Add Warmth to Your Home

A guide to fireplaces, fire pits and furnaces

Always a mainstay of campgrounds and up-north cabins, fire pits are an increasingly popular feature for decks, patios or back yards. An industrious do-it-yourselfer can build a simple fire pit with materials from a local home improvement store in an afternoon. Stone fabrication companies such as Madison Block and Stone sell natural or manufactured stone fire pit kits that take some of the guesswork out of the project. And full-service landscape companies can design original fire pits that blend in with the home’s style and architecture.

Steven Swenson, a landscape architect and designer at The Bruce Company, says fire pits can stand alone somewhere in the lawn, or they can be incorporated into a deck or patio. With seemingly unlimited natural and manufactured stone options, homeowners can have anything from rustic rings to sleek modern spaces for open flames.

Larry Balousek, managing partner of Sugar River Landscape Group, says fire pits are immensely popular thanks to their affordability and versatility. Also, Balousek says they add feelings of retreat and escape to homes—no up-north cabin required.

“That’s how the fire pit evolved,” he says. “People want to do things in their back yards. They want to stay close to home and roast marshmallows.”

A step up from fire pits, outdoor fireplaces create a more finished look for more structured outdoor spaces. “More customers are putting in outdoor living rooms with large fireplaces as the focal point,” says Madison Block and Stone’s Brynn Usadel.

Swenson says outdoor fireplaces are usually incorporated into patios or retaining walls, and homeowners generally can choose from prefabricated kits or custom masonry.

For example, Madison Block and Stone offers fully finished Danish Isokern fireplace units that can be used inside or out. Balousek has worked with prefabricated fireplaces from different manufacturers, including Unilock, which offers models in the same colors and finishes of their block and paver materials. “The pieces all coordinate and fit together,” Balousek says.

Swenson says another key feature of the Unilock Elements prebuilt fireplaces, which The Bruce Company carries, is that they can be up and running in no time. “Upon delivery, the entire prebuilt fireplace can be moved by machine, set on a concrete slab and is ready for immediate use,” he notes.

Custom masonry fireplaces offer homeowners the most choices in terms of size and materials, but prices go up with size or elaborate styles or materials.

Swenson says the growing options reflect the popularity of both fireplaces and fire pits. “Here in the Midwest climate, homeowners endure hot and humid summers,” Swenson says. “However, as fall sets in, elements such as fireplaces and fire pits give reason to enjoy the outdoors in the cooler months and extend the usability of outdoor living spaces.”

Of course, fireplaces have long been focal points indoors. Just ask Jeff Voss of Fireside Hearth and Home. The west-side fireplace retailer offers start-to-finish fireplace installation and ongoing service.

While wood-burning fireplaces fell out of favor because of inefficiency in years past, Voss says there are now options that enable homeowners to have both the ambience of a natural flame and an effective heat source.

“There are many options in wood burning including fireplaces, freestanding stoves and inserts, which can be used efficiently to heat your home,” he says. “The zero-clearance high-efficiency fireplaces and wood stoves can be used in a new construction or remodel application, whereas the inserts get installed into less efficient fireplaces to allow them to be a heating source.”

Gas, however, remains the most popular fuel choice for fireplaces in Madison, Voss says, although electric and pellet models are options. Electric units, he says, are usually placed in areas where ventilation is limited or unavailable, or when the room would be too small for the amount of heat the other units put out.

Pellet fireplaces and stoves, he says, “are popular because they use renewable sources of fuel rather than fossil fuel, and are usually the most efficient of all types of fireplaces.”

Voss points out that fireplaces or stoves work best in zoned heating, where you heat only the rooms you use as you use them instead of keeping the entire house a single temperature.

Pellet stoves also reflect a growing green home heating movement that includes the most environmentally friendly option of all: geothermal systems. No, geothermal energy doesn’t create ambience the way a wood-burning fireplace does, but it harnesses the natural heating and cooling power of the earth and virtually eliminates the need for fossil fuels.

Black Earth’s Modern Heating offers complete HVAC design and installation in a full range of systems, including geothermal. David Olson, Modern Heating’s president and owner, says geothermal heating is most popular among homeowners looking to shrink their carbon footprints.

“When sized correctly—and we know how to size correctly—you aren’t using any fossil fuels or putting any gasses from burning those fossil fuels back into the environment,” Olson says. “Right now, the main ‘green’ movement [in heating and cooling] is geothermal.”

Olson notes, though, that the eco-friendly system also offers even, consistent temperature control, so homeowners need not sacrifice comfort for environmentalism.

With a price tag considerably higher than a traditional forced-air system, geothermal heating does not appeal to everyone. However, current federal stimulus incentives make geothermal heat a more viable option for some by rebating up to a third of the total cost.

– Jennifer Garrett


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