What Happened To Real Fireplaces?

It’s simply because of the construction of modern homes. In fact older homes, those built before the say the 1950’s were better equipped to handle wood burning. For one many modern homes are not even built with brick chimneys anymore, but let’s dive into the reasons why it happened. Let’s go on a history lesson.

1.) No Ventilation

Homes that were built before the mid 20th century were designed to be heated by wood. This meant that a home had to have an adequate ventilation because in order for a wood fireplace to work adequately, they need what is called draft.

Modern homes do not have enough draft in order to keep a wood fireplace lit. They will go out. This is because space heaters replaced fireplaces for energy efficiency, so new forms of insulation have replaced asbestos and fiberglass such as foam.

Soot which is also a carcinogen from a fireplace is created from incomplete combustion, from the existence of no draft or a weak fire. So many homeowners wonder why their original fireplaces are so dirty, after they just paid a lot of money for contractors to make their home “energy efficient“. This requires them to put chemical agents in the wood to make them more flammable, which are also more dangerous to your health.

Homes built before mid 20th century required adequate ventilation because air conditioners did not exist. During the summer months the only way to cool down your home was with very large windows. So it was common for victorian house construction to have opposing rooms from one another. What this meant was if you had a bedroom on one side you had a bedroom on another side, the windows were built directly opposite of each other. It was called crossdraft. That’s why you had hallways instead of open concept. This created a huge draft of air circulation to cool homes during the summer. It was called a dogtrot house among other designs. Today we favor open concept instead of many smaller rooms with giant windows.

created a huge draft of air circulation to cool homes during the summer. It was called a dogtrot house among other designs. Today we favor open concept instead of many smaller rooms with giant windows.

How houses were cooled before air conditioning

We also planted trees very close to homes, to provide adequate shading and a breeze to allow a draft to move back-and-forth between the windows. Also we had porches and storm windows. They were called shotgun features during the victorian era, that allowed home owners to keep windows open even when it was raining and even during the winter. More air circulation, more cross draft, better ventilation.

On modern homes we do not cool down during the summer months with the use of windows or draft holes in wood, but because we have climate control units and air conditioners. So the windows on modern homes are made with energy efficient gas filled vinyl and they are much smaller in size. They’re called replacement windows. Modern homes use foam insulation because they are required to be “energy efficient”. This saves on electricity and heating bills when it comes to modern technology.

New build homes face emerging ventilation crisis

Asthma could be worsened by energy-efficient homes, warns study

Also chimneys played a huge role which I will mention later in the article. A lot of people think chimneys were constructed to remove toxic chemicals from the area high enough so it will be dispersed on people. Not true. Large chimneys were built to provide a draft. The taller the chimney, the bigger the draft you would get. Homes are no longer built with large brick or stone chimneys anymore to save costs.

2.) The Invention Of Gas Fireplaces

This is where we enter the 21st-century. A huge new technology blew up in the 1970s and it was called gas fireplaces. This was set to replace real wood fireplaces because it would save costs and require less maintenance. It would require little to no maintenance, you would not even need to build a real chimney anymore.

First, notice that we started to hear all about the dangerous health effects of real wood fireplaces, at the exact same time gas fireplaces became popular. Is that any coincidence? For thousands of years we burned our homes with wood, but all of a sudden it was killing everyone who used it? How did Thomas Jefferson live to be 83? How did John Adams live to be 90? Our founders did not use gas. This would make people believe that gas fireplaces are a safer alternative and that is how the industry sold them. Less maintenance and safer, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Gas originally replaced your real wood fireplace, so what that meant was you put a gas ignitor inside of an actual chimney. However newer homes are no longer being built with real chimneys, and they have little to no draft. The industry adopted what is called ventless gas fireplaces, and that is exactly what it sounds like. There is no ventilation, there is no draft, and we are made to believe that this is safe.

Many people don’t realize that gas just like wood or any other substance that is burned, creates carbon monoxide and a host of other chemicals when it is burned off. You would never turn on every range on your gas stove and leave it on all day in a closed room, but we are made to believe that it’s okay to keep a gas fireplace running all day in a newer energy efficient home? Do you ever feel lightheaded or sleepy close to one?

Bob Vila and the Vent-Free Gas Fireplace — A Sorry State of Affairs

Vent-Free Gas Fireplaces — Are They Safe? | HomeAdvisor

Many scientists are starting to research the effects of ventless gas inside your homes, and are starting to question whether they are actually more safe than burning wood or if they could in fact be worse. Burning gas is not carbon neutral. Wood is considered a biomass. When compared to enclosed wood-burning stoves that produce even less emissions, the so-called “heath improvements” may not even exist. It’s cheaper to install a fireplace without a chimney. That’s why we have gas fireplaces. It saves a ton of costs.

