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FURNISHINGS : A Place to Light a Fire, With All the Works


They're dirty and add to your heating and cooling costs, but for many people, a home isn't a home without a fireplace.

Their use dates back to when primitive man built fires at the mouth of his cave to cook food, provide heat and scare off unwanted intruders.

Today, the modern fireplace is a decoration that provides a sense of "coziness" to the home.

But while you can remodel your fireplace to change its appearance, you have to realize that it's going to warm little more than a few marshmallows.

Most fireplaces are inefficient, because on cold nights the air they use to burn has already been warmed, either by the fireplace or the furnace.

In new-home construction, glass doors are required to be built in front of your fireplace to prevent air in the home from being burned. Such doors can be added to an old fireplace.

While your fireplace may seem like a simple arrangement of bricks, mortar and a chimney, it's more complicated than you might think. The modern fireplace works on principles based on the work of Count Rumford of England and Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s.

To keep the smoke rising up instead of out into the room, it is pulled past the damper--which is controlled by the valve near the fireplace opening--and up the flue.

Cold outside air would normally flow down into the fireplace and into the house from the chimney, except that a smoke or draft shelf in the back of the flue next to the damper deflects the air so that it rises with the smoke.

The hearth--the brick or stone tiles in front of the fireplace--does more than keep ashes from your carpet. It protects the floor surface from sparks that might fly out through the fire screen.

Although they may work the same way, there are no standard sizes for fireplaces, and the choices for dressing one up are endless. However, when changing the look of a room, the fireplace is often forgotten.

"It's a big hole that people often don't know what to do with," says Chris Jank of the Hearthstone store in Corona del Mar.

If you are not happy with your fireplace and you're not willing to invest in a complete remodeling job, there are a number of relatively inexpensive ways to give your fireplace a new look.

One of the most significant ways to change the look of a fireplace is to replace the mantel. Several manufacturers make mantel kits with easy instructions that show how to add or replace the woodwork around your fireplace.

"They're available in a number of styles and stains, and they're fairly easy to do," says Dennis Timpson of Village Patio Shop in Orange. "Basically a mantel is just attached to a runner board underneath. You remove the nails or screws holding the old one in place and replace it with the new one."

However, before shopping for mantels or any other fireplace accessory, it's important to take a measurement of your fireplace's opening, as well as its depth.

"That's the biggest mistake I see people make," says Timpson. "They think their fireplace is an 'average' size, but there's no average. Almost every fireplace has different dimensions."

When looking for a mantel, you might also price custom-built mantels, which may not be as expensive as you'd think.

"An average, 6-foot oak shelf mantel will probably cost about $200 to $250, whether it's from a kit or it's custom built," says Dennis Kitsas of Yorba Linda Patio and Hearth. "For the mantels that fully surround the fireplace, a kit will usually cost around $500 to $600, while a custom mantel will be $700 to $750."

Flagstone and mirrored fireplace mantels, while popular in previous years, have apparently become passe. "No one really wants those anymore," Jank says.

Many homeowners who are tired of buying firewood and cleaning the chimney and fireplace are converting to gas logs.

"They're extremely popular now, especially since many people are putting in white carpeting near the fireplace and they don't want to risk getting it dirty," Jank says.

Gas logs are relatively simple to install, provided that your fireplace has a gas outlet. Older fireplaces without gas outlets may need to have the gas lines professionally installed.

Gas logs usually look nice and burn cleanly. However, they produce little heat for the room, which may not be so bad.

"For the most part, people want their fireplace to look great and they don't want it to be losing any heat," says Jank. "After all, this isn't Idaho. Our climate isn't severe enough to require a heat-producing fireplace."

To help save on energy costs, many people are adding glass doors to their fireplaces to protect the warm air in their home.

"There are lots of different choices you can make," Timpson says. "There are some glass doors that are flush to the mantel, providing a nice, clean look."

When looking at glass doors, ask if you can bring them home on a trial basis to see how they'll look first.

"Many homeowners find that the glass doors make their fireplace look smaller," Jank says.

Should you decide against glass doors, make sure the opening is protected by a properly sized screen. This will prevent sparks from flying out of the hearth and igniting your carpeting.

If you don't care for the masonry work around your hearth, consider using limestone.

"The big trend in homes continues to be the Southwest look, and you see a lot of limestone being used, since it fits in with southwestern decor and is less formal than marble," says Jank.

Several masonry kits are available at lumber supply stores that let you change a brick fireplace to tile or vice versa.

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