Any downsides to a wood burning fireplace?
April 9, 2015 5:01 PM   Subscribe

Are there any downsides, or things I need to know before looking for a house with a wood burning fireplace?

I've always liked the idea of a wood burning fireplace, but both of the houses I've owned have only had gas logs. Gas logs just don't have the campfire smell and rustic look of a real fireplace that I've been looking for though. Is there some reason that real fireplaces are less common that gas logs (e.g. dirties your ceiling with smoke particles? lets too much heat escape?)
posted by tz to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
They aren't great for the environment/air quality, especially if you are in an area with frequent inversion layers (Denver/Boulder, CO and Southern CA both issue no burn days when the air quality is poor).
posted by cecic at 5:15 PM on April 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

They're inefficient and - depending on how they were built - may smoke a huge amount. They go through a tremendous amount of wood, and you really do need to clean them and keep them maintained - and that's an expensive and dirty job. If you have to buy wood, you'll probably regret it. If you have plenty of land and dead trees that you have to cut up and cart, you will probably regret it too - it's heavy work.

That said, I grew up with an open fireplace and it was wonderful! It was in the centre of the house on a concrete slab and we kept it burning pretty much continually over winter - the concrete slab will retain and radiate heat, and the back of a brick fireplace is the best place to dry your washing (or stand up against when you're waiting for the bathroom on a cold morning).

You will need a proper long handled poker (heavy duty is best because you'll need to poke and wrestle with burning logs) and a fire-screen of some sorts (mesh is good to catch sparks) for safety - particularly at night. If you're gathering your own wood, you'll also need a chainsaw (and safety gear plus some lessons), a trailer to cart logs to the house, a trolley or wagon to cart logs inside and a lot of energy. Some child labour is also useful to collect kindling and to bring in smaller logs before dinner. :)

Expect for your clothing to often smell smoky, your walls and ceiling (and everything on them) to get dirty at an incredible rate even with a clean-burning fireplace, and you will have to wade through every child and animal in your household in order to actually get to the fire to warm yourself up. Cat's are particularly adept at soaking up heat and you will be sitting in front of a roaring fire and wondering why your feet are freezing.
posted by ninazer0 at 5:31 PM on April 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

They're polluting, poor heat sources, and dealing with firewood and ashes is messy. If you like the real fire thing, I recommend a wood stove.
posted by metasarah at 6:06 PM on April 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

It is important to recognize that the beauty of a January fire is impossible to articulate, that warm glow night after night. Recycle, learn about biomass preservation, restore small ecosystems in your yard. Use the wood ash on clematis, asparagus, tomatoes and bleeding heart in the garden. Add bird feeders. Plant great fluffy shrubs, let voles live under your mulch. Balance it out. Myself, I love that fire.

So Biased
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:20 PM on April 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

nthing those who say that if you get a place with a fireplace, get a (modern, efficient, low-emission, controllable) stove insert. You'll still have the smell and a good stove will give you the flames -- not too many, because that's not efficient -- but you won't be sending most of the heat up the chimney. A big warm lump of cast iron radiates a lot of heat for a long time.

I like heating with wood, but sourcing good firewood can sometimes be a pain, storing it requires a bit of work, and hauling logs around outside on a frigid night because you miscalculated how many you'd need is not fun.
posted by holgate at 6:36 PM on April 9, 2015

You can have all of the advantages of an open fire and very few of the disadvantages by using a log burner.

In addition you will:
Use much less wood.
Have no issues with smoke etc in the house
Have the option of also using it to heat water
Have the option of using it to cook on
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:37 PM on April 9, 2015

Logs are dirty. Literally. You will have small bits of dirt and possibly bark or wood shavings or other organic stuff all around the area where you store your immediate wood supply near the fireplace. That means it takes up significantly more space, because you need the fireplace area plus some easy to clean area nearby--not to mention a large outdoor/shed/garage space to store the rest of the wood. And if you don't have a convenient indoor space to store a few logs, you'll never use it (like our fireplace which is in a completely suburban town house, up two flights of stairs with white carpet, wtf were they thinking?).
posted by anaelith at 6:52 PM on April 9, 2015

Side-remark: if you decide to go for a real fireplace, look for ones that get their makeup air from the outside, rather than the room it's in. This will be hard to find, since it involves running a duct from the outside to a point just in front of the fire and is only common among hyper-sensitive environmental people.

...but it's pretty great.
posted by aramaic at 6:56 PM on April 9, 2015

We have a nectre slow combustion stove - with an oven below. I love it. Compared to an open fireplace - there is much less smoke and much more heat. You do need to size your stove for the space it is required to warm. The slow combustion we had before this one was sized to heat a much larger area - so I like this one better as the house doesn't get as hot.

