Fireplace and Stove Basics

Learn the essentials of fireplaces and stoves.


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Just about every traditional fireplace, regardless of construction, has a few consistent features.

The hearth generally refers to the space in front of the firebox, but the term is often used to refer to the whole fireplace.

The unseen parts of the fireplace include the throat and damper, which are the opening to the flue and the mechanism for opening or blocking that opening, respectively. Smoke and gases rise up the flue, the hollow tube that rises up to the chimney.

The flue itself is lined (with tile, masonry, or, more commonly these days, multi-layered insulated metal tubing) to prevent damage and to draw the combustion gases upward and out the chimney.

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The firebox is a pretty self-explanatory term: that area contains the actual fire. The firebox can be made of masonry, fireproof bricks mortared together, or metal lined with a fireproof ceramic that looks like brick (prefabricated fireplaces are made this way).

Traditional brick-and-mortar fireplaces are heavy and require strong support all the way to the ground. Most prefabricated fireplaces are much lighter and can be supported by a home's standard framing.

These components need to work in concert to create a safe and enjoyable fire. A lot of research has gone into perfecting these components, but the fluctuating environment inside and outside your home also greatly affects the fireplace's performance. That's why a fireplace can appear to be fickle, giving you a beautiful fire one evening and belching smoke the next day.

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Fireplaces may be, and often are, installed simply to create a pleasant glow; the heating qualities are almost secondary.

Wood-burning stoves, however, are most often installed to generate house-warming heat. With the increases in home-heating-fuel costs, some people are choosing this option to moderate monthly expenses

In the United States, wood-burning stoves mostly conjure up the images of the black metal pot-bellied stove or square cast-iron stove. But in northern Europe, stone stoves are more readily available. Like fireplaces, metal stoves are light and relatively easy to install. Stone or masonry stoves are heavier and more complicated to install.

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An increasingly popular option is pellet-fueled stoves. Similar in appearance to wood-burning stoves, the fuel source is small pellets; the appearance is similar to pet-store hamster food.

The pellets can be made of wood byproducts (sawdust and woodchips) or corn husks. This material is compressed into the tiny pellet form and sold in bags. The efficiency of the burning and the stable cost of fuel have contributed to the popularity of pellet-fueled stoves.

Behind the firebox, the stove has a hopper to store pellets, and either a manual or automatic lever drops the pellets into the firebox to fuel the fire.

Looking at a small pile of burning fuel pellets really decreases the aesthetic appeal of this product, so manufacturers have begun installing faux logs, similar to those used in gas-fueled fireplaces, to disguise the pellets. The result is a much more appealing appearance.

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Want to enjoy the glow of a fireplace without lugging wood into the house, fiddling with the damper, poking at the logs to keep them lit, and cleaning up the ashes? Natural-gas fueled fireplaces give you that all-pleasure-no-pain option, at the touch of a remote-control button, no less!

A popular option for many years, gas fireplaces have seen many improvements. Some of the latest have been in appearances. The ceramic logs have been improved to look more like real wood, and configurations of fake logs are also more natural. The flame has been improved, too.

Manufacturers have also developed embers and flames that burn with brighter reds, oranges, and yellows to better simulate the pleasing colors of a wood fire.

Natural-gas fireplaces are, in essence, reconfigured kitchen stoves: A pipe delivers natural gas (or propane) to the device. When it's turned on, the gas is released into a pipe with holes in it, and the gas is ignited either electronically or with a match. For safety, newer gas fireplaces have electronic ignitions.

If your house already has a source of natural gas, converting a wood-burning fireplace to a more convenient gas-fueled model usually isn't overly difficult.

Slide Show: Fireplaces

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