Not all gas fireplaces are ventless, but gas fireplaces can only be adequately drafted out of the house if it’s installed where a real fire place and chimney was there to begin with. Again that means newer homes built without chimneys have a much lower draft and no cross draft at all.

Not mention that when gas fireplaces started getting installed in the 1970s, consumers wanted them to look like a real fire so they used what are called ”fake embers”. These fake embers were originally made of asbestos. Your older gas fireplace could be burning asbestos every day of your life and you would never even know about it. There is a great danger in cleaning out old gas fireplaces yourself. Rock wool replaced asbestos, but there are also dangers to rock wool. Also “asbestos free” vermiculite is used as well, but that is also debatable how accurate that is. These fake embers also many times contain flame retardant in them to prevent combustion.

Asbestos in Fireplaces

Behavior of rock wool in lungs after exposure by nasal inhalation in rats

Real fireplaces used to use volcanic rock as embers, which are also more expensive today and getting harder to find. So even the real fireplaces today that are left are even using new artificial embers that pose unknown health effects when they are burned in the air and handled.

3.) Decline Of Sweepers & Steeplejacks

This moves on to my next point, on why real fires cost a lot more. They require an entire industry of workers to keep them running. In order to keep a fireplace running clean from black soot, you need a proper draft in your chimney. Overtime chimneys get blocked with soot from neglect. During the prime of chimney sweepers, chimneys would be cleaned once a week or twice a month. Many home owners do not want to be bothered anymore, or they neglect their chimneys.

There are less chimney sweepers today than there were 100 years ago obviously. It is getting more difficult to find chimney sweepers, and in many communities they do not even exist at all.

The Disappearing Chimney Sweeps of Paris

Chimney Sweepers of the Victorian Era

So many people with real fireplaces decided to switch over to gas because they want less maintenance, or they keep their fireplaces and then complain about the black soot but don’t question the condition of their chimney that is now over 100 years old. Do you see the dilemma?

Also the trade of laying chimneys and even the use of them has declined over the past century. Although we’ve kept them on a lot of older homes and commercial buildings, a lot of them are inactive. Laying a chimney is a dying art that is disappearing as we switched to gas and electricity. They were called steeplejacks, and they would master the art of texturing stucco brick work. By the way, most of these chimneys put out by older mills only outputted steam, they were not toxic and were very similar to how nuclear power stacks operate.

Kids growing up today will have no idea what Mary Poppins is talking about. They will have no concept of Santa Clause. Can you imagine that?

4.) Decline Of Old Growth Woods

My last point I will bring up is the disappearance of old growth woods.

Old growth woods burn cleaner and they produce better flames. The woods we are using today produce more soot because they have a higher BTU which means a more difficult time combusting and keeping a good flame. The denser the wood, the less soot it produces and the slower it burns. The more efficient.

BTUs in large branches versus the main trunk wood

Your typical commercial firewood sold in stores today has flame inducing chemicals in them to make them more flammable, because they are not dense at all. They are sourced from young trees that are harvested to grow extremely fast unnaturally. With less access to better woods today because it is more profitable for the market to sell young lumber, the less of a quality fire you will have.

Old-Growth Wood: What It Is and Why It’s Worth Keeping — Boston Building Resources

Old-Growth Forests Can Actually Contribute to Global Warming

I grew up around homes in New England that were heated by real fires for decades. Many people in my area would find their own trees to cut down that were very old. They would source their own lumber that was high quality. We would help cut up stumps from trees that were sometimes 200 years old. I can tell you that sitting next to one as a child for hours as I would take naps, I could not smell anything and there was never any soot. Many people don’t cut down their own trees anymore or even know how to use an axe.

They say that wood burning stoves and fireplaces produce a large amount of CO2 emissions when burned, but that’s only if you are buying new growth woods. If you buy reclaimed old growth lumber it will be carbon neutral, it will burn slower which means less soot and healthier for you. Not to mention that by buying and using a gas fireplace, you are supporting an industry that is drastically worse in emissions; natural gas.

My Take / Opinion:

I would love to see a side-by-side comparison of air quality. The difference between a ventless gas fireplace used in a modern home, and an enclosed wood-burning stove using very dense old growth woods in an older home with a huge cross draft. I guarantee you the differences would not be as dramatic as they say, and real wood fireplaces may even be healthier than gas. I don’t know the answer to that, but I would love to find out. I think vented gas can be a great alternative, but you need a real chimney with a draft for that.

However this is why we have experienced the decline of real fireplaces in homes. The industry didn’t get together and say, we are concerned about air quality and cancer so we’re going to sell gas fireplaces. That’s not how capitalism works. It was simply a cost savings measure because nobody wanted to build chimneys anymore. we simply don’t have an economic environment that makes burning wood ideal anymore. However burning wood is still the cheapest heating source there is in many parts of the country compared to electricity and gas and even renewables.

Written by

Independent writer outside of Boston.

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