It comes as no surprise that 9-out-of-10 American homes burned wood for heat a little more than a century ago. Likewise, it's also probably not news that the number dwindled to less than 1% by the 1970s. After all, who wants to chop and stack cordwood when you can set the thermostat to be comfortable? Perhaps that's why Paul Bunyan is so rarely spotted around town these days.
Still, there is something irresistible about the warmth of a crackling fire. That appeal probably explains why fireplaces and wood-burning heating stoves haven't disappeared in many communities, and that upgrades such as energy efficient inserts and stoves are common.
Our house fit somewhere in between the new school and traditional infernos. For years we used our fireplace only on special occasions. But we didn't have many fires because, due to a design quirk in our 1970's vintage structure in the Colorado foothills, the hearth faced the dining room--not the adjoining living room. As a result, the living room was chilly, featuring only the back of a moss-rock chimney. And why make a fire for the dining room? Nobody lingers for three hours at table, sipping coffee and commenting on blazing logs. If anything, we might curse the clattering flue damper that blew open in gusty weather and open fireplace screen which added to drafts in our already leaky home. As my colleague Drew reminded us, keeping a flue shut is an easy way to be more energy efficient. But despite a bungee cord, we couldn't get ours to comply.
While we debated adding a wood pellet-burning stove, there wasn't enough room. So we decided to take a leap back in time—while still being cutting edge by cutting energy bills—and re-build a two-sided fireplace that includes the living room. As a bonus, we added a damper that actually closes and tempered glass fire doors to reduce the draw as the embers burned out.
After the work was completed by the Michelangelo of masons, the two-sided hearth worked perfectly. While it doesn't compare in efficiency with my brother-in-law's 47,300 BTU Quadra Fire Classic Bay pellet-burning stove—which keeps his basement floor toasty—it does crank out. And by keeping our thermostat turned down to about 55 degrees, we can now enjoy a cozy feeling in the living room when the logs are ablaze. While pellet-burning stoves may burn more cleanly, they do require some electricity (estimated at $9 per month on average) to run, and have parts that can break. Not so with the fireplace. The only decision we have to make is when to get up from the dinner table and saunter around to the other side of chimney where three-hour conversations can take place in the retro-glow of our living room.
Ernie Tucker is editor of the weekly EERE Network News newsletter who is spending an increasing amount of his winter leisure time stoking a renovated fireplace, which his cats appreciate as much as his family does.