Warming the Hearth  

Know the level of heat you can expect from your fireplace, stove or masonry heater

Story by Peter Lobred

What’s a log home without the perfect hearth to keep you warm and beautify the entire house? But alas, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and when it comes to selecting your log home’s fireplace or stove, the decision can be more than meets the eye. Sure, aesthetics are a crucial consideration, but, realistically, how much heat can you expect from the various hearth products and fuel types?

Before considering the fuel that will power your hearth, take a look at some other factors, such as your home’s design and the placement of your fireplace, stove or insert. Many log homes feature open great rooms—prime hearth locations—with cathedral ceilings and loft areas. “Log homes are typically open so a nice, large fireplace or stove works well to heat the house,” says Skip Stahmer of Sierra Timberline, a hearth supplier in Grass Valley, California. In addition to filling the open area, the heat rises to warm any overhead spaces.

“Talk to the people planning and building your log home about what will work best,” Skip adds. “I often recommend ‘zone heating,’ which is the use of several appliances throughout the home.”

Be aware of the inherent differences in heat emitted by fireplaces versus stoves, the latter of which can be more potent. “A stove, because it’s freestanding, has six sides that radiate heat,” Skip says. “A fireplace has just one side facing out.”

Also, the fireplace loses some of its heat out the chimney. Furthermore, adds Mike Van Buren, technical director of the Hearth Products Association, it’s important to understand that there are two types of heat: radiant and convective. Stoves and masonry heaters give off radiant heat, a particularly intense warmth that heats objects and people before spreading to the atmosphere. Convective heat, on the other hand, warms the air around you, ultimately making you feel comfortable.

Fireplaces and fireplace inserts provide a combination of convective and radiant heat. And, if you’re simply seeking to increase the overall amount of heat you receive from your fireplace, consider a bigger unit, says Susie Hughes of fireplace manufacturer Heat-N-Glo.

“Quite simply, the bigger the fireplace itself, the more heat you’re going to get,” Susie says, adding that Heat-N-Glo fireplaces are marketed in several sizes, according to the space they’ll occupy and warmth they’ll provide.

Conversely, Heat-N-Glo now features on some products a “heat-out” option that vents the heat directly to the outside. It’s perfect for warmer climates—or seasons—because the fire burns purely for aesthetics. The selection of such an option boils down to where you live and the overall purpose of your hearth.

Though these are important considerations in getting a fireplace or a stove, they’re not necessarily deciding factors. “The decision between a fireplace or a stove is really based on personal preference, which look you like better,” says Averill Cook, president of Catamount  Pellet Fuel Corp. headquartered in Adams, Massachusetts.

Fuel to the Fire
Fuel, on the other hand, can be a more practical decision based on availability in your region. Still, most people do have several options, and the various fuel types can differ significantly in the amount of heat provided. For the most part, whether you opt for a hearth fueled by wood, gas, pellets, electricity, oil or coal, the product essentially supplies secondary or supplemental heat. In other words, you might be able to get by using just your fireplace or stove, but don’t count on it exclusively. “A lot of people do heat exclusively with wood or pellets, but they have electricity or gas heat throughout the house as a backup,” Averill says.

The traditional choice for hearth products is a wood-burning fireplace or stove. It’s particularly ideal for remote locales and colder climates. As a fuel, wood generates a strong, intense heat, though the level can be inconsistent.

“The heat from wood has a great peak, but it does require some work to keep it there,” Skip says. Even before a wood fire is tended to, there are the considerable chores of cutting and stacking the wood. Wood-burning masonry heaters can be a little easier to tend to.

“They’re very pretty units that heat for a long time,” Mike Van Buren says. “You burn a load of wood and even after the fire goes out, it’s still enclosed and radiating quite a bit of heat.”

One potential benefit to fueling any wood-burning fire: “The majority of the log homes we see,” Skip says, “are on sizable lots and have access to free firewood.” Even when purchased, though, wood remains an affordable option.

When it comes to affordability, few hearth fuels rival natural gas, but what level of heat can you expect from a gas fireplace, stove or insert?

“Gas is a more consistent heat but doesn’t have the peak that wood has,” Skip says.

Natural gas fireplaces and stoves owe their popularity not only to reasonable cost but also to technological advances. Many  gas hearths now feature thermostats to ensure the room stays comfortable. The flame decreases or shuts off when the thermostat reaches a set temperature.

“It makes a freestanding gas stove a great choice in the more mild climates,” Skip says.

In fact, all gas hearth products seem ideally suited to warmer climates in large part because they’re extremely easy to control. “In the South, vent-free fireplaces are more popular,” Mike says. “You can run it for a little while and then turn it off when you get warm.”

With a vent-free gas fireplace, combustion enters the home, and therefore the room heats relatively quickly. “Vent-free fireplaces really shouldn’t be used as a primary source of heat,” Mike says. “They’re not meant to run continuously because of the moisture they give off.”

Gas hearths also are available in direct-vent (airflow exits through a chimney or wall) or B-vent (named for the type of pipe that is required to handle the combustion) options.

Though wood and gas dominate the hearth market, in certain regions pellet-fueled stoves remain a viable option for heating your log home. Introduced during the energy crisis of the 1980s, pellet stoves are powered by one 40-pound bag every day or so. The pellets consist of compressed sawdust and offer ample heat.

“A pellet stove provides plenty of heat for, let’s say, a 1,500-square-foot home,” according to Mike.

“Pellets burn a steady, even heat, similar to gas,” says Averill Cook, who also serves as president of the Pellet Fuels Institute. “But we have people come in who are used to gas heat, and they are blown away by the level of pellet heat.”

Other fuel options, such as oil and coal, are popular largely on a regional basis and also have reputations for burning a relatively strong heat. Oil, in particular, is extremely intense.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, electric fireplaces, emitting a flame created by mirrors and panels, can range greatly in price and offer little if any heat and is a viable choice in mild climates. “An electric fireplace is more of an option for people who just want the aesthetic value of a fire,” Susie Hughes says.

Warm Feelings
In the final analysis, of course, aesthetics do play a big part in your hearth selection. “Your decision is going to depend on a lot of things,” Averill says. “Think about your lifestyle, how busy you are and your personal preference after seeing different fireplaces or stoves. So much of it is subjective; I wouldn’t play down any form of hearth or fuel.”

Mike agrees, stressing the many functions of the hearth in today’s home. “It’s more than just an appliance, especially in log homes,” Mike says. “It’s really a piece of furniture, and it’s the first thing people look at when they come inside the home.”

So take into account a variety of factors when selecting your hearth. You need to look at the type of product that’s best for you, the fuel you’ll likely be using and the level of heat you’re expecting from the hearth. You’ll find yourself warming up to certain options in practically no time at all.

Kuhns Bros. Log Homes photo

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