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Modern Fireplace

Appliance Types and Policy Goals

G. Fireplaces

Traditional fireplaces are the least efficient indoor wood burning technology of all; their open design limits the user’s ability to control a fire or burn at temperatures high enough to ignite all wood combustion products.  However, most fireplaces are used only occasionally, not as a source of home heating, and pose a smaller air quality threat than wood stoves.1 The EPA estimates that 42% of fireplaces are not used at all, and those used for heating and aesthetic purposes consume only .656 and .069 cords per year respectively.2 Some consumers mistakenly believe that a fireplace can function as a home heating device; however, fireplaces usually only warm the surrounding few feet and actually act as a heat vacuum, sucking the warm air out of surrounding spaces and sending the heat up the chimney.

New technology has been recently developed to help make fireplaces a cleaner wood-burning option. The EPA has also developed a set of voluntary standards for fireplaces, available here. The site includes a list of qualifying fireplaces as well as program partners. Some modern fireplace designs seal off the fireplace to only take in outside air, preventing heat from leaving the house and achieving a more complete combustion. Another company created a hybrid gas and wood fireplace model that uses hot gas fires as a secondary combustion to more completely burn particulates.

Policy Considerations
Some incentive programs, such as the Arizona state program, provide incentives to replace open fireplaces with wood stoves or fireplace inserts. This serves the dual purpose of helping the homeowner obtain an appliance that actually produces heat and burns cleanly, as well as inhibiting that homeowner from using the fireplace in its traditional manner. Depending on funds, Fort Collins, Colorado periodically has a zero loan program that allows homeowners to upgrade from a fireplace or wood stove to a certified wood stove/insert or pellet stove 3. Upgrading from a traditional fireplace to an insert not only will result in air quality improvements, but will actually increase overall home energy efficiency by acting to better seal the building envelope.

Many changeout programs focus only on replacing uncertified wood stoves without accounting for the effects that fireplaces have on air sheds. While it is difficult to calculate these effects due to periodic and unpredictable fireplace usage, these devices often emit very high levels of particulates per hour. One EPA report estimates the average (non-EPA qualified) fireplace can emit 85.4 g/hr4 while the EPA Burnwise program reports uncertified wood stoves at between 15-30 g/hr.5 Replacing uncertified wood stoves will generally have the greatest effect on air quality since they are typically used more often, but because of the potential of some fireplaces to emit large levels of particulates, they should not be overlooked when considering air quality improvement programs.

1 Gunnells L. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Wood Stoves, Fireplaces and Chronic Disease. Washington State Department of Health. October 2009. Pg 19
2 EPA, Technical Report, Volume 09. pg. 1,<>
3 City of Fort Collins <>
4 E.H. Pechan & Associates, Inc. Emission Factor Documentation for AP-42 Section 1.9, Residential Fireplaces.EPAPg. A-2 <>
5 EPA, Burnwise Program. Last updated Jan. 7, 2011 <>

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