Everything you need to know about fireplaces

The oldest form of heating has come a long way, but there is still something magical about a woodburning heater.

Bunnings magazine, July 2019

Burn, baby, burn

There’s nothing like a fireplace to warm your home, and many of today’s wood heaters are eco-friendly; new solid-fuel heaters are cleaner burning and more efficient than older styles, producing less pollution. Particle emissions do contribute to pollution, but modern sophisticated heaters emit about one-tenth of the smoke of an open fireplace. Chris Bycroft of Bycroft Chimney Sweeping says, “Australia has some of the toughest regulations in the world when it comes to emissions.”

How to choose a fireplace

Before you hit the shops, start by measuring your space. The nominal area that a wood heater will keep pleasantly toasty is among the first features mentioned in its product info. There are two main categories: radiant wood heaters and convection heaters

A radiant heater transfers energy in straight lines from the hot outer skin of the unit. It’s a good choice for a large or high-ceilinged space as it keeps the heat lower. By comparison, a convection heater uses a fan to circulate air around the firebox and propel the warmth out. They blow hot air, which is great for a well-insulated room, but it can otherwise dissipate into the rest of the house.

Decide whether you want the heater built into your wall. A freestanding wood heater gives more flexibility than an in-built one and is better at heating a large, open area. Even if you choose a fan-forced convection model, it will still radiate more heat from the flue and firebox into its immediate surroundings. In-built heaters have a more compact footprint, requiring a smaller hearth. You can also purchase a zero-clearance kit if you wish to have one installed into a timber stud wall.

Where to put your fireplace

A central location is usually best, but the position depends on several factors, including optimal flue placement. “A wood heater that has been tested to Australian Standards must be installed by a person qualified to do so,” says Demi Brown, general manager of the Australian Home Heating Association (AHHA). A certified installer will also advise you on the best location for your heater.

It is a legal requirement to install a hearth if you have combustible flooring under a freestanding heater or in front of an in-built model. The instructions for your heater will identify the minimum clearances between the firebox and any permanent fixtures nearby. Manufacturers also advise keeping anything combustible at least 1.2 metres away.

A clean sweep

How often you need to empty the ashes depends on how much use your heater gets. Matt Bray of Scandia advises not to empty it completely. “When the ash is around 80 to 100mm high it’s a good time to clean the ash from the fireplace, leaving some large, stagnant charcoal and a thin layer of ash at the bottom to help establish the next fire.”

Modern wood heaters are designed to keep the glass clear during normal operation, but cleaning is recommended. “It is advised to clean the glass to maintain the allure of the flame,” says Matt. “Once the glass is cool, moisten some scrunched up newspaper and dip into the ash in the fireplace. Rub the ash-covered paper onto the glass to remove the soot. Wipe with paper towel.” You can also buy specialist cleaning products. Have your heater serviced once a year by a qualified technician. If it’s burning less efficiently or becomes smoky, check for obstructions like wind-blown debris or a bird’s nest under the cowl (at top of flue). The oily deposit (creosote) that builds up inside the flue will need to be cleaned annually. 

Do your research

Before investing in a wood-burning heater, check with the relevant authority, for example your local council, as there may be local regulations about where and how wood fires and chimneys can be installed. Notification under building regulations may also be required. Wood-burning heaters may not be recommended in some high-density metropolitan areas, or where local topography affects smoke dispersion.

Good wood

Do: The best choice for fuel is sustainably sourced, seasoned (meaning dry) hardwood. “Firewood purchased from a reputable supplier must be below 20 per cent moisture content,” says the AHHA’s Demi Brown. 

Don’t: Never burn offcuts such as hardwood decking. “Most of the time building materials are treated,” says Demi. Also avoid burning coal – it can damage your firebox. Only use fuels that are labelled as safe for wood heaters. You should never burn treated pine, plywood, medium-density fibreboard (MDF), particleboard, painted or pre-primed timber, or driftwood.

Pick out a fireplace perfect for you

Head into your local Bunnings store to pick up your ideal fireplace. If you’re still feeling stuck on which one is right for you, check out our article on how to choose a heater.

Photo credit: Scandia, Gap Interiors (Douglas Gibb)

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