There’s something about a fireplace within a home that brings a real sense of comfort and homeliness. As well as providing an attractive focal point to your room, they can also be a practical and efficient means of heating your home. Few things are more welcoming than coming in from the icy winter weather and settling down in front of a blazing fire or enjoying the warm glow of a wood-burning stove.
And as the styles have changed and adapted over the years, there is a whole range of different types for you to choose from, be it an antique fire-surround with ornate decoration, or an ultra-modern, glass ‘floating’ fire with a gas flame. This means that you don’t need to compromise on your taste, and you should easily be able to find a suitable fireplace for you and your home.
It may be that you already have a fireplace that you are happy with, or have moved into a place that has one, or that you have recently had one installed. Whatever your situation, you’ll want to get the most out of it – especially in the cooler seasons – so here are some helpful tips to guide you.
Can you heat your house with a fireplace?
The answer to this is more complicated than you might first believe. It isn’t a simple case of the size of the fireplace as compared with the size of your house. By itself, a wood-burning fireplace is actually the least efficient of all fireplace types for producing heat. In most cases, it only creates a very small amount of heat. Also, due to the large amount of heat that is pulled up through your chimney in a wood-burning fireplace, it can surprisingly decrease the heat in your home.
In days gone by, open coal fires, though they might look romantic enough in movies or on tv, were unreliable, dirty, often dangerous, and always hard work. They heated a small enough room fairly well but were difficult to light, especially in strong winds, or if the coal was damp. The success of the fire depended on a constant flow of air over the chimney, which drew out the smoke. So the house needed to be draughty, or you’d find that the fire either didn’t light or your room was suddenly filled with smoke. Certain safety features were sometimes introduced over the years, such as enclosing the fires with glass doors to reduce the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were far from being the ideal way to heat a home. In fact, most of the heat that wasn’t lost up the chimney would be confined to a single room.
Thankfully, these days are long gone, as most fireplaces are far more efficient. Coal has largely been replaced with other fuels, though it is still being used in large quantities in certain places such as China and some developing countries. There are still, however, homes in the USA and the UK that still use coal as a fuel, but these are few and are destined to rapidly become a thing of the past – especially in the UK, where government legislation will soon force people to use ‘cleaner’ fuels to improve air quality. It is worth mentioning, though, that new types of coal have been developed that have much longer burning times but produce far less pollution or smoke, and people are being urged to use these in place of the older, dirtier types.
These days, a whole range of options are available to you in terms of fireplaces, offering increased efficiency as well as a choice of more environmentally friendly fuels. Some of these, in answer to the question above, will be able to heat your house. But some will certainly be better at it than others.
Firstly, let’s deal with ones that aren’t going to help you at all.
Fireplaces that won’t actually heat your home
- Electric fireplaces – these are designed only for small spaces and will often struggle to even do this. They are simply ‘space heaters’. As attractive as some can be these days, they are not anywhere near powerful enough to heat your home, and they can use a whole lot of electricity while they try.
- Open fireplaces, with wood, brick or stone surround – again, these can look great, but may actually succeed in cooling your house as they drag the air from other rooms and send a lot of the warm air up through the chimney. This doesn’t necessarily refer to coal fires alone. Wood, or even gas, fires will have the same effect if the fire does not have some sort of sealed doors to reduce the airflow. Even then, gas fires with tempered glass doors will operate below 60% efficiency and will struggle to throw any heat beyond that room.
- Gas Log fireplaces – these are usually placed within open fireplaces, so the same thing applies here. There are two types of gas log fireplaces; vented and ventless (or vent-free). Both have positive and negative points, though the vented type is usually recommended, even though they use more gas and provide less heat.
None of these options, sadly, will be capable of providing the level of heat necessary to warm your entire house.
There are several reasons why you might want to heat your whole house using a fireplace, but it’s safe to say that cost will most likely be the biggest factor. Fuel bills can be incredibly high, so it is understandable that people might want to look at more efficient ways of heating their living space. Nevertheless, there is likely to be a need for an initial outlay before you begin to see the benefits – unless you already have the necessary equipment installed. When looking to heat your house, these are the types of fireplaces more likely to help you achieve your goal…
Fireplaces that will heat your home
High-efficiency pellet stoves
- Pellet stoves are very popular for a number of reasons; they are CO2-neutral and the pellets are made from compacted sawdust or biomass, making them very eco-friendly; the stoves are programmable, have automatic ignition, as well as power modulation, which means they are very easy to use. The pellets come in handy-sized bags that allow for easy handling and storage. These types of stoves are certainly capable of providing adequate heat for the average-sized home. While they offer a practical and attractive solution, they can be on the expensive side.
