Going from wood burner to instant gas fireplace
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
When we moved in, there was this old, working wood-burner (or, as Kiwis call them, a 'firebox') in our family lounge that we knew would need replacing. We kept it for one winter before changing it out for an instant gas fireplace. There were many reasons for this, but mostly:
1) The prep and effort it took wasn't working for our family life
2) It was really old. Considering the company that made these was dissolved in 1995, it was at least 18 years old, most likely older. Was it even working safely?
3) It probably wasn't going to be doing our lungs any good. Old solid fuel burners like ours emit a lot of particles and chemicals into the air. Judging by the staining on the ceiling, this one had been smoking for years
3) As an ugly box sitting squashed down at ground height, it sure wasn't pretty
4) We were changing a lot in this room, so it would look at odds with our reno if we left it as is
Here she is, in all her brown glory. Can you spot the lead for the fan that makes it look less than built-in?
Really, it was the effort that we had to put in that was the main reason we replaced it. We fetched wood, we set the fire, we lit, we stoked, we stoked, we opened the door because we couldn't see anything through the glass, we re-lit, we stoked, we stoked, we watched a black box that gave no hint of life, we waited, we waited, we waited...
We'd wait for an hour before there was even a hint of heat.
Then there'd be a sweet spot of just forty minutes when we were toasty and snuggly.
Then it was too hot and we'd be removing clothes.
Finally it'd be so hot that people started leaving the room to stop their eyeballs burning.
By then it'd be bedtime, so we doused out* the fire, all that work gone in an instant.
*"Leave the fire going overnight" you might say, but sorry, we're never going to do that with kids in the house, and anyway, this is a house built of WOOD!
It was just not fun or easy. Open wood fires may be romantic, staring into the flame and all, but wood burners keep the romance tucked up inside, hidden away from your view.
Shockingly, an old wood stove like ours burns at 16,500 times dirtier than gas!
But just look at the wall that the fire is on for a minute - look how strange the proportions were. Our ceilings are 3.4metres high, yet everything sits low. I explain more about adjusting these proportions here.
It turns out we were right to have concerns about safety, because when the fireplace technician got up on the roof to check before installation, he announced it was really dangerous because our chimney had been wrapped in butenoyl (our roof material) which meant one spark could start a fire. Did I mention this is a WOOD house?! Now, yes this had never happened and yes, he did contract to the fireplace company we were buying the new fire from, but still...
Do we replace with another wood-burner?
My research quickly showed me that there is no perfect fuel for a fireplace! There is opposing scientific evidence at every turn. Both emissions and efficiency need to be considered. There are so many variables, such as whether this is to be a main heat source for your home (we have ground-floor radiators so it's not for us) and the costs involved for installation and then usage and then maintenance.
I discovered that while wood burners are quite often perceived to be carbon-neutral, clean and renewable, they can be far from that. Many governments accept that woodsmoke is a dirty fuel because of what it releases into the atmosphere. This is no good for our climate or our lung health, and that 'renewable' is also controversial as okay, a tree can be planted to replace one felled for firewood, but in no way can it be replenished as fast; and while burning wood releases carbon, it takes decades for a replacement tree to absorb the same amount.
If we replaced with a new wood-burner, we would have needed council permission to ensure we bought an authorised low-emission burner. My source in the fireplace industry believes it won't be long before wood-burners are banned entirely in urban areas. In Christchurch (we're in Auckland) since 2010, old wood-burners are banned after they reach 15 years old. From Jan 2020, Christchurch is even going to ban the use of modern, low-emission wood-burners after 20 years of age.
What about an open fire?
Not on your nellie, for all the effort I mentioned above! They may be good for romance, but their efficiency can be as low as 15-20%, They draw air in from the room to support their combustion. Sounds great, but it doesn't churn the heated air back at you on the sofa - no, that wasted hot air goes straight up the chimney and out of the house.
Those little fake 'glowing coal' inserts also do this. We inherited one in the original front room that we removed and just left the cast-iron surround as decorative.
Why we went for an instant gas fireplace
Gas is a fossil fuel, yes, but it is a clean fuel. It burns so much more efficiently, up to 95% whereas a modern wood stove is only 60%. So less gas is needed. It's not the perfect answer, but it is good.
I particularly liked the lesser impact on lung health with kids in the house and after growing up with an asthmatic sister.
We already had a mains gas supply .
Also, the building work was already to be quite substantial for 2 reasons. Firstly, the age of our house. The firebox was placed inside the original open hearth and so the bricks around it were original and crumbly and would need replacing. Secondly, the firebox flue was so old that it would need total replacement. This meant that to raise the new fireplace off the floor and further up the wall would be an easy addition as we were kind of doing the work anyway. This would make such a difference in a high-ceilinged room like ours.
It would look much more sleek and modern on the wall, with less bulk.
It would give us INSTANT heat with the switch of a button.
Here it is! Not yet painted up, but installed and working. It has a removable front screen, but this is not heatproof - for kids you should always use a proper external fire surround.
It's a big hit with us and we're enjoying it immensely this winter. I love how the proportions are now sorted and how it looks in the wall. I'll post a follow-up once it's properly finished.