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Fireplaces: Fantasy Outweighs Function

February 14, 1991|JANUARY RIDDLE

Benjamin Franklin discovered that the dimensions of a fireplace and its flue make a difference in efficiency. He tinkered with inserts that brought more heat indoors and channeled smoke outside. His inventions have been copied, changed and embellished.

In this corner of the country, the evolution of the stove and fireplace have taken some interesting turns, few of them in the direction of efficiency that Franklin pursued: Most people who buy stoves and fireplaces in North County don't have cooking or heating on their minds.

Fallbrook antique dealer Ivan Evans buys, restores and sells vintage stoves in his store, the Tin Barn. He knows the history of each of his cast-iron, tin, aluminum, nickel, porcelain and ceramic heating devices as if they were twigs on a family tree.

Whether they pay $150 for a tin insert or $6,000 for an ornate free-standing monolith, half his customers buy stoves for the looks of them, Evans says.

His assessment is echoed and increased by those who deal in fireplaces. All the history and development and craftwork notwithstanding, the place of the firebox in North County homes is one of form, not function.

This is San Diego, after all, not Bangor. Even so, a new home in San Diego county must be built with at least one fireplace.

"It's not a true need, but people want it," said Anthony Botte, a manager of McKellar Properties. A McKellar subdivision in Vista has hearths raised 18 inches from the floor to offer a bench rather than a simple flat hearth. Another North County project has fireplaces in the bedroom.

Modifications, Botte said, can include variations in facing, mantles, bi-fold doors, columns and metal hearths. But the justification is decoration.

A fireplace in today's new North County home is "like a picture or a vase. It's like a Roman tub in the bath. How many people use it? But most people want it anyway."

This is fire for fantasy. Lorrali Herrera of Sunstone in Solana Beach, a company specializing in high-end custom homes, described the marble tile facing and the corner placement of the requisite fireplaces in the houses her company builds.

"They are decorative almost exclusively," she said of the two or three fireplaces per Sunstone unit. "One of our homes in Oceanside has one next to the sliding glass door so that you can see the ocean and the fire at the same time." A bedroom fireplace in a Cardiff home is so tidy it will accommodate only one small log. This is fire as romance.

Cost is still a reality, however, and recent developments address that. Scott Popke, co-owner of SBS, a fireplace systems company in Escondido, said the cost-reduction name in today's fire game is "zero clearance."

The firebox sits on the floor. The insulation is interior, with metal casing replacing the expensive brickwork of yore. "You still build the framing, but the flooring can be any type," Popke said.

For remodels, where a fireplace is an addition, a hole in the wall with a concrete slab extension outside the house serves as the base. Wood framers construct the chase that houses the pipe, which must extend at least three feet above the roof. This structure eliminates the masonry that takes days and costs thousands. Once the framing work is done, Popke said, the installation of the fireplace takes less than two hours.

What he charges depends on the fireplace itself, which in turn depends largely on the size of the firebox. A 36-inch-wide basic fireplace runs $435. The "granddaddy of the market" with its 55 1/8-inch box is $1,145. Far from being rejected as a dinosaur, however, this whopper of a system has been embraced as a lovable whale.

"We have seven on hand at any one time," Popke said. "People buy them because they recall a major fireplace from their childhood or something."

And this from local folks who, Popke insisted, buy fireplaces "to add beauty. That's 80% of my customers. Only 20% are concerned about heat." For that minority, the company sells a model that puts out 80,000 BTUs (more than a stove), for $1,275.

As long as the fireplace is going to remain a familiar fixture, why not consider its energy as well as its ambience?

"Airtight," said Dave Franco, a general building contractor in Temecula. "You can control the flame from the outside with damper valves. Most of the heat (in modern fireplaces) goes outside because there is too much air in the fireplace. It's like leaving the front door open when you turn your heater on."

Airtight equipment, he said, shuts that door and uses the heat to advantage. "Some models can be used for cooking," he said.

An airtight insert in an existing fireplace can renovate an energy bill. Adding a wood-burning stove is another option.

"A wood-burning stove will pay itself off in one year if you use electricity for heat now," Franco said, noting that his family burned scrap wood from his construction sites, supplying 80% of the heat in their 2,400-square-foot house for an entire winter. When the electricity went out and the water pipes froze, the Francos cooked and heated bath water on the wood-burner.

But he also realizes that local winters rarely demand such measures.

"A fireplace has to suit the area you're in," Franco said. "How cold does it get in San Diego County? Very few people even burn wood; most put gas logs in for the looks of it."

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