Wood fireplaces with a sealed door and ceramic glass
- Wood fireplaces with a sealed door and ceramic glass are very effective, but only if of high quality and with EPA certification (CSA B415 in Canada). For maximum efficiency select a model with variable air control to enable you to find the right level of heat for your home.
Gas fireplaces with a direct vent
- Fireplaces with a direct vent need to also have ceramic glass and have an efficiency rating greater than 70% to be able to heat your home, as long as it isn’t too big! A model with a thermostat or variable heat control will help, as will having good airflow through your house.
All of these three examples should help you heat your home, but there are a few things to keep in mind. The first thing to be aware of is BTU.
What is BTU?
Without becoming too technical, a BTU is an international standard for measuring energy. It stands for ‘British Thermal Unit’ and refers to the amount of heat needed to raise one pound of water by 1 degree (Fahrenheit). This is important when it comes to heating your home, as it will guide you in selecting a fire that is adequate for the task of heating your house. There are many online BTU calculators, but these all basically do the same job in helping you find the right type of fireplace for you to achieve your goal. You simply enter details about the dimensions, the windows, when the house was built and whether it is insulated or not, and it provides a score. Once you have your figure, you need to choose an appropriate fireplace, along with the type of fuel you wish to use – although some websites may offer a few helpful suggestions to get you started.
Another major factor in heating your home using a fireplace is that the three examples above will really only do this if you also install a ‘heat transfer kit’. Any decent brand will probably offer this, but it is essential that you have one installed to ensure that the heat is circulated around the entire house using a powerful fan attached directly to the burner. Most of these are pretty easy to install as well as being economical to operate, available in different sizes of kit to suit the number of rooms you wish to heat.
It is an annoying fact that a lot of the heat generated by any fireplace will be lost through the chimney. One way of limiting this, as with the heat transfer kit above, is to use a heat exchanger on your fireplace. These devices are attached to the metal body of the wood burner, or beneath the fire grating, and send the hot air back into the room using a fan. A whole range of different types are available, so it is advisable to take a good look around to find the best one to suit your needs. All of them will basically perform the same task in that they draw the cold air from other rooms and exchange it for warm air.
Tips to help you heat your home
Having selected a suitable model and fuel, it’s time to think about the placement. A central location will obviously offer better distribution, although the design and shape of your room may dictate this. It goes without saying, that heat rises, so any rooms beneath the fire are unlikely to benefit fully unless warm air is channeled that way.
As we have seen, different fuels can provide increased levels of heat. If you want more heat, you can use good-quality ‘eco-friendly’ coal or a wood pellet burner.
Using seasoned firewood
If you choose to burn wood, consider using seasoned firewood. Green or fresh-cut wood will make a lot of smoke and will crackle and spit, making it burn inefficiently. Open the damper, if there is one fitted, all the way. This allows more air to the flame and will make it burn hotter – although it will use the wood more quickly this way.
Use a fireplace insert
If you don’t already have one, consider installing a fireplace insert. There is some confusion about what an insert actually means, but to keep it simple, the fireplace is the entire structure, including the masonry, metal or wooden ‘framework’ around the opening in which the fuel is placed. An insert is the metal box that fits within the ‘open fireplace’, effectively enclosing the fire and helping you to control it more efficiently. Many models include an in-built fan to circulate the heat.
Fireplace with glass doors
If the fireplace is fitted with glass doors, keep them closed as much as possible and ensure they are made from tempered glass. Make sure they fit tightly and use a fiberglass gasket.
Avoid a dirty Chimney
If you have a chimney, rather than a flue or exhaust fan, get it cleaned annually to avoid the build-up of creosote. This accumulates over time and restricts the flow of air, which in turn affects the efficiency, and heat, of the flame.
The secret to heating any larger space is air-flow. Much of your success or failure will depend on the shape and size of your home, but there are a few ways of tipping the balance in your favor. Ceiling fans can help here – if they have a reverse function. They will do the opposite job to the one they perform in summer, by pulling up the warm air instead of pushing down cold air. Also, you could try positioning a fan by the fire (but obviously not too close!) and switching it to a low setting. By directing the cool air towards the fire you will create a convection action, forcing the warm air away and out of the room into the other spaces.
For several reasons, you may need to deflect the heat coming from your fireplace (the most common reason being to protect televisions mounted above the fire). There are a few solutions to this, including fitting a mantel or a fireplace hood. The larger these are, the more heat will be deflected, thought personal taste will obviously play a part in what style you go for.
