Tomorrow’s fireplace today is fire as art.
Take the Xtreme.
It’s not enough to call Fireplace Xtrordinair’s Xtreme a “fireplace.” It just doesn’t quite do it justice. The creation is a fire viewing appliance, a new way to display and see what it means today to start a fire in the home.
But, whatever you call it, the Xtreme is where technology goes when burning wood becomes a threat to the planet.
This summer, the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board adopted the strictest rules yet for fires in the hearth. All new and remodeled fireplaces and inserts, including gas, wood, pellet or other biomass-burning devices must meet Environmental Protection Agency emission guidelines and be labeled as such. The rules also continue the wood burning ban during “Spare the Air” days for older fireplaces as well as limitations on wood burning that produces smoke exceeding 20 percent opacity. Also, unseasoned firewood must be clearly labeled as containing more than 20 percent moisture and it must come with instructions for drying it out.
No problem for the Xtreme. It was named Best In Show at the Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association’s annual Vesta Awards in 2007 because it represents where technology goes when function must follow form in the hearth.
A natural gas or propane fired appliance, the Xtreme is designed for higher placement than the conventional floor-level hearth. Install it at counter level, eye level or in a wall above a bed, the Xtreme’s cool-to-the touch viewing aperture gets mounted flush with the wall to provide an elongated five-foot-by-two-foot panorama of hushed fire shimmering on a bed of crumbled glass, behind simulated bamboo or driftwood. Forget the grills and louvers. Wall and remote controlled, the 95,000 BTUs of heat generated can be vented to three living areas.
Add raised or flat framing in a hue that blends with the surrounding wall or frame it in geometric panels of stainless steel and you’ve got a piece of art that’s really on fire for around $5,000 — before installation.
The Xtreme is the extreme for those today converting wood-burning fireplaces to gas units. Such units are often firebox inserts with gas logs and doors, but they aren’t very energy efficient unless you run a gas line for an insert that creates a “greener” zone heating source.
But burning gas is hot because the clean-burning fuel and clean-air technology combine to make products that easily comply with air quality rules.
You can also add a wood burning insert or new fireplace to the hearth and continue to use the existing chimney, typically with some modifications to the flue, but only so long as the new work and product is in compliance with air quality rules. Without the new technology or adequate ventilation emissions levels could be illegal. Backdrafts caused by today’s tighter homes can allow smoke from wood burning fireplaces to enter the home.
So it’s no surprise that the most sought after built-in fireplaces, inserts, or do-overs are gas-fired, sealed combustion fireboxes that vents directly outside. Direct venting bypasses the need for and the upkeep of a hearth-to-roof chimney or flue while also preventing all combustion by-products from entering indoor air space. Gas fireplaces can be fitted with simulated logs (that mimic glowing embers and charred logs), other exotic elements (like crumbled glass or polished rocks) and technology to render the natural blue flame of burning gas a more desirable yellow glow, to simulate the flames of burning wood.
Offering more than just radiated heat, gas fireplace options include thermostats, blowers and warm air venting to circulate heated air at just the right temperature. Along with the gas fireplace in the traditional hearth there are also free-standing urban models, corner units for cottages, dual-sided and surround fireplaces, as well as arty wall-flush units. Many allow adjacent, above or below placement of real art, a window, or a wide screen home movie panel. Gas-fired technology also makes it safe to install a fireplace pretty much anywhere you want, including bathrooms and bedrooms.
And you don’t need to take out a home equity loan for the job. For $5,000 to $10,000 you can transform a room with glowing appeal. And, if you need a traditional hearth to give your gas burner the authenticity of a wood burning fireplace you can add masonry mantels and hearths in limestone, quartz and other mineral products that offer the same heat radiating properties of old brick fireplaces.
Bio-mass burners still have their place. The ICC/RSF’s Renaissance Rumford 1000 was a triple-crown winner in the 2008 Vesta competition — best wood burning fireplace, best low-emission wood burning fireplace and Best in Show overall. And Quadra Fire’s Mt. Vernon pellet burning insert was the Vesta winner in 2006.
With the rising cost of natural gas, cheaper-fuel bio-mass burners remain in vouge and can burn wood, pellets, shelled corn, wheat and sunflower seeds.
While the special grade of corn to burn doesn’t pop, the aroma of popped corn can be an added pleasure.
Q&A On Hearth Care And Upkeep
Q: More and more often today’s newly installed or upgraded fireplaces are closed systems — direct vented, gas powered fireplaces with a sealed combustion firebox. What’s to maintain?
A: That’s right, but with the new gas inserts you still have to keep an eye out for carbon buildup caused by burning gas in a manner not recommended by the owner’s manual. If you have not upgraded to a new closed insert and are still burning wood in an old open fireplace, or a fireplace insert, stove or other appliance installed in the old firebox, you have to regularly clean and maintain the equipment. If you are burning wood (only seasoned hardwoods, like oak, maple, madrone), pellets or other combustibles, you have to clean out the ash once or twice a week and make sure the damper is working properly.
New or old equipment, if you are still using the old chimney and firebox, even with an insert, you have to be on the alert for even minimal seismic activity that, over time, can pull the chimney away from the house. Seasonal wear and tear can also damage mortar joints and the concrete chimney cap that helps keep moisture out. Regular inspections can detect problems.
Q: How often should these items be inspected?
A: With a new direct-vent insert, refer to your owners manual for care and upkeep. Again, for older wood-burning hearths that still use the original chimney, have your chimney and firebox inspected and cleaned after burning an amount of wood that equals a full cord of wood. A full cord of word measures 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by eight feet long and has a volume of 128 cubic feet. Two level loads of wood in a pick up with an 8-foot bed approximates a full cord.
The inspection with a high powered light source or video camera can identify maintenance needs such as cracks, mortar deterioration, seismic damage, soot build up and other hazardous conditions. Professional cleaning helps reduce any fire hazard and helps reveal problem areas. Also have the old firebox and chimney thoroughly inspected and cleaned before installing a new insert designed to use the existing chimney.
Q: Who should do the inspection and maintenance?
A: Follow manufactures’ guidelines for new appliances. For older chimney-vented, wood-burning fireplaces, hire a guild-certified chimney sweep. A sweep with a contractor’s, mason’s or similar license is a plus.