Fiery Advice

Choosing a fireplace these days has evolved into a complex decision involving personal aesthetics, the environment and local regulations. Gone the way of cultural darlings like cigarettes and Oreo cookies, traditional wood-burning fireplaces are now considered unhealthy, even deadly. A traditional wood-burning fireplace emits up to a half pound of particulate matter (PM) in one evening, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). That means, with approximately 1.7 million fireplaces and woodstoves in the Bay Area, a cold winter’s night here might elicit nearly a million pounds of ash, soot and minuscule pieces of metal, collectively known as PM 2.5 and PM10, not to mention the release of carbon monoxide and toxic pollutants such as benzene and dioxin into our atmosphere. And PM2.5s are small enough to become trapped in our lungs, triggering respiratory ailments like bronchitis, aggravating asthma and potentially leading to more serious health problems.

In an attempt to turn the tide of air pollution nationwide, the EPA created a strict certification program for the manufacture of woodstove and fireplace inserts. That program became effective in 1992. Today, woodstoves and fireplace inserts emit only 2 to 5 grams of smoke per hour, compared to up to 60 before the certification program. Locally, the County of Marin, which serves unincorporated Marin and individual cities and towns, has stepped in to require cleaner wood-burning appliances. The county and the city of Mill Valley have both adopted ordinances banning installation of all wood-burning fireplaces and non–EPA Phase II certified wood-burning heaters. The ordinances also prohibit use of any non–EPA Phase II certified wood-burning stove or insert as of July 1, 2008, in the county and December 31, 2008, in Mill Valley. (Existing open-hearth fireplaces and units designed for cooking, outdoor fireplaces, and gas- and pellet-fueled appliances are exempt from the ban.) As incentive, the county is offering $250 rebates to help homeowners meet the requirements.

“The County of Marin’s ordinance is designed to get rid of the old polluting wood-burning appliances used to heat homes,” says county Green Building program coordinator Alec Hoffmann.

Paige Lambeth of London Fireplace Shoppe in Mill Valley has been helping customers sort through these ever-changing issues for 24 years. In regard to the shifting standards, “we take the position of cheerful and progressive compliance,” he says. London Fireplace Shoppe offers many options to satisfy Marin’s various jurisdictions.

Mill Valley architect Eric Layton has had a hard time giving up the aesthetics and feel of an open wood-burning fire. Still, “open fireplaces are simply not efficient in either heat output or emissions,” he concedes. “Except for a few, their basic design is flawed and will actually pull heat from your home.” If you’re stuck on wood, his favorite is the Fireplace Xtrodinair, which has an excellent heat output and a clean burn due to its built-in catalytic converter. He also likes the Tulikivi soapstone stand-alone fireplaces available at Green Fusion Design Center.

Lambeth has his own top picks. For West County wood-burning clients, the Lopi Leyden, a noncatalytic woodstove that can burn a normal load of logs for up to 18 hours, is a popular choice. For those preferring the convenience of a pellet stove, the European-style Austroflamm is a great option. And for fans of the sleek, tall, modern look, the award-winning Paloma direct-vent freestanding gas stove by Heat-N-Glo is a top seller. Lambeth is also excited about carrying the Vision, a new gas fireplace that heats with beach stones, designed by Gavin Scott for the company European Home (see photo above).

Before you set your heart on a particular hearth, Hoffman suggests, check with your city or county planning office to make sure it meets the current code.