Operating a fireplace in an old home efficiently
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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    Posts
    21

    Operating a fireplace in an old home efficiently

    About a year ago, I moved into the bottom floor of a duplex apartment (basically a converted 1930s home). There's always been a big fireplace in the front bedroom, which is connected to the living room with large double-doors. Both rooms have about a 12 foot ceiling to them. Anyway, the fireplace was boarded up, and we asked the landlord about it. He had a company inspect the chimney ("OK"), and installed some glass doors and a screen for the front.

    Previous to this, I've only used a freestanding wood stove. It had a blower, it had a compartment you could pour water into to help with the dry air, and it heated the house very well. But this... is a big empty column, leading up to the sky. There's no damper, no fans, no nothing! It seems as if any heat I generate in this fireplace is going to go straight up in the air.

    The landlord doesn't seem to want to put any more money into it, which leads me to my big question -- what can I do to ensure we're getting the most out of this? If I have to spend to save, I'm not beyond that, as long as it's not too much, haha. The only two rooms we're really concerned about are the bedroom and living room. The whole house is currently heated by a natural gas furnace, and while it works well, I'm not particularly wanting $300/month gas bills again this year, especially when half the house is empty at night when it's coldest!

    So... any advice here? Do I need to buy a blower? Should I use regular firewood, or some sort of sawdust-waste type things?

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Posts
    4,661
    I think you will find that, with the exception of one design that I know of, a wood burning fireplace is a decorative item.

    It pulls its combustion air from the house itself, therefore creating a draft that pulls in cold outside air.

    For heating purposes, plug that hole(fireplace) with an insert or board it back up and insulate it.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2006
    Location
    Virginia
    Posts
    392
    I agree with pacnw. Not only will most of the heat generated by the wood go up and out, so will your already heated room air. Board it up, insulate it and put a picture of a nice fire in front of it.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    Posts
    21
    Well that's disappointing.

    The biggest problem we have, really, is that it's very hard to heat the house with the natural gas furnace because of the tall ceilings. The people upstairs are probably loving their heated floorboards, but for us, it means we're freezing on the couch unless it's running an excessive amount.

    My ideal situation would be to light a fire about two hours before sleep, drop the thermostat during that time, and then lay in bed and watch TV or use the computer for a few hours, heating only that room. I don't care much about drawing in cold air from the other rooms -- I won't be there, and I can set the thermostat to come on in the morning to heat the house back up.

    Still a bad idea?

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Posts
    4,661
    it is not the air from other rooms, it is from OUTSIDE.

    if the house is not updated with windows, insulation, doors and weather stripping then the draft will pull in the cold outside air, thus cooling the house even more.

    if you don't believe us,

    1) why do you think it was boarded up in the first place?

    2) call a few companies to give you an estimate to install an insert and see what they have to say. Ask their reason for not using the fireplace as is.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jul 2006
    Location
    Virginia
    Posts
    392
    Tall ceilings look nice, but are a pain to heat. Ceiling fans will circulate the heat that rises to the top. You may be able to use the furnace fan to help move the heat around a little. Just turn the fan switch from "auto" to "on", that controls only the blower and can move the heat around.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Aug 2004
    Location
    S.E. Pa
    Posts
    6,127

    Cool priorities

    Open hearth fireplaces result in a net cooling effect. They exhaust 400-600 cubic feet of warm air every minute. This air must be replaced so it must be drawing in cold air from outside or the path of least resistance. Cold air infiltration results in a higher heating load so you have to run your heater more.

    Your first priority is to weatherize the structure. Keep what heat you generate in your appartment first. If the landlord won't spend the money, and you were willing to spend money out of pocket anyway, pull the ceilings, air seal, insulate then replace the ceilings. That will do more to keep you comfortable and energy efficient. Seal your ducts so your furnace operates more efficiently and have it tuned using combustion analysis.

    If you have a masonry fireplace, you can consider installing a listed EPA certified phase II stove with a listed liner. Talk to a hearth pro for details and selection. Do not install an insert stove into a factory built fireplace.

    HTH,
    Hearthman

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Nov 2008
    Location
    Houston, TX
    Posts
    77
    I'm also from the camp of open fireplaces don't do much for heat, air quality, or efficiency. Wood stove inserts are OK, but I don't like the idea of the radiant side/rear heat from them going up a chimney. To me, a high efficiency wood stove is the only way to heat. Preferably with the chimney inside the home.

    Your tall ceilings would help with the chimney aspect. A better draft. A more efficient siphoning of the heat off the chimney pipe as it goes up. I prefer the catalytic models for their long run times.

    I stopped by my Dad's place a few weeks ago. He had been at work all day (6AM to 6PM). I walked in the door at 5:30PM and it was warm as could be. Wood stove was 240C on top. Room was 23C at the wall farthest from the stove. He has 24 ft ceilings. Temp outside was hovering a few degrees above freezing. When he walked in the door from work, I asked him when the last time he put wood in was. He said 10PM last night. Those catalytic stoves are awesome. Blaze King says his model (King) will go for 40 hours on one load of wood. For a smaller place, I'd go with their smaller model (Princess).

    Efficiency is light years better than an open fireplace. Wood stoves suck about 30 cfm of air up the chimney. With the catalytic Blaze King running, I measured 50C indoor chimney pipe while the stove top was putting out 240C air. Around 55 when the stove top was at 300. So a net heating efficiency of aprox 80-82%. (Officially rated at 82% in the manual)

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