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A Better Fireplace

One couple’s pursuit of more BTUs – and greater peace of mind
By Mark R. Johnson
Published: December 1, 2006
Photo by Cabin Life, Cabin Living
When Frank and Jean Russ – whose woodland home sits on 8 rural acres – built their place nine years ago, they did what many responsible couples do when building a home: They toed the bottom line of their construction budget.
For the fireplace, the empty-nesters chose a simple, low-BTU gas insert for ambience rather than heat. After all, their new home would be heated by an electric in-floor system, with a few electric baseboard units installed in auxiliary rooms around the house for good measure.
Indeed, the Russes enjoyed toasty toes provided by the heat mats buried in sand beneath their concrete foundation. “We can walk around the house barefoot in the winter,” Jean said – even on the hardwood floors in the kitchen and living room and on the ceramic tiled floors in the hallways and bathrooms.

Power Outage
Four years into their new home, however, a late winter storm caused a power outage, taking away the Russes’ electric heat for a number of days. That meant no in-floor heat, no baseboard heat – and no propane gas fireplace, either. Their fireplace had an electric ignition, so it was stone cold and useless.
After that incident, the Russes began to crave the peace of mind that a non-electric, secondary heat source would give them.
Two decorative vent covers conceal the heating ducts in the master bedroom.
Photo by Cabin Life, Cabin Livin
Photo by Cabin Life, Cabin Living
A Fireplace for Heat

Recently, the couple decided a better gas fireplace insert was the answer.
To ensure the new insert would remain a working heat source during a power failure, the Russes shopped for a gas insert equipped with a pilot light (a constant, tiny flame used to ignite the main burner). Such an insert requires no household current for operation. As for safety concerns: If the pilot light ever goes out, a safety switch automatically shuts off the gas supply.
And the Russes sought a higher BTU insert that could supplement their electric heat as well as heat their entire 1,400-square-foot home when needed. Their nearby hearth store recommended a 33,000-BTU model for the job. To withstand the higher heat output, the new insert features tempered glass doors.
Because the Russ home has an open floor plan, it wasn’t necessary to add much in the way of new duct work to carry heat into other rooms. The Russes only needed ducts installed behind their new fireplace to vent heat into their master bedroom.

When Frank and Jean Russ upgraded their gas insert for more BTUs and greater reliability, they didn’t sacrifice aesthetics.
Photo by Cabin Life, Cabin Living
Hand in Hand
Since the new fireplace is an actual heat source, the Russes had a conventional wall thermostat installed for operating it. This allows the couple to make fine adjustments to the climate of their home that just aren’t possible with their in-floor heat. The result: Two heat sources that complement each other very well.
In October each year, the Russes turn on their in-floor heat, dialing into setting #7 on a scale that runs from 0 to 9. It takes the concrete floor about two days to heat up, but once it’s warm, it holds heat very well. The Russes have learned through trial and error where to set their in-floor thermostat. November means a bump up to #8, January to #9, etc.
These days, if the cold rains of October bring a damp chill or a January blizzard plunges the outdoor mercury to sub-zero temps, the Russes can warm their house immediately with their fireplace. In the past, layers of clothing or additional blankets had to suffice.
Jean said she and Frank have fallen in love with their new fireplace. “The only hard thing during the first few weeks was getting used to waking up to the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of it kicking on in the middle of the night and seeing the light of the flames in the living room.”
But now Frank and Jean are sleeping more soundly than ever, at peace with the knowledge that they will have heat each and every morning.

Editor Mark R. Johnson has never met a fireplace he didn’t like.

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