Fireplaces are among the oldest features of a home, used for centuries to provide warmth and a place to prepare meals. In the modern age, fireplaces are still used for producing warmth, but thanks to central heating, they are no longer relied on alone to heat a home. Known for their aesthetic value, fireplaces come in many types, including traditional wood-burning, gas-fueled, pellet-burning and electric models. Indoor, outdoor and portable fireplaces are available. They vary in terms of fuel type, style, venting method, heating capacity and method of delivery. Depending on many variables, a fireplace may cost only a few hundred dollars or several thousand.

Fireplaces and Stoves

A fireplace consists of an inset chamber or firebox where fuel combustion takes place. With traditional designs, the firebox is built into a chimney that runs up the side of a house. Fireboxes are open to the room in which they are located. Stoves, on the other hand, are freestanding units with a firebox that is fully contained behind a small door. When fuel is combusted, the firebox radiates heat and vents exhaust through a stove pipe that leads up and out of the stove. Fireplaces may be vented in a number of ways.

Fireplace Venting Options

There are 3 basic ways to vent a combustion fireplace: direct vent, natural or B vent, and vent free. Direct-vent models connect to the outside via a duct. Some types draw room air in to fuel the fire, while others draw outside air in. The latter type is the most efficient, as it does not pull heat out of a room. Direct-vent fireplaces do not require an existing chimney to function and can vent horizontally if the home design allows. Natural or B-vent fireplaces are inserts that fit into an existing firebox and use the chimney and flue to vent exhaust. Like some direct-vent models, B-vent units draw in room air, warm it and push exhaust out. Vent-free units may be either gas or electric. Designed in accordance with all applicable safety standards, this type may be installed virtually anywhere, for no vent is necessary.

Fireplace Types

Fireplaces are either zero-clearance or masonry-door models. Zero-clearance fireplaces are also known as prefabricated fireplaces and are usually made from cast iron or sheet metal. Fully insulated, zero-clearance inserts safely contain combustion and pose no safety hazard once in place. A masonry door fireplace, by contrast, consists of a bricked firebox within a chimney. Because of the presence of open flames, this type requires a brick lining to prevent damage to adjacent walls or wooden framework. Outdoor fireplaces are similar in many ways to indoor built-in models. They provide warmth and ambiance on a patio and are vent free. However, outdoor wood-burning models feature a small chimney.

Radiant and Circulating Heat

Traditional fireplaces and stoves radiate heat into a room. The tapered design of a masonry firebox encourages heat to fan out. A more effective method is the circulation of heat. Many fireplace systems are equipped with a blower. Room or outside air is drawn in, heated and then blown out into a room with a fan. Not only does this improve the efficiency of a fireplace, but it helps to distribute heat to a wider area. Additional ductwork can be attached to a blower to distribute heat to other rooms.

Fuel Types

For most of the history of fireplaces, wood has been used to fuel their fires. Today, there are several other options. Gas fireplaces are very popular for their attractive designs, easy use, high efficiency and realistic look. Both natural gas and liquid propane are used. Many gas fireplaces are convertible for use with either gas. Pellet-burning stoves are also incredibly efficient and clean burning. Pellet stoves combust sawdust, highly compressed pieces of wood, or other materials. Other options include gel fuel and ethanol. These alcohol- and corn-based fuels are very clean and provide an altenative to wood, natural gas and propane. Finally, there are electric fireplaces as well that are powered by standard 120- or 240-volt electricity.

Wood, Gas and Pellet-Burning Fireplaces

Among fireplaces that combust fuel to produce warmth, wood-burning models produce the authentic sights, sounds and smells of traditional fireplaces. Framed by a mantel and hearth and decorated with an assortment of tools and other accessories, wood fireplaces have an old-fashioned aura. On the negative end, traditional wood-burning fireplaces are notoriously inefficient. However, there are different venting and air-intake methods that improve efficiency. Stocking wood and maintaining fires and cleanliness are more labor intensive with wood-burning units.

Fireplaces fueled by natural gas or propane are far more efficient. Plus they are easy to operate. Just turn a key, flip a switch or use the remote to activate the heat. Gas fireplaces are available with a variety of venting methods. On the downside, purchase prices are higher and installation is more complex.

Pellet-burning stoves produce a lot of heat, require less refueling and are very clean. They produce next-to-no smoke and may be used, like other types, to spread warmth throughout a home. However, they have a complex design that requires a circuitboard to determine how much fuel to burn. This can lead to higher-than-average maintenance costs. They also require an electrical connection to power the circuitry and motor, which can disable them in a power outage.

Electric Models

Electric fireplaces require hardly any installation and are quickly assembled. Wall or roll away units may be moved from room to room and plug right into standard power outlets. Built-in inserts fit into an existing firebox and are hardwired to the electrical box of a home. They are far less expensive than most wood and gas systems, produce no emissions and convert practically 100 percent of their energy inputs into heat. On the other hand, electric fireplaces are basically room space heaters with LED-lit, faux logs and/or a digital image of a flame, meaning they hardly look realistic. They put out no more than 5000 to 10000 BTUs.

Fireplace Style and Accessories

The style possibilities with a fireplace are practically limitless. From antique to ultra contemporary, pre-built and custom-made fireplaces are available to suit any and all interior designs. The most visible stylistic feature of a fireplace is its mantel. Crafted from wood, stone, brick or marble, the mantel frames the firebox and connects it to the rest of the room. A mantel usually consists of a shelf, molding, jambs and base and may be as simple or ornate as one desires.

Fireplace accessories help to complete the aesthetic design of a hearth area. Accessories such as screens, hearth rugs, fenders, andirons, tools, gloves and lighters all have functional purposes with wood-burning fireplaces. With gas and electric models, most accessories serve merely to decorate.