You still have to chop the wood and keep it dry which can be a pain and takes up room, and it has to be started when you want a fire - but you can increase the air flow to help with starting the fire, and then use it to bake, and cook on the top. I've never seen that done with a gas fire.

Of course there is increased pollution due to particulate matter, but we burn deadfall off our property that would be a bushfire risk anyway, so we are spreading the smoke over a longer period of time.

Anaelith is correct about the dirt aspect - but we just bring wood inside in a big galvanised bucket (sold for keeping beer in ice - so it does a double duty) there is still mess around the front of the stove however, and you need to make sure any material is cold before sucking it up the vacuum.
posted by insomniax at 7:06 PM on April 9, 2015

Our house currently has a regular fireplace and about the only time we use it is when there is a blackout in the winter (at which point it is pretty great). We don't use real wood but fireplace logs instead which are made from ???. The logs are good because the whole thing burns and leaves very little behind and you don't have to worry about insects or mice turning your stack of wood into their home. But they are probably one of the more expensive ways of keeping your house warm.

Some issues with the fireplace are that it doesn't do a great job of heating the room, although it definitely heats the area around the fireplace. Having to buy wood can be a hassle and it is one of those things which you are better off buying when you don't need it and storing it because if there is a cold-snap or power-outage then you'll have a hard time finding it at stores. You do need to get your chimney cleaned relatively regularly to get rid of all the soot or it could catch fire and burn your house down. There are products you can sprinkle on the fire to remove the soot from the chimney but I don't know how effective they are. Also birds and other animals may make the chimney their home or use it to get access to the house.

We're building a new house and were thinking between a wood stove and a gas fireplace and ended up deciding on the gas fireplace.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:26 PM on April 9, 2015

Wood burning fireplaces really do suck as a means of heating a room, but I like mine anyway. I use it sparingly to burn scraps from my wood shop. In fact I find the whole process of working with wood very satisfying, from collecting and processing logs right through to using scraps and shavings for burning. Chop wood, carry water, and so on.
posted by Poldo at 7:37 PM on April 9, 2015

You can never have birds as pets, because they have very sensitive "lungs" (air sacs) and can die from smoke inhalation. If you have free-ranging pets like dogs or cats, you will need to be VERY vigilant with them around a fire. Some dogs especially really do not understand the concept of a fire not being something you want to leap into.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 7:53 PM on April 9, 2015

An open fireplace sucks all the heat out of your room and sends it up the chimney. But a fireplace woodstove insert? That's the best. You can see the flames, and feel the heat. And because a lot of them meet strict EPA guidelines for PM 2.5, they pollute less, too. A standalone woodstove is also good.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:06 PM on April 9, 2015

A fireplace burning overnight puts out more particulates than a car does in a year of running.

These particulates are carcinogens, and also increase respiratory illness. Urban or semi urban fireplaces are a terrible thing from an environmental and public health perspective.
posted by smoke at 10:53 PM on April 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

here are some more links, that discuss how fireplaces are a public and private health disaster. they literally kill people.
posted by smoke at 11:02 PM on April 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

> Are there any downsides [to] a wood burning fireplace?

Yes - lung cancer, heart attacks and other serious health issues. See @smoke's links for more.
posted by richb at 1:57 AM on April 10, 2015

Fireplace? Inefficient, but lovely atmospherics. Burn dry wood (ie wood that has allowed the sap to dry, not just 'not wet from the rain') and preferably hardwoods (some burn better than others), and chimney cleaning can be crossed off the list.

Slow combustion fire, very good efficiency, glass door gives ok atmospherics. You need to do your homework though, there are good ones and bad. I don't understand why a glass door affects smoke behaviour, unless the reference was to stoves with doors, which by definition all s/c fires have.

Slow combustion insert in an open fire, good is that when the brick heats up, it radiates into the room(s) (unless it is in an outside wall, when it heats the air outside), better is when it is a freestanding stove, and heats up quicker, and as it is not heating the bricks, that heat goes directly into the room.

Firewood is costly, environmentally suspect at best, and (depending) can be heavy and dirty work, cleaning fires is messy.

I miss my fireplace, and I miss my s/c fire, but my thermostatically and timer controlled gas heater is pretty good.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:51 AM on April 10, 2015

This isn't a fireplace, but the following anecdata covers the same bases. I bought one of these for the old farmhouse when I was married. It's heavier than hell, so the ex got to keep it in the divorce. I don't miss it.

The smoke and dust aggravated my asthma and everyone's allergies -- she didn't even have allergy problems until this came along. It heated the room it was in and the one above it. That's all. Gathering the wood was a backbreaking misery. That had to be done in all types of weather because without the wood, there's no heat at all. Some wood burns better than other wood, and there's a lot of crap-burning wood available. Crap-burning wood doesn't heat the stove, let alone the house.

