Fireplace Efficiency

Don’t let energy savings go up in smoke
By Kelly Trapnell
Fireplace Efficiency

Fires are a low-efficiency, high-maintenance source of heat requiring constant tending and ash removal.

Your fireplace creates a warm, cozy atmosphere during wintry weather, but don't let it add unnecessary dollars to your electric bill.

Fireplaces heat the room they're in but at the expense of the rest of the house. Most of the heat in traditional fireplaces goes up the chimney instead of warming living space, and the draft pulls heat from other rooms. So if your thermostat is located away from the fireplace, it will work harder to maintain room temperatures for the rest of the house.

Fireplace "inserts" help boost energy efficiency. However, emissions from old inserts and fireplaces without inserts are up to 20 times worse than using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-certified wood stoves, pellet stoves, or gas/oil furnaces. So look for an EPA-certified insert if you want to supplement your home's heating.

Contact a local retailer to learn about efficient stoves and inserts that will circulate hot air into a room to help lower heating costs. But keep in mind the disadvantages of using high-maintenance fires as heat sources, including constant attention and ash disposal.

If you don't have an efficient insert but love a crackling fire, follow these measures for safety and improved efficiency.

  • Seal chimney cracks. While sealing drafts around your home, don't forget to check the chimney. Smoke and heat that escape through cracks can pose a fire hazard. It's best to hire a professional to fix cracks in high-heat areas.
  • Fight the draft. If you plan on a long-lasting fire, lower the thermostat to save energy — just be prepared to wear a sweater in other rooms.
  • Have it inspected. Fire protection standards recommend annual chimney and fireplace inspections. Even if you don't use your fireplace much, a chimney sweep can clear possible blockages from animal nests, etc.
  • Batten down the hatch. Keep the chimney flue closed when not using your fireplace to prevent conditioned or heated air from escaping.
  • Choose your wood wisely. Wood that's dried at least six months provides the best heat, so avoid any that's wet or newly chopped. And the harder the tree species, the longer your fire will burn. This makes ironwood, rock elm, hickory, oak, sugar maple and beech good choices. Store wood off the ground and away from your house to remove the threat of termite infestation, and cover the top to lessen moisture but leave the sides open for circulation.

Sources: U.S. Department of Energy, Consumer Reports, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Chimney Safety Institute of America

About the Author

Kelly Trapnell writes on safety and energy efficiency issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

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