Avoid Burning Money with a Smart Hearth in Your Home

Physician's Money Digest, December 2006, Volume 13, Issue 12

As winter's chill approaches in many parts of thecountry, fluctuating fuel costs are undoubtedly on the mindsof many budget-conscious physicians. Yet, an important fuelconserving option already exists in many homes: the hearth.

Indeed, the centuries-old practice of warming a homefrom its hearth is being given new life with modern energy-efficienttechnologies. Unfortunately, the majority of fireplacesin place today fall far short of achievable efficiencies.And unless a physician has shopped for a fireplace lately,they probably don't realize the variety of energy-wiseoptions now available—be it new construction or retrofit.

In the Zone

"While fireplaces and other hearth products of the pastwere widely used for ambiance, many of today's hearth productsare very energy efficient and can help cut energy bills,"said Jack Goldman, president of Hearth, Patio & BarbecueAssociation (HPBA). "With today's products, consumers canhave good looks, ambiance, and a highly efficient heatingdevice all in one." According to past studies, such zone heatingcan provide energy savings of 20% to 40%.

Dr. Martin Steinweiss, a retired dental surgeon fromOcean Township, NJ, looked into hearth heating optionswhen he found his master bedroom addition was always 5degrees cooler than the rest of the house. Not wanting toturn up the thermostat, he bought a natural gas stove for the500-square-foot room three winters ago. Now, he simplyuses a remote to turn the stove on and off. "It works perfectly," he says. "It only takes about 20 minutes to heat theroom." While the stove cost approximately $2500,Steinweiss says, "I don't waste heat in the rest of the house." He adds, "Is it worth it? I think it is."

Return of the Stove

As people seek out less expensive alternatives to warmingtheir home, freestanding stoves, like Steinweiss' purchase,are making a comeback. "More and more people aredoing stoves now," comments Mark Smith, managerof the Wood Stove & Fireplace Center inOakhurst, NJ. "The past two seasons, more peopleare getting into energy efficiency." About the size ofan easy chair, today's freestanding stoves are madeof steel, stone, or cast iron; come in a variety ofstyles; and can burn wood, gas, coal, oil, or pellet.Many stoves function just like furnaces, includingthermostats and timers, yet they focus specifically onone room, saving money.

Pellet-fueled stoves in particular are garnering theattention of the energy-wise. Pellet is made of 100%wood sawdust that would normally be destined forlandfills. Not only is pellet from a renewableresource, but it's inexpensive and clean-burning."The green theme is taking over," Smith comments."Wood pellet and corn burning [options] are popular?people are going with those for the fuel efficiency." In fact, sales of pellet appliances rose a staggering76% between 2004 and 2005. Many pellet stovescan also burn corn.

While you'll need to add pellet to your stove generallyonce a day, the cost savings can be worth it, asSmith attests. He once spent $200 to $400 everymonth during the winter to heat his 1900-square-foothome. After investing $3200 in a pellet stove placedin his family room, he now spends about $400 for theentire season. This is his third winter with the stove."I really stand behind pellet fuels," he says.

Fireplace Inserts

Those with a traditional fireplace who would liketo gain more heat efficiency or take advantage of pelletfuel should look into a fireplace insert. Accordingto HPBA, half of all US households have at least onefireplace or freestanding stove—traditional woodburningfireplaces being the most common. With anaverage age of 23 years, seven of eight are more than10 years old, and with efficiency ratings of a mere5% to 10%, such fireplaces are ideal candidates forupgrades. This is because their open combustiondesign allows an abundance of heated air to bedrawn into the fire, causing the fire to burn too fastand wasting energy. As Smith explains, "The hotterthe fire gets, the more air it takes out of the house."

Inserts, on the other hand, can generate efficienciesof 65% with their insulated, closed-door system.Made of cast iron or steel, they can be fueled by gas,propane, and EPA-certified wood, coal, or pellet. AnEPA-certified wood-burning insert can also reducesmoke emissions to almost zero. Besides stoves,inserts are Smith's most popular seller. They can havethe efficiency of a stove, but still look like a traditionalfireplace with a surround and mantle. Recently, alot of inserts have been converted to use more efficientfuels, Smith says, such as pellet.

New Fireplaces

Unfortunately, even wood-burning fireplaces in newconstruction may not have great energy efficiency. Sincefireplaces rank among the top three features desired bynew homebuyers, six of 10 new homes built in theUnited States today have at least one fireplace. Butmany builders tend to install less expensive, prefabricatedmodels that offer great esthetics and ambiancebut may not provide optimal efficiency, Smith says. Infact, 71% of fireplace installation decisions are by thebuilder—only 24% by the homebuyer.

Two better choices for new wood-burning fireplacesare clean burning and EPA-certified, producingless than 7.5 grams of particulates per hour. Withinsulated, closed combustion systems (ie, their glassdoors must be closed during operation), they burnmore efficiently, generate substantial heat, and reduceemissions. Though "there's a lot of interest" in thesemodels, Smith cautions they're also very expensive—as much as 3 times the cost. While a traditional fireplacemight run as low as $1200, a high-efficiencymodel can cost $5000. As a result, at Smith's store,"there's a lot of talk, but not a lot of sales."

Gas-fueled Options

With concerns over gas prices, one would expectgas-fueled fireplaces, inserts, and stoves to be lesspopular. And indeed, compared to pellet fuel's 76%growth, gas appliances grew a mere 2% between2004 and 2005. However, gas appliances representednearly 67% of the total market last year, whilepellet appliances were only about 4%. So clearly, gasappliances are still big sellers.

While some units are designed solely for decorativepurposes, heater-rated units are a better choicefor physicians who desire efficiency. An Annual FuelUtilization Efficiency rating means the unit is testedto the same standard used to rate today's energy-efficientfurnaces and can retain up to 70% of the heatit generates. As to costs, Smith says to expect a costof 25 cents to 75 cents per hour of operation.

Of course, there are many more factors to hearthselection than just energy efficiency and potential costsavings. Ambiance, esthetics, venting options, spacerestraints, maintenance, convenience, and more alladd into the decision. Direct vented gas units, forinstance, are the best choice for those with allergies.Talk to a dealer to find the right fit for your home—and stay warm this winter. For more information,visit www.hpba.org.