The Fireplace: Inefficient, Unhealthy, and Inescapably Wonderful

There is something inescapably wonderful about the special combination of sound, light, and heat that come from the fireplace.
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Bill Streever's new book, Heat, will be released January 15, 2013.

Iconic writer John McPhee once devoted an entire New Yorker article to wood as fuel. "Firewood has been selling, of late in New York City, for one dollar a stick," he wrote in 1974.

The city's firewood has since become a bargain. A stack of 60 sticks, delivered, goes for $100. Per stick, corrected for inflation, that would have been about 36 cents in 1974.

McPhee also reported a renewed interest in fireplaces, even in the city. As revealed by United States census data from 2011, this interest has not died. Almost half of the nation's new single-family homes were built with one fireplace, and one in twenty had two or more fireplaces. About two in one hundred homes use wood as the primary source of heat.
The fireplace has a long and venerable history. The use of fire, and the earliest ancestor of the modern fireplace, predated the emergence of modern man. Homo erectus controlled fire well before Homo sapiens emerged to bask in its warm glow.

The oldest signs, from well over a million years ago in Africa, are doubtful, nothing more than fire-reddened sediments and charcoal that may or may not have been the work of primitive man. But the evidence grows as the reign of Homo erectus advances. There is Swartkans Cave in South Africa, where million-year-old stone tools and ash occur together. There are sites in China, with hearths of clay, silt, and limestone, from what seems to be more than a half million years ago. And there is Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, where fire was used regularly several hundred thousand years ago.

Homo sapiens inherited and improved fire technologies, and eventually built homes. By fifty thousand years ago, homes of various descriptions were common. Some were mere extensions of caves, some were propped up with mammoth tusks, and some were formed from bent over sticks. The hearth, though, was a common feature. But it was not the hearth of today. It was often nothing more than a shallow bowl in the ground. Smoke moved upward, passing through openings in ancient roofs or simply collecting in the living space, forcing our foremothers and forefathers to choose between cold fresh air and smoke filled warmth.

The chimney's birthdate is unknown, but they were becoming common among the wealthy by the fourteenth century in parts of Europe. They were not universally welcomed. From a man named Harrison, writing in 1577: "Now we have many chimneys, and yet our tenderlings complaine of rewmes, catarres, and poses; then had we none but rere doses, and our heads did never ake. For as the smoke in those days was supposed to be a sufficient hardening for the timber of the house, so it was reputed a far better medicine to keep the good man and his family from the quacks and the pose."

The fireplace with a chimney proved itself, so much so that the technology remains intact after more than seven centuries. But the conventional fireplace is not an efficient device.
"The upright heat," wrote Banjamin Franklin in 1745, "flies directly up the Chimny. Thus Five Sixths at least of the Heat (and consequently of the Fewel) is wasted, and contributes nothing towards warming the Room."

Cold air leaked in from outside, replacing the warm air sucked up the chimney. Franklin thought the cold drafts caused illness. "Women particularly," he wrote "from this Cause, (as they sit much in the House) get Colds in the Head."

In a self published paper, Franklin presented the six fireplace designs with which he was familiar and the various ways in which chimneys could be modified to improve their draw. He went on to suggest a new design, a design that relied on cast iron and that trapped heat. He called it the Pennsylvanian Fireplace.

In the years since Franklin, fireplaces have gone in two directions. In one direction, they have become ornamental, often burning gas or dispensing with combustion altogether and instead using electricity to create illusory flames. Taken to its extreme, the ornamental fireplace resides on a computer screen and can be ignited with a gentle touch.

In the other direction, fireplaces have become increasingly efficient heaters. Serious users tend to gravitate toward woodstoves, sometimes called Franklin Stoves, although they are different than and far more efficient than Franklin's Pennsylvanian Fireplace. But there are other choices.

There is, for example, the increasingly common insert, which dramatically improves the performance of conventional fireplaces without the need for major reconstruction. Or there is the less common masonry heater, which looks like a conventional fireplace but relies on improvements to an ancient design behind the scenes, sending heat and smoke up a serpentine chimney and storing that heat in the stone itself. And there are outdoor fireplaces, built to boil water or to warm air that is sent through pipes to radiate heat into otherwise cold rooms.

Many frown upon woodburning fireplaces, cursing them as anachronisms, declaring them unhealthy, inconvenient, and unsafe. The nonprofit Environmental and Human Health, Inc., warns that fireplace smoke contains fine soot, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide, and, of course, carcinogens. Samantha Frapart, blogging on Green Blizzard, called wood burning fires "one of the most environmentally unfriendly winter customs." And mismanaged fireplaces and chimneys can burn down the house.

Nevertheless, there is something inescapably wonderful about the special combination of sound, light, and heat that come from the fireplace.

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