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Home is where the hearth is

Jun 06, 2023Jun 06, 2023

If you ask Jen Pinto to describe the ugliest fireplace she’s encountered in her years as an interior designer, there’s no hesitation.

“It was in a home by the water with a 1970s design,” she recalled. “It had dated stone columns on either side with a mirror above the firebox opening, while the rest of the fireplace was painted white brick. It was really ugly.”

Pinto, a senior interior designer with Jackson Design and Remodeling, was able to transform the wood-burning fireplace by pushing out the exterior wall to create a pair of alcoves with inset shelves and white cabinets on either side. She replaced the brick and the mirror with more contemporary stacked natural stone for a cozy, rustic feel; added a white oak mantel; and outfitted the firebox opening with a screen pattern resembling sea kelp to complement its coastal setting.

Unless you’ve recently moved into a new construction home, chances are good that if your home is more than 15 or 20 years old and has a fireplace, it’s likely to be wood-burning (even if it has a gas insert). And its facade may appear too dated for today’s sleeker styles. Think heavy red brick or bulky, rustic rock that makes you think it’s ready for climbing instead of lighting.

“We still see a lot of brick in houses we’re asked to redesign,” Pinto said. “A lot of people want to get rid of the brick for a more updated look.”

But another complaint she hears is whether the old fireplace is functioning correctly: Is it letting too much smoke in the house, or is it even radiating enough heat into the room?

“It’s more than just an ambiance thing,” she added. “A lot of people want to feel cozy next to a fire, and it’s just not hot enough. You’d think wood-burning fireplaces would generate a lot of heat, but the way that a chimney works, heat rises, and with a wood-burning fireplace the chimney pulls it up and out so it’s not as hot as you think it’s going to be.”

As romantic as a wood-burning fireplace may seem, it’s not only inefficient if you’re trying to heat a room: It’s also an environmental and health hazard. In 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an update to its 2017 National Emissions Inventory. It noted that wood-burning devices, including fireplaces, are significant sources of air pollution in the U.S., emitting large amounts of fine particulate matter, called PM2.5, volatile organic compounds, and hazardous air pollutants that the EPA noted are known to contribute to “poor human health, air quality, and visibility.” The EPA explained that in addition to PM2.5, wood smoke contains several toxic air pollutants, including benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

In other words, it may smell cozy, but it’s not good for your health.

Consequently, pointed out Eli Cendejas, operations manager at Fireplaces Plus, states and municipalities — and even some homeowners associations — have banned the use of or construction of wood-burning fireplaces and even gas fireplaces, allowing only electric. In San Diego, however, the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District’s public information officer Melina Meza said that they have no rule that addresses fireplace usage because, “there isn’t a high usage in San Diego.” That doesn’t mean some local municipalities haven’t instituted them.

What many homeowners are opting for these days are gas and electric models.

Lynn Siemer, director of design at Blythe Interiors, said that most of their clients are converting their gas and wood-burning fireplaces to electric.

“Electric inserts have come a long way and are easy to install, take up less space and can be controlled smartly and remotely,” she explained. “And clients want something that looks as real as possible. Plus, they feel they’ll use them more because all they need is a remote to turn them on and off.”

Siemer also pointed out another potential benefit for people who want to have a TV over the fireplace.

“What’s really nice about an electric fireplace is that we can both lower the mantel and the TV because there’s no heat issue,” she explained.

And some designers have set soundbars inside faux fireplace mantels, no longer worrying about heat issues.

Electric fireplaces don’t produce real flames, said Cendejas, although they create the illusion of flickering flames using a spinning light refractor or flame filament that bounces light from a light bulb, often an LED.

Some models include a heater as well.

“Some do have a heater, which is basically a 1,500-watt heater that’s designed to heat up about 5,000 square feet, depending on the manufacturer,” he said.

Cendejas explained that electric inserts can be inserted into an existing fireplace, but that requires an electrician to run power to the inside of the firebox. If the firebox has a gas line, that will need to be capped off. And, he added, the top of the chimney must be sealed to make sure no rainwater drops onto the electric fireplace.

In terms of design, they’re available in a variety of styles and can be installed on walls that didn’t previously have a fireplace.

Gas fireplaces can create a cozy fire — just using a realistic-looking ceramic log or other media like tempered glass rocks or faux pebbles. You can even add geometric shapes, cast iron fire jacks, and lava rock. And gas fireplaces can be controlled with the touch of a switch, your thermostat, or a remote control. There’s no sweeping up ashes. There’s no smoke. They actually do produce flames — and heat using a blower and heat release system. Because they produce heat, they require sealed glass to cover the unit.

“On top of that should be a mesh screen or ‘double glass,’” explained Pinto. “The mesh is a code requirement because the glass gets really hot. Double glass, which is more expensive, eliminates the look of the mesh. It’s a way of preventing you or a child or a pet from getting burned touching that hot glass.”

Cendejas noted that you may need to have a gas line installed if you don’t have one or a line moved or redone if it’s not in the right place or not up to code. Pinto suggested looking into heat management technologies, which can draw heat from the fireplace outside to reduce wall temperatures above and around the fireplace.

“If it’s a unit you’re going to use on a regular basis and is a focal point that you want to place a TV on, then heat management is something you certainly should consider,” she said. “And those units cost more money.”

With these options, there’s still the matter of styling.

For a gas fireplace without heat management, Pinto suggested that the best surface for a fireplace would be small-scale tiles, like a mosaic because the multiple grout lines can expand and contract without cracking, unlike oversized tiles or even plaster.

She added, though, that clients often want their fireplace to be a focal point in a room, which can be achieved with scale, materials, or design. When choosing materials, the trend is toward oversize tile, tile with the appearance of stone, or natural stones like limestone.

Siemer has found that she loves to transform former brick, stone, or 1980s travertine tile surrounds with large format, textured tile; on-trend subway tiles in herringbone; or unique tiles.

“We often add a custom, clean-line wood mantel,” she said, noting that her clients often go for minimalism.

“We have clients that have a linear electric fireplace, the TV above it, and drywall around it and that’s it. So, it’s a very minimalistic look,” she said.

And she pointed out that a lot of builders placed fireplaces off center in the late ‘90s and early 2000s with a big cutout above for TVs.

“People are hiring us to move them, just demo the entire wall and start over,” she said.

And if the replacement is what’s called a “pancake fireplace,” meaning an electric fireplace that’s only 8 inches deep, it can go where a fireplace wasn’t before with some ease. Additional styling could include cutting a niche into the wall for a TV so it blends seamlessly with the wall.

Cendejas suggested that any modifications involving gas or electrical work should be done by a contractor, who should also pull local permits if they’re required. And, he emphasized, before buying anything, if you live in a community with an homeowners association, make sure you follow its rules, as well as any municipal regulations.

Golden is a San Diego freelance writer and blogger.