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Domestic Dispatches: My Fireplace Remodel, No Smoke Involved

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Domestic Dispatches: My Fireplace Remodel, No Smoke Involved

October 19, 2020

There are many reasons I married my husband: for his salsa recipe, ability to make the modem thing work, and taste in books (if he likes an Alan Furst, so will I). But perhaps his greatest hidden talent is he can make a fire. Yes, I know your husband can make a fire too. But trust me, my husband is the son of a fireplace tool maker. His father owned a factory in the aptly named Pennsylvania town of Sinking Spring, and my husband knows his way around a fireplace tool set like a dentist knows her suction hose, sprayer, and molar probe.

These days, however, my husband’s fire-making skills are obsolete. One of the realities of renovating an old house—at least if you live in my Northern California town—is not being allowed to keep a wood-burning fireplace because of the pollution and health risks associated with woodsmoke. So, goodbye to the romance of the hearth?

No, no, no. I found a happy solution. If you love fires, read on to learn more about environmentally friendly options:

Why can’t I keep my wood-burning fireplace?

See more in The Soot House: Conjuring the Ghosts of Old New England on Spruce Head in Maine on Remodelista. Photograph by Greta Rybus.
Above: See more in The Soot House: Conjuring the Ghosts of Old New England on Spruce Head in Maine on Remodelista. Photograph by Greta Rybus.

There are five stages of fireplace grief, and after the the architect told me the wood-burning fireplace had to go, my first reaction was denial.  Keep your laws off my living room, City of Mill Valley! The city’s rule seemed like one more pushy intrusion into everyday life by a megalomaniacal zoning department. (These are after all the same people who have mandated fluorescent kitchen lighting, inadvertently creating a local underground railroad of gently used ceiling fixtures that make the rounds one step ahead of the inspector’s visit.) 

But then I started Googling. It turns out that woodsmoke is a bad thing to breathe. Children can get asthma from it. In fact, dozens of studies link exposure to woodsmoke to a rise in both chronic and acute illnesses in all ages of humans. Citing smoke’s chemical and particulate emissions as major sources of air pollution, many counties ban wood fires on days when air quality is poor. (If you’re caught in my county with a fire on a no-burn day, the fine is $100.)

See more in The Soot House: Conjuring the Ghosts of Old New England on Spruce Head in Maine on Remodelista. Photograph by Greta Rybus.
Above: See more in The Soot House: Conjuring the Ghosts of Old New England on Spruce Head in Maine on Remodelista. Photograph by Greta Rybus.

So, yes, goodbye to the grand chaos of a wood fire, and the crackling sound of it, and the little missiles of burning ember that go flying out from the center, and the lovely smoky smell. Goodbye to the Boy Scouts’ Campfire Building Badge, and to roasted marshmallows, and to husbands’ elaborate fire-starting rituals: the carefully arranged pile of twigs and bits of wedged newspaper that looks like a spooky devil catcher from True Detectives.

When you’re in the thick of a remodel, with a big chimney in the middle of the living room, you stare at it and wonder what to do with it. Leave the hearth sitting empty, a gaping black hole that’s a reminder of yet another cherished ritual that has turned out to be bad for us? Board it up (how will Santa find us)? Or spend $3,000 to convert the fireplace to natural gas?

Option 1: Close off the chimney.

Above: A non-functioning fireplace in a small bedroom by designer Elizabeth Roberts. Photograph by Matthew Williams from Remodelista: A Manual for the Considered Home.

We thought about making the fireplace inoperable. A lot of people do this. You close off the chimney, shut the damper, leave the hearth open, and fill the opening with something decorative.

For instance, there are glass fireplace logs formed by pouring molten glass into casts of real wood (for more information, see Jeff Benroth). These logs are not meant to be heated, but you can add a few strategically placed votive candles for a firelight effect. Or, you can stack a set of white porcelain logs (their lengths range from 12 to 14 inches) in a non-operational fireplace and admire their chalky purity.

Above L: Signed and numbered cast glass fireplace logs from Jeff Benroth are 15 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. Above R: The porcelain StillLife Wood Set is $345 from KleinReid.

Option 2: Board it up.

Above: For similar artwork, visit Permanent Press Editions.

We considered boarding up our fireplace. After you seal the chimney, you lay a wall of brick inside the fireplace. Cover the brick–with plaster or a grill or a decorative cover. Then treat the mantel like one more piece of furniture in the room: hang a mirror or artwork over it.

Option 3: Convert it to a natural gas-burning fireplace.

Above: A seven-piece Berkley Oak Ceramic Fiber; for more information, see Monessen.
In the end, we decided to convert our fireplace to burn natural gas because I wanted more than a fond memory of fire; I wanted fire. Minor detail: our remodeling budget did not include $3,000 to convert the fireplace to gas. So we cut back on something else—goodbye, skylight in the back hallway) to find the money.

We ran a gas line from the furnace in the basement all the way up into the living room. We re-bricked the chimney. We installed a vent. We bought a set of ceramic logs. And ceramic embers. And got a set of airtight glass doors.

Bonus: The ceramic logs and embers are a lot of fun to play with. You can stack the wood in different configurations and arrange the embers around the base.

So now we have a fire whenever we want–without ashes to sweep or soot buildup on the mantel or tiny carcinogenic particles of burned wood wafting around in the air. The flames leap and the embers glow and, on some nights, I even will allow myself the filthy indulgence of burning a little Red Cedar Incense ($10 for a box of 50 pieces from Paine’s) to infuse the room with “real fire smell.”

There is one problem, though. To get the natural gas flowing, you must turn a giant scary lever located inconspicuously in the bottom shelf of a bookcase next to the fireplace. But first, you have to light a long match and place it in the fake embers. Then you run over to the bookcase to turn on the gas. If you crank the lever too far, gas rushes into the fireplace and causes a whoosh, and flames leap up as if unleashed from the depths of hell. There is always a fear one or more of the dogs will get singed. On the other hand, if you don’t turn the lever far enough, the lighted match in the fireplace doesn’t catch fire at all, and I worry that a slow steady seepage of invisible gas will claim me as surely as if I were Sylvia Plath.

Luckily, my husband is very good at turning on the gas.

What about you? Would you give up your wood-burning fireplace for health reasons? Tell us about it in the comments section.

N.B.: Read more of Michelle’s Domestic Dispatches.

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