Examining Fireplaces: Function, Feature and Performance

Examining Fireplaces: Function, Feature and Performance

It's hard to dispute how relaxing it is to curl up under a cozy blanket while cradling a hot beverage in front of a crackling fire on a cold evening. Fireplaces in Canadian lifestyle have undergone a shift in purpose over the years from staple heat source to optional design feature. If you're thinking of installing one or updating or converting an older fireplace, there's a lot to consider. Let's explore the different types of fireplaces and the features, benefits and risks involved.

Wood-burning fireplaces

There's nothing like the snap and crackle of a real wood fire—its welcoming rustic scent wafting through your home. While a traditional wood-burning fireplace has numerous parts, there are essentially three main components: fire box, flue and chimney. The firebox is where you place the firewood, the flue is what controls air flow and the chimney is how the smoke exits the home.


  • Visually appealing.
  • Can be used to cook in emergencies.
  • Requires no utility hook-ups.
  • Uses a renewable resource.
  • Fuel is often easy to find and can be reasonably-priced.


  • Expensive to install.
  • Most heat escapes up the chimney.
  • Backdrafts can cause smoke incursion in the home.
  • Chimney must be cleaned and inspected by a professional annually.
  • Ash and wood can cause messy debris.
  • Extra insurance is required.
  • Often require additional protective doors or screens to help contain embers.

Performance: Most wood-burning fireplaces are intended for aesthetic appeal and supplementary heat rather than being a whole-home solution. Be mindful that using a fireplace in the same room as your thermostat may prevent your furnace from running, causing other rooms in the home to cool down. You may need to adjust the thermostat up a few degrees when you have a fire or use a thermostat with multiple sensors in your home to offset this.

Wood and pellet stoves

Wood and pellet stoves are a great way to help keep your home warm during the winter, while also acting as a focal point for the room. Although wood stoves are also wood-burning, they should be considered separately from fireplaces because their function is more utilitarian. Pellet stoves burn small, compressed wood pellets via a hopper. The pellets typically burn hotter and cleaner than wood and some stoves include heat distribution kits which have the potential for whole-home coverage. Keep in mind, pellet stoves require electricity so, if the power goes out, they can't be used as a source of heat like a wood stove can.

Installation for both options can carry a heavy price tag, but one can't argue against their obvious appeal, especially when living in colder climes. 


  • Powerful heat source through conductive and radiant heat.
  • Can help reduce utility costs during winter.
  • Once lit, less air is needed to maintain combustion.
  • Provides a heat source for warmth and cooking in the event of a power outage.


  • Temperature regulation is difficult.
  • High surface temperatures can pose a burn risk, especially with children.
  • The chimney must be cleaned and inspected by a professional annually.
  • They eat up space because they must be a safe distance from adjacent walls and furniture.
  • Extra home insurance is required.
  • Expensive to purchase and install.

Performance: Because you can control the airflow to slow the burn, they can produce heat for five to six hours before they need to be stoked. Be careful not to add too much wood because it is easy to overheat your space with a wood stove.

Gas fireplaces

With the widespread use of natural gas for water and home heating, gas fireplaces have become common fixtures in many homes. There are many great-looking options that mimic the realistic look of a wood-burning fireplace. What they lack in realism, they make up for in convenience and they can be less costly to install and maintain than wood-burning alternatives.


  • Easy to operate.
  • Adjustable flame feature.
  • Cleaner-burning.
  • Low-cost operation.
  • A chimney isn't needed (although proper venting is).
  • Electronic ignition makes them easy to light.
  • Can be inserted into an existing fireplace.


  • Does not look fully realistic.
  • Most require both gas and electrical connections.
  • Produces carbon monoxide (always have a working CO detector in the same room).
  • Requires annual maintenance and inspection.

Performance: Much like the wood-burning fireplace, the gas fireplace is perfectly suitable for heating a single room and, in fact, can be more efficient at doing so than its woody counterpart. This is because many gas fireplaces have fans which push heated air into the room, which is regulated with a built-in thermostat. 

Electric fireplaces

Electric fireplaces have taken a long-time fixture and turned it into an appliance. Electric fireplaces can be placed in just about any room of your home, especially if it is a standalone unit, which doesn't require installation. What they lack in uniqueness, they make up for in function. They still give that impression of a real fire, while some also perform double duty as a heater with built-in elements and fans.


  • Easy to operate.
  • Most affordable.
  • Can be installed and used in any room.
  • Requires little maintenance.
  • Cleanest and safest to operate.
  • Can be used even during the summer because heat is optional.


  • If used frequently for heat, they could increase hydro bills substantially.
  • Flames are not real and does not look like a real fireplace.
  • Shorter lifespan—need to be replaced more frequently.

Performance: Their performance is similar to that of gas fireplaces because they are only suitable to heat one room. Portable units are more convenient than wood-burning or gas fireplaces because they can be moved to and used in any room in your home. 

Whether you prefer the realistic quality of a wood-burning fireplace, the heating benefits offered by a wood stove or the convenience of gas or electric fireplaces—there is something for every taste. Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves will certainly appeal for those seeking a more rustic look, while the modern feel of gas and electric is perfect for the contemporary-minded. Or, if you would just like to create that cozy ambiance without a fireplace at all, installing a mantel and hearth with a few well-placed candles is a fantastic low-cost solution. Whatever you decide for your home, it's always recommended to consult a professional to make sure you decide on the right solution for your needs and space.  

Source: Gord Brown,

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