All fired up – Part 1

  • Earthfire Firepot (For specs, see p 5 of ""All fired up - Part 2"")
  • Invincible Montague
  • Franco Belge Savoy
  • BioFires Calvados Corner Fireplace
  • Progress Lighting & Fires 800 Half Hex
Date:30 June 2007 Tags:, ,

Home is where the hearth is

Winter is upon us with a vengeance, bringing with it shorter days (okay, less sunshine), deeply offensive alarm clocks (they always sound more strident before dawn) and the kind of bone-numbing chill that only an Eskimo could love.

But it’s not all bad news. Think hot soup, fine Cabernet, quality time with the family – and dancing flames that suffuse your ruddily handsome features with a warm glow. If none of this sounds familiar, you really need to get with it and invest in a fireplace. We know a few people who couldn’t be bothered to buy wood or stoke fires, and actually went so far as to brick up their fireplaces – in summer, naturally. This is bizarre behaviour, and should be declared illegal.

Aside from the useful heat and cosy ambience, a fireplace will undoubtedly add value to your home. How to select the right one? Therein lies the challenge, because the range of shapes and sizes is both large and intimidating. You can choose an open fireplace or a closed-combustion stove; some designs are freestanding, others are built-in – and they deliver anything from 2 kW to 30 kW of heat.

You’ll also have to decide between multi-fuel units, fireplaces suitable only for wood, decorative units that burn biofuels, or gas and electric heaters that mimic the real thing. There are even a few units on the market with built-in water-heating systems. Designs range from the ber-traditional stove you’d expect to see in a tiny farm labourer’s cottage to sleek, ultra-modern units that would delight any city-dwelling minimalist.

Construction materials include cast iron, boiler-plate steel, various grades and thicknesses of mild steel, and even clay. Says macD Heating Systems’ David Wantling: “To me, it’s more important that the fireplace has been properly designed by a reputable company than what materials are used in its construction – because reputable companies stand by their products.”

His advice: before committing to a purchase, check the quality of the construction, especially in welded areas. It also pays to inquire about the availability of spare parts, since all fireplaces have “consumable” components such as baffle plates, grates and fire bricks. “Buying a cheap freestanding fireplace is fine as long as you understand what you are getting, but be cautious – there are some real fly-by-nighters out there.”

Then there’s the impact on your pocket. Whereas a cheap hex-shaped unit won’t break the bank (you can pick one up for well under R2 000), if you’re interested in a large designer fireplace, you might want to consider a second mortgage. Your choice of fuel can also have significant financial consequences. For example, although gas makes sense in terms of convenience and ease of use, it can end up costing you a bomb.

Says Wantling: “The reality is that gas is about 2,5 times more expensive than electricity. This may not be an issue for a wealthy client, but we feel it needs to be known.” If you’re budget-conscious, anthracite and wood are probably your best options, with wood being the most environmentally friendly choice.

It’s essential to do your homework before parting with your money, says Wantling. “There’s a vast range of fireplaces and stoves on offer, and it can be confusing. If I simply swamp you with 15 brochures, you’ll never be able to make a decision.” His solution: realistically assess your needs before visiting showrooms.

For example, if you have tiles with under-floor heating and an air conditioner, chances are your home’s already comfortably warm, and your fire’s going to be purely decorative. In this case, the convenience of a remote-controlled gas fire or a biofuel-burning fireplace could be the best option. On the other hand, if you are strapped for cash and genuinely don’t give a damn about aesthetics, then anything other than an freestanding “hex” would be overkill.

If heating your home is the main priority, it makes sense to choose a design that’s appropriate for the space. If the fireplace is too small for the volume to be heated, you’ll end up having to feed it continuously. If it’s too big, the room can become unpleasantly hot (in this case, however, you can adjust the temperature by fiddling with the fireplace vents and room ventilation). It makes sense to choose a design with a slightly higher heating capacity than required, and burn the fuel at a moderate rate once you’ve achieved the desired temperature.

Manufacturers generally express the heating capacity of their units in terms of cubic metres or kilowatts. To calculate the volume of your room, first determine the area in square metres, then multiply your answer by 2,4 m (the height of a standard ceiling). The Fireplace Company’s Julian Popple advises: “Under normal South African winter conditions, to produce a comfortable room temperature of around 22 degrees Celsius you’ll need about 1 kW (think 1 bar of an electric heater) of heat for every 15 cubic metres of space, or about six square metres.”

You’ll also need to consider other factors such as large windows, draughts, open-plan areas and double-volume ceilings, as these will affect your fireplace’s ability to heat the area effectively. The fireplace design also influences heat output. For example, the exposed flue of a freestanding unit will radiate about 10 per cent more heat than a built-in design featuring a brick chimney.

When it comes to heat production, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything more efficient than a cast iron closed-combustion fireplace. Originally developed in northern Europe, where heating is more a life-and-death issue than the cosy convenience we’re striving to attain here, it boasts an efficiency of about 80 per cent. (A standard open fire typically loses up to 90 per cent of its heat straight up the flue or chimney.) And because a closed-combustion fireplace burns so efficiently, it consumes wood at about one third the rate of an open fire.

