Warm in style: Fireplaces offer heating alternative

Written by Kathy Weiss

Warm up your winter with the soft glow of flames dancing in the fireplace. Relaxing and peaceful, there's something mesmerizing about gazing into a fire that warms the soul.

It's a domestic ritual that humans have been drawn to since caveman days, borne out of necessity when an open fire was the only source of interior heat. Today most homes have at least one fireplace, but they are more an aesthetic enhancement than a practical means of heating a home.

In fact, the majority of existing wood burning fireplaces actually rob heat from the home, says Steve Martin, general manager of Ralston Creek, a Coralville business that sells and installs fireplaces and wood stoves.

"It sucks the heat right out and up the chimney," Steve says, which is why many homeowners choose to upgrade their old fireplace with a more efficient unit that produces measurable warmth and burns less wood. Such options have expanded greatly in recent years.

Steve recommends Heat & Glo wood burning fireplaces, designed with numerous door options and traditional or more refined herringbone brick interior that can make the hearth the centerpiece of any room.

Heat & Glo's environmentally friendly North Star unit meets the strictest EPA standards for low particulate matter emissions and is capable of producing heat up to 70,000 BTUs per hour. With two standard fans and optional heat zone kits, the North Star can warm more than one room. Similarly, the Energy Master Series features high heat output and maximum viewing of burning embers in a variety of styles that would fit any d├ęcor.

"Some people want to go with a fireplace insert," Steve noted, which is like "putting a stove inside the fireplace." High efficiency inserts operate like a furnace to heat the home, which saves money in energy costs over time. "It will pay for itself in four to five years," he adds.

A popular choice at Ralston Creek comes from Lopi, made in Washington state, with a five-sided convection chamber that distributes warm air throughout the home. In case of a power outage, the wood-burning insert can keep your entire house comfortable.Some models even have a radiant cooking surface.

Rising energy costs are causing many budget-conscious consumers to consider a freestanding wood stove, which generates adequate heat for small and mid-sized homes. A smart choice during times of energy crisis, Steve says "people are starting to put these in again. This is how we got started," he pointed out, adding that Ralston Creek has been in business since 1977. Newer wood stoves are designed to be visually appealing with larger windows that let you watch the fire.

Today's more sophisticated homeowners want beauty, efficiency and convenience, which has fueled the demand for gas fireplaces, now placed in more newly-built homes than wood burners. Just hit a remote control, flip a switch or turn a thermostat for instant heat. If you decide to head out to dinner, you won't have to wait for the fire to go out. Heat & Glo gas fireplaces also come in three-sided, corner and a see-through style that serves two rooms at once, all of which are popular choices, Steve says.

A fireplace in every room? Steve calls them "niche" fireplaces - petite, wall-hung decorative units that are being installed in small entryways, hallways, kitchens, bathrooms, offices and bedrooms. One example with amazing options is the Looking Glass portrait-style gas fireplace from Lopi, faced with one-way mirror glass that transforms it into an ornately framed mirror when not in use. It also has a special compartment for aromatherapy.

The growing popularity of outdoor rooms is creating yet another trend: Outdoor fireplaces that can turn a patio into a cozy gathering space. Available in wood burning or gas, a stand-alone unit with a tile and stucco exterior to withstand the elements, is available in a range of colors.

Indoors and out, wood or gas, fireplace sales are heating up locally and that's good news for those who like to linger in front of the hearth. Parcheesi anyone?