Sure, it was pretty, and it really did help when a major ice storm left us without power for two weeks. But on the whole, I'd have rather invested in another propane stove.
posted by bryon at 3:49 AM on April 10, 2015

I grew up with a fireplace, and it was something I had missed for most of my adult life despite knowing all of the inconveniences, inefficiencies and environmental concerns already mentioned in this thread. We recently got a pellet stove, and it pushes almost all of the same buttons as a fireplace; you get a nice flickering fire with the added benefit of much, much more efficient and cleaner heat. The difference in warmth in our house has been huge. They do rely on fans for operation, though, so they're not passively quiet like a wood stove or fireplace.
posted by usonian at 3:51 AM on April 10, 2015

One issue we had to deal with frequently was draftiness when the fireplace was not in use. Even with the flue closed and the glass doors shut, it was always noticeably colder near the fireplaces on really bad winter days. So much so that we took to burning several large candles in them as a means of heating the flue just enough to cut the drafts down when we didn't want a full fire.

Our second house had a 100% gas fireplace which we loved. All the heat stayed in the house, no mess to clean up, etc. It was fantastic.

Our current house has a fireplace with a comically small firebox in it. Really, we can't even figure out what the builder was thinking. There aren't even any doors installed We plan to (someday) replace it with a wood burning stove insert and in the meanwhile have stuffed a blanket into the flue to deal with the drafts.

In our area, the chimneys can (and do) attract nesting birds, to make sure you've got a cap installed.

You should plan on having a chimney sweep inspect and clean it regularly, though the schedule would probably depend on how heavy you used it. Don't burn large amounts pine...around here it's plentiful, but also resinous and gross.

We never had many smoke issues inside the house, frankly. Get a piece of newspaper, roll it up, light it on fire and jam it into the flue. You did remember to open the flue first, right? After a second, the air starts rushing up and you should be good to go to light your fire now without filling your room with smoke.
posted by jquinby at 4:42 AM on April 10, 2015

One downside that hasn't been mentioned is house insurance. Our insurance provider sends us a letter every year specifically reminding us that we have to contact them if we install a "solid-fuel burning fireplace, stove, or furnace." I don't know what the additional cost is, but it'd be worth asking your insurer.
posted by pocams at 6:16 AM on April 10, 2015

Oh man, boo to all the haters. Fireplaces are lovely and great and a sometimes treat, like cake or driving a car. If you want one, just enjoy it.
posted by dame at 10:00 AM on April 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

We recently installed a woodburning insert into our old masonry fireplace. We went from never using it to having frequent fires during the winter. You have to be extremely picky with your firewood source, though--burning anything that's 20% moisture or above will kill the efficiency and eventually coat your flue with flammable creosote.

When operated properly, the insert cranks out tons of heat and burns the wood so completely that it puts out less than 1 gram of particulate per hour of usage.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:43 AM on April 10, 2015

How much are you all paying for these fireplace inserts?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:40 AM on April 10, 2015

New? $2000 or so at the cheap end, up to $4000 and beyond, depending on how fancy you go. (Pricing's hard to find online, as it's closely held by dealers.) There were generous tax credits available some years ago for EPA-certified stove/inserts, but they're not as generous any more. Not cheap, but pays for itself over time, especially if you'd otherwise heat with an oil furnace and forced air.
posted by holgate at 12:12 PM on April 10, 2015

By the way, burning general lumber cuttings (from construction projects) leaves residue in the chimney, which needs to be scrubbed out now and then to prevent flu fires. Hardwoods are more expensive in the short run, but in the long run they give you a better deal. Banking softwoods makes for partially burnt residue, the kind that sticks to the stovepipe and chimney like tar, and burns like a blowtorch when they ignite. Generally speaking, the less you bank your coals, the cleaner your fire burns. This is one of the tradeoffs. I guess a chimney might withstand a flu fire better than a stovepipe, but they can be pretty spectacular, sometimes dangerous.

I love fireplaces. I once lived in a cabin with a huge fireplace that had iron brackets designed to hold cooking pots and such. You literally could stand inside the main opening. The whole hearth took up most of the north wall of the cabin. Normal cooking fires were made toward the back of the hearth, where a smallish inset focused heat. After the meals, we would toss another log on the fire, as it were, to heat us for a couple more hours, until we went to bed. It took several hours to heat the hearthstones, but they made for a warm place to stand in the morning, when I relit the fire. The house was a one-room log house. We slept in a sleeping loft over the kitchen. Heat from the fireplace wafted into the loft at night, to keep us toasty in the winter, at least until the wee hours of the morning. It was my task to slip down the ladder in the morning to rebuild the fire. Heat from the hearthstones made this a pleasing chore, cold back, warm front, fogged breath. A handful of kindling and a few small pieces of wood got things going again, ready to put on four or five split logs for the morning's heat. I should point out that this cabin was accessible in the winter only by snowshoe or skis. We had a propane tank that fired our gas lamps and the small two-burner cooker.

