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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 05:41 pm

Light your fire the eco-friendly way

A roaring fireplace is one of winter’s most enduring images

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What warms the hearth may not always be good for the environment – here’s a look at eco-friendly fireplace options.

It may look pretty, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average emissions of fine particles into the air from one of the 22 million fireplaces in the United States are far greater (as much as 20 times greater) than those from a wood-burning stove, pellet stove, or oil or gas furnace. That kind of mucks up the romantic view, doesn’t it?

Not only do those fine particles go up the chimney and into the air outside, but depending on your fireplace and your flue, they are also circulated in the air inside your home. And all that polluting isn’t even for a good cause. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the conventional open front-style fireplace is just 10-percent efficient at turning wood into warmth-providing energy. But you don’t have to eschew the beauty of a crackling fire in order to go green.

Like practically everything else, there are eco-friendly options in the fireplace market these days that look good, do the job, yet manage to minimize their impact on the environment. And, as some communities are now restricting or banning wood burning, these options look that much more attractive.

Glass
One of the most striking alternatives to a wood-burning fire is using colored tempered glass pieces. Colored squares or ovals of tempered glass chosen to fit your décor (along with a burner) directly replace gas or wood logs.

When the fire is ignited, the tempered glass can withstand heat, retain its color over time, yet does not emit any carbon toxins.  Fires in a fireplace with glass do not get quite as hot as an open wood fire.
It would be hard to roast marshmallows over a fire with tempered glass, but it can be used indoors or in outdoor fire pits, and is still effective in warding off the winter chill.

Denatured ethanol
Just as clean-burning ethanol has become an option for fueling automobiles, at least in part, so, too, is it a possible substitute for gas or wood logs. An Australia-based firm called The Fire Co., makes EcoSmart Fire, one of the denatured ethanol fireplaces sold in the United States.

Interior designers like it because it does not require a flue, meaning it can be placed anywhere in the room, and can be built in different sizes and shapes, even in pieces of furniture such as coffee tables. Some critics, however, think the chemicals added to the ethanol during production reduce the eco-friendly aspect somewhat.

Faux logs
These are not your grandmother’s silly-looking ceramic, fake logs. Today, alternatives to wood-burning are made of renewable resources that release up to 80-percent fewer emissions than regular wood when burned. Options include logs made from non-petroleum natural wax, recycled sawdust and even spent coffee beans.

Not only does this mean less carbon monoxide and residue in the air, but less creosote build-up on the walls of your chimney, making the fireplace easier to clean. The Java-Log, which sells for approximately $2-$4 at hardware stores, grocery stores and other neighborhood retailers, has a distinct, woodsy smell, but does not make your living room smell like a Starbucks. Other options include logs made of soy and switchgrass.

The virtual solution
If even these options include too many open flames for you, opt for the Ambient Fire or other DVDs for approximately $15 that allow you to display a cozy fireplace roaring on your TV screen.

Of course, while they do not emit toxins, they also do not give off heat and aren’t that good for late-winter snuggling. But, you never have to bother to stoke the fire.

If you already have a non-green fireplace in your house, don’t despair. You can convert existing fireplaces to one of the options above. Depending on which you choose, you may be able to do it yourself, or you can have a qualified installer do the switch. In some areas, your local natural gas or electric utility can help you upgrade equipment for a small fee.

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