Most closed systems feature a secondary combustion system that reignites gases in the smoke before expelling it through the flue. Consequently, very few harmful pollutants are released into the atmosphere, making them the most environmentally friendly heating option available. The rate of combustion can be controlled to provide hours of heat from just one load of fuel.

Because they’re closed, these fireplaces can be left to burn unsupervised – and their solid cast iron construction ensures they’ll continue to radiate heat long after the fire has died. Heatproof glass in the doors provide an optimal view of the flames while containing smoke and stray sparks.

Jetmaster has been the dominant player in the open fireplace market since 1951 – and the plethora of cheap imitations attests to the success of its design. Says Jetmaster’s Lionel Jacobs: “When most people look at a hex-shaped freestanding fireplace, they assume it’s a Jetmaster.”

All Jetmasters are seam-welded to ensure no smoke escapes into the convection chamber. Substantially heavier than clones of similar capacity, they look like they were built to last. But it’s Jetmaster’s convection heating design that really sets it apart: built-in channels draw colder air from the floor, channel it past the fire and expel it back into the room as hot air. Consequently, it produces significantly more heat than a conventional brick fireplace.

Earthfire’s ceramic firepots produce an unbelievable amount of heat, bridging the gap between open fireplaces and cast iron stoves. Using a Japanese technique called raku, they are fashioned from specially formulated clay, then glazed. Once removed from the kiln, they are plunged into wood shavings while still glowing. This forms myriad tiny cracks in the outer ceramic layer, creating distinctive black-carbon patterns and causing metallic deposits in the glaze to morph into a variety of appealing colours. The fireplaces are then doused with water while still at 750 degrees Celsius, subjecting them to a thermal shock many times more violent than they’ll ever experience in
your home.

“We’re not bothered about kilowatt values,” says Earthfire’s Alex Kielczynski. “We can get them up to 30 kW if we stoke them enough.” He goes on to explain that they work like stoves – what you put in is what you get out. Because the clay retains heat like a hot rock, it radiates heat into the room long after the fire has died. It gets better: Earthfire fireplaces don’t rust, smoke or smell, and need cleaning only once a month.

And finally, we come to flues and installation – more potential minefields for the cash-strapped and unwary. A PM staffer who recently installed a cast iron fireplace paid just over R5 000 for the unit, another R3 000-plus for stainless flues (galvanised iron flues are a cheaper option),a ceiling plate and “Chinese hat” cowl, and about R1 100 for installation. Important: if you opt for the DIY route, don’t forget that you’ll need an insulated section of flue where it penetrates the ceiling. Flues can get extremely hot, and the last thing you need is a fire in the roof. Personally, we’d call in the professionals.

*To check your installer’s credentials or request technical information, contact the Fireplace Association of South Africa’s Andrew Balding on 011 463 6333.

Make: Invincible
Model: Montague
Country of origin: China
Heat output: 8 kW
Fuel: Multifuel
Recommended flue: Single-storey homes: stainless steel or galvanised and insulated in the roof. When going through floors: insulated stainless steel.
Construction materials: Cast iron
Comment: As far as cast iron stoves go this represents real value for money. The wide ranges features heat outputs ranging from 6 – 21kW.
Price: R4 950
Website: www.fireplaceco.co.za

Make: Morso
Model: 8140
Country of origin: Denmark
Heating capacity: 8 kW
Fuel: Wood
Recommended flue: Either stainless steel or matt-enamel mild steel to ceiling and insulated stainless steel inside roof.
Construction materials: Cast iron
Comment: A modern, clean design that’s also available with a rotating base and flue.
Price: R17 345
Website: www.morso.co.za

Make: Franco Belge
Model: Savoy
Country of origin: France
Heating output: 8 kW
Fuel: Multifuel
Recommended flue: Either stainless steel or matt-enamel mild steel to ceiling and insulated stainless steel inside roof.
Construction materials: Cast iron
Comment: Compact, but powerful enough to heat most rooms and available in a range of colours. This unit can have a glass-lined hot water boiler with an output of 8 000 BTU/hour fitted as an optional extra.
Price: R11 317
Website: www.franco-belge.co.uk

Make: BioFires
Model: Calvados Corner Fireplace
Country of origin: Poland
Heat output: 3 – 4 kW
Fuel: Biofuel
Recommended flue: Not applicable
Construction materials: Natural wood or stone, ornamented with metal, glass and ceramic elements.
Comment: Burning a smokeless and odourless biofuel, they require no flue and are perfect for flats or bedrooms where space is at a premium. Fully portable; no installation is required.
Price: R15 000
Website: www.biofires.co.za

Make: Jotul
Model: F100
Country of origin: Norway
Heating output: 2,7 – 7,5 kW
Fuel: Multifuel
Recommended flue: Either stainless steel or mild steel enamel-coated insulated double flue system.
Construction materials: Cast iron
Comment: Around since 1853 – these guys know what they are doing. You also get the choice of a top or rear flue outlet.
Price: R6 900
Website: www.jotul.com

Make: Franco Belge
Model: Continental
Country of origin: France
Heating output: Up to 7 kW
Fuel: Multifuel
Recommended flue: Either stainless steel or matt-enamel mild steel to ceilin

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