heat calculations of a home and actually can reduce the use of the existing furnace.


As noted earlier, fireplaces are popping up all over the house. The Bed and Breakfast gas fireplace from Fireplace Xtrordinair is a small, compact unit designed for intimate settings such as bedrooms and baths. Heat-N-Glo's CFX-Crescent was created for the kitchen, with a flip-down warming shelf and arched front. And, scheduled for release later this year is the Looking Glass fireplace by Fireplace Xtrordinair. Installed high off the floor, its flames lend a charming ambience to any entryway, and it looks like a mirror when not in use.

And let's not forget the new living space of today's homes — the great outdoors. Everything from fire pits to patio campfires enhances our appreciation of the outside space. Several manufacturers have stainless steel fireplaces that are rustproof and can be installed on a deck or patio.

Fireplaces always have been a charming and valuable addition to the home, and now they can add ambience as well as highly efficient functionality.

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