Fitting a heavy-duty steel plate
On the other hand, you probably want to maximize the amount of heat coming from your fire. In which case, by fitting a heavy-duty steel plate to the back of the fireplace. This must be fitted properly, only using 14 gauge 304 stainless steel, and firebricks. It must be fitted flush, and not interfere with the flow of air up the chimney. When done well, this will reduce the heat-loss, sending more warmth into your room.
Different fireplaces will require different instructions for use. Wood pellet models will need the hopper filling fairly frequently, while those that burn ‘heat logs’ or wood will mean that you must keep the fire topped up. All of these units must be maintained and kept clean. Ash will have to be cleared out regularly to ensure that the flow of air is not blocked in any way.
Safety advise For Your Fireplace
One thing that should always be kept in mind in relation to the subject of fireplaces and home heating is safety. Any DIY fitting or adjustments should only be undertaken if you are certain that you can do so without risk. Always consider employing a qualified fitter if you have any doubts – it is better to pay a professional than risk your health and safety.
Carbon Monoxide is a serious health risk. If you do not have a CO detector fitted, then get one as soon as possible and make sure the batteries are replaced at least annually (better still, select a mains-powered device). Likewise, it is advisable to have a smoke alarm. Gas fires should always have an external exhaust outlet to draw any dangerous fumes out and away from the house. These ‘flues’ should be sealed at all times and any leaks repaired immediately.
If you are burning wood, never use treated timber offcuts or old furniture – especially MDF, chipboard or painted wood. The solvents and adhesives in these will emit toxic fumes that can be harmful. Seasoned hardwoods are best, especially those that have long burning times. If using wood you have sourced yourself, it pays to know what variety it is, as some give off poisonous gases when burned (notably; Oleander, Mexican Elder, or anything with ‘poison’ in the name!). You should avoid burning softwoods like fir, cedar or pine as these cause soot to build up.
Other safety concerns are really just common sense, such as using fire-guards when young children are about, and not placing flammable or combustible materials close to open flames. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. CO symptoms are often described as “flu-like.”
Will a fireplace heat your entire house?
To answer the question posed at the beginning; yes, you can heat your home using a fireplace. But it may take a bit of effort and investment. While this might put you off, it really could be worth it in the long term. By installing a more efficient heating system you could eventually bring down your energy bills and recover more than you invested. To make it work really well, it is wise to ensure you have adequate insulation and double or triple-glazed windows.
How can my fireplace heat the whole house?
A centrally-placed fireplace will help distribute the heat more evenly, and by using a number of methods you can spread that warm air right through the home. Leading brands will offer a heat transfer kit (sometimes called a forced air kit) that channels the warm air around your home using a series of pipes connected to the fire. At some point along the pipes, a fan, operated via a wall-mounted thermostat, drags the air through the pipe network.
These really are the ideal way to heat your entire home using your humble fireplace
Alternatively, a heat exchanger may be able to solve your problems. They are generally easy to fit, but there are a few to choose from, including:
- Standard Grate Heaters – these units, with their heavy-duty steel ‘slide-in’ construction, need to be plugged into a power source. They have a variable speed fan that draws in cool air and propels it back into the room, potentially providing up to 40,000 BTUs of heat per hour.
- Airculator – these come in a range of sizes and have exceptionally quiet dual air jets. Whilst it can be used on ‘open fires’ with masonry surrounds, it does work best on fireplaces that have glass doors. These are probably the most efficient and economical of this type of heat exchanger.
- Tubular Grate Heaters – as with circulators, these work best in units with glass doors, although they can be used in open fireplaces. They take their name from the curved steel pipes that are seated at the bottom and behind the firebox, curving up and over the top where a fan draws in the cool air and replaces it with warm. It is essential that these pipes are constructed of high-quality steel that will survive the temperatures it will be exposed to.
With these three options, though, you may need to consider further measures, as they mainly concentrate on delivering more heat to the one room. There is a chance, as the hot air is being delivered more efficiently and at a higher temperature, that you will be able to use a ceiling fan in reverse or a floor-mounted fan to create convection and direct the warm air around your home.
When properly maintained and cared for, fitted correctly and used safely, your fireplace can keep you and your home warm throughout the coldest days of the season. And it can do it efficiently, economically, without contributing to the environmental problems that face our planet today.
So, why not choose your fireplace and get the right equipment fitted, pick the fuel you want, then relax and enjoy the warmth and comfort as it keeps your home heated throughout the winter months. You’ll be comforted further by the fact that it is doing a good job of keeping you warm while not costing the earth.
In the short term, it may cost you a considerable amount to get a fireplace set-up to heat your entire home. but in the long run, it could save you money and provide a cozy feeling in your home. So you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the investment to you and your family. It could also add value to your home, especially if you live in a colder region.