Fireplaces Add Glow to Heart and Home

During August's heat wave, I spent a sweltering evening watching a rerun of the classic "A Night to Remember." Sure, I knew how it would come out (Iceberg 1, Titanic 0), but I still get a kind of tragic thrill out of hearing the band play "Nearer My God to Thee."

Still, August is a bad time to try to empathize with the doomed passengers. There you are, running with sweat, praying for a breeze, and watching dozens of people leap into icy water. I wanted to put the splashes on freeze-frame; it looked wonderful.

I actually got irritated. What's the matter with these people, I thought. They're acting as if a little dog-paddle in the North Atlantic wouldn't be refreshing. Heck, I'd be doing cannonballs off the stern.

It is in this spirit that I now bring up the subject of fireplaces.

Oh, sure, now you want to hear about it. Where were you on the Fourth of July when the fireplace industry needed you? Well, never mind; you're freezing now, and a crackling fire in the hearth sounds like just the thing. You want one.

But which one? Isn't there a mind-bending, breathtaking array of hearths out there, from marble to flagstone to carved wood to the stuff they make the Space Shuttle tiles out of?

Yes, there is. But first, a note on semantics: Hearths are the structures that surround fireplaces. Fireplaces are where the fire is, and they are our subject today. And, for often-balmy Southern California, our choices of fireplaces are comfortingly limited: wood or natural gas.

(Yes, there are coal-burning fireplaces, and those big ceramic stoves that turn the home into a virtual wintertime sauna, but these are for people whose wardrobe is 99% L.L. Bean. Remember, we're still in a temperate climate zone.)

A wood fire does set the imagination dancing, and wood fireplaces have become popular items for home remodelers, says Bonnie Richins of Anaheim Patio and Fireside. Ease of installation is one reason. Wood-burning fireplaces can be installed with what is known as "zero clearance": The fireplace is sufficiently insulated so that it can be installed nearly flush with an existing wall.

However, she said, the wood stove generates a lot of heat, so much that it must be built into an outside wall or, in the case of a free-standing fireplace of the kind seen in many mountain cabins, vented to the air outside through a vertical pipe.

In wall units, there is a vent apart from the chimney that acts as a safety feature, ensuring that the fire is not being drafted only by the chimney, which can build up heat. The wood fireplace also requires a screen or a glass door to keep sparks from flying into the room, and you may want to invest in a good set of fireplace tools to leisurely poke at the fire.

Consider, too, how the fireplace is to be lined. Steel offers radiant heat, which warms your body if you're close to it, but is less warming of the ambient air. Cast iron tends to warm larger areas, as does soapstone. Both these materials also retain heat longer after the fire has gone out.

The most common fireplace in Southern California, however, is fueled by natural gas, Richins said. Apart from the convenience of being able to get a fire going simply by pushing a button or flicking a switch, the gas fireplace offers more design versatility.

It isn't necessary, for instance, to have a chimney with a gas fireplace, because no solid materials are being burned and the temperature is therefore lower. All that's needed is a vent to an outside wall in many cases. Richins compared the vent to a similar exhaust that extends from the back of clothes dryers.

Also, Richins said, because of its lower heat, a gas fireplace can be placed even closer to surrounding structures than can one of its wood-burning cousins.

Remodeling a room to accommodate a fireplace generally isn't difficult, Richins said, but it is essentially a two-part project: The fireplace itself can be bought from a dealer, but the hearth around it requires the services of a contractor and perhaps a designer.

Prices for zero-clearance fireplaces generally start around $500, with free-standing wood stoves starting around $800. The top end for both is about $1,200, she said. With the hearth, of course, imagination may be the only limit.

Still, if you're looking for an add-on that is one of the surer bets to jack up the value of your home, a fireplace may be your project.

Just don't fire it up while you've got "Backdraft" on the VCR. Rent a nice copy of "Ice Station Zebra" instead.

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