A fireplace is an emotional object that more often than not has to be accepted on faith rather than facts.
The cold, hard facts are that the typical open fireplace is an enormous squanderer of energy, with most of the expensively generated heat going right up the flue. Even glass-door-equipped zero-clearance units engineered to achieve maximum heat output fall well short of the goal of matching the thoroughly unromantic but relatively efficient forced-air furnace.
Facts aside, a fireplace is romantic, part of the California tradition and a major design element in any room. Given a choice between a fireplace and none, most homeowners would want a fireplace--even if they rarely use it and keep the damper closed.
American Hearthland Inc., Geneva, Ill., has developed what might be called (with apologies to Apple Computers) "the fireplace for the rest of us."
By eliminating the flue and using a gelled alcohol fuel that is derived from grain, the firm has developed in its Natural Flame Fireplace line a unit that can be used in an apartment, a condominium, a mobile home and even a boat.
Since no chimney is provided, there is no loss of heat. Studies have shown that conventional fireplaces not only do not produce any usable heat, they actually steal heated air from the room.
With the American Hearthland fireplace, each pint of gelled alcohol--retailing for about $1.25--supplies three hours of heat. If you want to move the fireplace from one part of the room to another, go ahead. You can even move it to another room.
I had a chance to see this remarkable fireplace at the recent Western Home Center & Building Supply Dealers Show. and I have to admit that it appears impressive. The distributor for the Southland, Dean Stoecker of Carrera Distributing Co., 1334 Parkview Ave., Manhattan Beach 90266, showed me the various products available from this innovative Illinois manufacturer.
"The gelled alcohol fuel produces 8,000 BTU (British Thermal Units) per hour," Stoecker said. "The fuel is burned in a fuel cell designed to snuff out the fire in case of an earthquake and the fuel and lighting system are approved by Underwriter's Laboratory," he added. "The firebox has been tested and is nationally listed and labeled by Terralab Engineers Inc., Salt Lake City, an independent test laboratory."
If you already have a fireplace--either manufactured or masonry--you can purchase a 17-inch grate with light and logs for under $150, Stoecker said. Information about dealers can be obtained direct from his firm. A firebox for a permanent or cabinet installation has a suggested retail price of just under $300, with the cabinet priced at just under $200.