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Fireplaces: New rules

Wood burning still allowed in Benicia
by Steve McKee on December 26, 2008

It seems everybody has heard that the rules for fireplaces have changed. They have.

The new regs go something like this: If you already have a wood burning fireplace you will get to keep using it, except on “spare the air days” as declared by the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board. Benicia gets its mandates for fireplace rules from this agency. For new construction you can still install wood burning devices (it’s true, at least for now) but they will have to be environmentally friendly “EPA certified” models. These EPA models can be decked out with all the trappings of a traditional fireplaces with mantles and hearths in any fashion that you desire, but with one notable difference – there’s a metal and glass hatch over the front of the firebox (similar to what you’re used to seeing on wood burning stoves.) The hatch creates a sealed fire chamber that lets the wood burn hotter and cleaner with fewer particulates released.

More favored these days in new construction are the gas-only fireplaces. They also happen to be the most environmentally friendly choice. Many models of varying size and styles are offered. Check out websites for “Heatilator” and “Kozy.” These are the “fake log” variety of fireplace (the industry prefers the term “decorative log”) that might be difficult at first for purists to embrace, but keep in mind the many advantages of such a gas fireplace. There is no mess (ever) and the fire is achieved with the easy flick of a switch (remote control is available too.) Make sure the little tufts of rock wool that come with the unit are placed by your installer under the concrete logs to achieve the look of red glowing embers. It really helps our enjoyment of a fire to see those embers.

The good news is that the new gas-only fireplaces are efficient at actually heating the room, like a small furnace. Some have blowers built in, but plenty of heat gets added without any blower, just by all the warmth these fireboxes are radiating into the room. It makes it easier to enjoy the fire knowing the gas you’re burning (and paying for) isn’t just sending heat up the flue to be lost. Some fireplaces are so efficient at converting the gas to heat (with little exhaust gasses) that it’s acceptable to forego a chimney and exhaust these units out through a sidewall of your house. Even with the convenience of going sideways out a wall with these “direct-vent” models, I like to take the metal flue up and out the roof in a small chimney in order to avoid the look of the convoluted ugly metal exhaust box on the side of the house (the word “contraption” comes to mind.) In earthquake country we all like the way the direct-vent model fireplaces have metal flues that are so lightweight compared to the heavy and seismically threatening brick chimneys of old.

Don’t confuse gas log lighters on old wood burning fireplaces with the efficient gas fireplaces that I’m talking about. If the fireplace is open to the room with no glass enclosure then they are the old fashioned variety – charming to be sure, but an energy waster.

An important code requirement for newly installed fireplaces is that they have a glass enclosure to ensure room air is not drawn into the fireplace. Whether you have an old style wood burning fireplace, an EPA model or a standard gas-only fireplace, the glass enclosure is keeping the heated air in your house from being siphoned up your chimney and out of your home. Without the glass enclosure in place, cold air is then drawn in through cracks in doors and windows elsewhere around your house to make up for the air being exhausted out into the sky by your fireplace. Not quite the effect we were after. That glass enclosure is your friend.

I could write a whole column about the seductive draw of fire, the dance of the light and energy, the hypnotic pulse of the red embers, and how it’s almost a basic human need to enjoy it. Like you, I dig a good fire. I even plan my backpack trips to stay within wilderness zones where campfires are allowed. So I was especially interested when I recently watched a Discovery channel show concerning “early man” and had it pointed out to me how there had to have been a first time, momentous in the history of the planet, when one of the world’s inhabitants didn’t just routinely flee from a fire, perhaps a tree struck by lightening, but instead used willpower to overcome that fear. The result of that human initiative was an extraordinary payoff wherein cold and darkness were banished. Predators were kept at bay; food could be cooked and made soft by fire. The nightly gathering of people at the fire fostered the development of language. For hundreds of thousands of years fire was the magic source of a better life. No wonder it’s practically built into us to enjoy a good fire.

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