I also have lived in houses heated by wood stoves. They are better than a fireplace in many ways, but you don't get the fun of having an open fire. In both cases I needed porch space for at least a chord of wood. I would use about three chords each winter, storing the extra wood near the cabin, under a tarp. I also needed floor space somewhere near the stove (as well as the fireplace) to store a night's portions of wood. In one case I cut my own wood, and in another I bought cut wood, usually in three-cord lots (my supplier's truck held three cords in the bed).

The floor around the stove collects debris from the wood. We swept it up daily and tossed it into the stove. Ashes had to be hauled every other day. We put these in a bin and used them for garden fodder, to help break up clay soil. The ash bin has to be carefully construct and placed, because coals sometimes hide in the ashes. The flu had to be cleaned every other year--scrubbed, actually, with a round brush. We put a kettle of water on the stove at night to help humidify the air.

Quite a bit of labor is attached to using either a fireplace or a wood-stove. Some things about them cannot be replicated with a forced air system. All in all they are not as efficient as almost any other type of heater, but I still remember both the fireplaces and wood-stoves with fondness.

Living in the city, in a newer type of house, I wouldn't even consider a woodstove or fireplace for many reasons. Mostly I don't want the hassles that come with scouting out sources of firewood, and the logistics involved with storing and using it. The price of wood makes them too expensive, and unless the house was built around a "heat-a-lator" system, an insert that pumps heat into various areas of the house, they will not be useful for heating any room but the one in which they are installed. The house will alternate between cold and not so cold, as you tend your fire. To be fair, you will eventually figure out how to avoid overheating the room but unless someone is designated to be fire-tender(during the night), the house will be chilly in the morning.

If you prefer not to experience the hot and cold cycles associated with this sort of thing, then you should stay with a central heating unit.

Now, campfires are another thing entirely. Nothing beats the aroma of smoked-drenched clothing, or that first cup of coffee you enjoy while squatting around a small fire, warming your hands on a tin cup, and blistering your shins, waiting for the sun to crawl over to your frosty camp.
posted by mule98J at 12:19 PM on April 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everyone is crapping on fireplaces as a heat source, but nowhere in your question did you even mention that.

A fireplace is an awesome aesthetic object. It's just satisfying. It's silly and impractical and has downsides, but so are other things like cool vintage cars or high end stereos or whatever. It's a hobby object, of sorts.

I lived in a house that had a fireplace and i really miss it. Whenever i rent a cabin or something to stay in on vacation i try really hard to get one with a fireplace.

The thing is to not treat it as a primary source of heat, and not have it be a thing you plan on using every day. That road leads to madness and crappiness. If you plan on just burning wood in it for the sake of doing it, you'll have a much better time.

Most of the arguments against an old fashioned open fireplace could be made against an in ground pool, for instance. Some people really want those, and you're not a moron if you want one.

I have noticed it's extremely hard to buy or rent a house with one nowadays. I think it's most insurance and HVAC efficiency reasons that have killed them off. You also don't need to maintain or rebuild a chimney to just stick a pipe in it for the exhaust from a gas log fireplace, and it's often a lot cheaper and simpler to just stick and insert in one for a stove. I think most people just don't want to deal with the hassle.

I didn't have any real problems with draftiness at my old house, but i DID have big problems with a smokey house and having to crack a window even when it was cold as fuck outside so that the house wouldn't fill with smoke and kill me. It also might have just been that the house was ancient, screwed up, and already cold and drafty as hell though(i joked about it having radiant floor cooling) so i just didn't notice it.
posted by emptythought at 3:45 PM on April 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

How much are you all paying for these fireplace inserts?

About $5k, installed.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:32 PM on April 10, 2015

Yeah, I went from loving my wood-burning fireplace to getting bronchitis every single time we used it over a period of about a year. I was in my 20s and otherwise in excellent health. The health hazards are no joke.
posted by purpleclover at 2:15 PM on April 11, 2015

One downside that people didn't seem to discuss too much above is that you have to clean the chimney regularly or else risk fires in there and improper air flow. It's not something you do like every day, but at my family home, my parents never did it and it was kind of a problem. Basically creosote from burning wood builds up in the chimney, and it's really flammable and itself can catch fire if too much builds up in there. I think you are supposed to at a minimum inspect the chimney every year if you are using it regularly.

Agree with the other points about how it can cause draftiness in the room it's in, and also it's really dirty and can pollute your air (important to folks with asthma or allergies, etc.).
posted by FireFountain at 9:07 PM on April 11, 2015

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