Valentine’s Day is all about flowers, chocolate and romantic dates. And nothing says romance quite like cuddling in front of a fireplace. These architectural features are popular for both indoor and outdoor spaces, with an intriguing array of new technologies and formats for almost every homeowner.
Having a fire feature is no longer limited to winning bids on real estate listings boasting fireplaces. You can add your own in more ways, styles and places than ever before – with comfort, health and safety benefits. “It seems that every home wants some type of fire feature,” shared Sharon L. Sherman, a Northern New Jersey-based interior designer, in an email for this article. Always popular in great rooms, “principal bedroom and bathrooms, libraries, wine rooms, and even kitchens are gaining in popularity,” she added.
Fire features are also increasingly popular for outdoor living, where they can add comfort as well as ambiance, on chilly winter nights. In those spaces, traditional fireplace configurations are being augmented with fire pits and fire tables surrounded by seating groups.
Fire features are not just great for romance. They can be good for your physical and mental health when safely enjoyed. “Sitting by a fireplace generates a soothing and relaxing feeling, tranquility, and enjoyment,” pointed out Andrea De Vizcaya Ruiz, associate professor of environmental health at the University of California Irvine, in an emailed response to questions about their health-related pros and cons. She pointed to studies showing blood pressure decreases and relaxation from sitting near fireplaces.
They are not without problems though. House fires and accidental burns have been hazards since before records were kept on this topic. Building codes and manufacturing improvements have helped increase safety in recent years, but research has uncovered health hazards associated with fuel types, similar to those cited for gas cooking appliances.
This is less of an issue with fire features in outdoor rooms, De Vizcaya Ruiz noted. “The emission is diluted into open air and sitting within a sufficient space reduces the risk of inhaling toxic pollutants.” Keeping two or three feet between most users and fire features is recommended for wood-burning fire features outside, she commented. People with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions should take extra care, she warned though, since even low exposure can trigger adverse health effects. Adequate ventilation and distance are key with indoor fireplaces, she noted.
Fire Feature Trends
“Electric fireplaces are the fastest-growing segment and for good reasons!” emailed fireplace manufacturer Napoleon’s vice president of marketing David Brown. “Beyond the fossil fuel issue, the quality/realism of electric fireplaces has improved immensely.” That was definitely on display in several booths at the recent International Builder’s Show, with notable improvements over past years’ offerings.
“The old electric ones were not very attractive,” Sherman recalled, noting that gas bans are helping to accelerate development of better alternatives. “I still prefer a real flame from gas or wood, but when you cannot vent a fire feature, electric is the way to go,“ she suggested. “We have installed linear gas and linear electric. We have converted traditional wood burning fireplaces with gas inserts and we have even installed a biofuel fireplace,” the designer added.
A Heat & Glo IBS representative said electric is an extremely strong focus for the company today. Its latest model uses digital imagery to create a realistic-looking experience. One fireplace contractor with his own IBS booth put a Touchstone electric fireplace in his personal residence, and said he is recommending them for client projects, indoors and out.
“I am seeing the convenience of gas and electric outweighing wood-burning fire features,” Sherman reported. There are also areas in the country where wood-burning fireplaces have long been restricted or banned for environmental reasons.
“In general there are four types of fireplaces,” De Vizcaya Ruiz explained: “Wood (nice to view and feel, generates heat, yet it is least efficient and releases air pollutants like particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, etc.); gas (more energy-efficient, yet also generates carbon monoxide); electric (flameless, uses coil and a fan to distribute heat, cozy and nice to view, more ecological, but does not generate a lot of heat), and ethanol (does not produce any smoke, ventilation is not required, opposite to the other previously mentioned, ecological, and also nice to the view but does not generate much heat either).
Biofuel, also called bi-ethanol fuel, is produced from crops like corn and is a cleaner-burning source than gas. As House Beautiful noted in a 2020 biofuel fireplace explainer, it doesn’t need to be vented and doesn’t create indoor air quality issues, but has some drawbacks, including lack of heat and slow starts.
Randall Veenstra is a Northern New Jersey-based general contractor who works with Sherman on her designs. While they’ve specified all types, as the designer noted, “For our projects, 98% of the fire features we are installing are gas,” he commented in a written response to questions. Building codes can be challenging, he noted, and often vary from county to county, even town to town.
“Both gas and wood-burning fire features must be vented to the outside,” Veenstra commented, and this isn’t always possible. He cites those instances as being good sites for biofuel or electric fireplaces. Many wellness- and environmentally minded homeowners prefer these cleaner installations regardless of need or law.
“It really is about the ambiance and the romance of a fire flame, not the fuel source,” concluded Sherman. Being able to add a fire feature to your home safely and easily can enhance its resale value, (according to Redfin and Zillow), and your enjoyment year-round.
Contributors De Vizcaya Ruiz, Sherman and Veenstra will be sharing more fire feature insights in an hour-long Clubhouse conversation tomorrow afternoon (February 15, 2023) at 4 pm Eastern/1 pm Pacific. You can save the date and join this WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS discussion here. If you’re unable to attend, you can catch the recording via Clubhouse Replays here or the Gold Notes design blog here next Wednesday.