The traditional, open-hearth fireplace (one without an insert) is known for providing ambiance. It may be effective at setting the mood, but it is inefficient at providing heat. A fire in an open fireplace also generates the most air pollution than any other wood-burning device.
Traditional fireplaces are extremely inefficient, as low as 5%. While it heats the area directly in front of it, it is sucking the air from inside your home and sending it up the chimney; a process called the chimney-effect. Whatever heat you had in your home will be replaced by cold air being sucked in through any leaks around windows, doors, etc. So while the heat from the fire may make you feel warmer in the room where the fireplace is located, overall you are cooling the house down.
The simple design of the fireplace - basically it is a large opening to the outside - makes it a big polluter. See Heating Emissions Chart.
As the fire burns the wood, smoke containing toxic, fine particles is immediately released into the indoor and outdoor air. Modern technology used in certified wood stoves or fireplace inserts actually captures and burns the compounds in wood smoke (an after-burner), resulting in cleaner emissions (and heat). Thus, the incomplete combustion from a fireplace fire generates a significant amount of wood smoke (opacity), which is strictly regulated to protect public health. Click to learn more about the opacity law and health effects of wood smoke.
What to do
A fireplace should really be considered for ambiance only. For an efficient heating device, we strongly recommend installing a fireplace insert that uses natural gas, propane, pellets or wood.
If you decide to use your fireplace, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Check for burn bans before lighting a fire. Sign up for notification of burn bans and other air quality news.
- Use manufactured logs (aka "fire log") which can burn up to 70% cleaner than firewood.
- If you burn wood, use only dry, cord wood that has been seasoned for at least 1 year (less than 20% moisture).
- Don't burn garbage, including junk mail, cardboard containers, or holiday wrapping paper - it's against the law.
- If you want to add the "glow" of a fire, and aren't trying to produce heat, try lighting candles instead of burning wood. Candle holders made especially for a fireplace are available.