Fireplace Renovation

Fireplace Renovations Rank 3rd in ROI

In recent research by Re/Max Canada, fireplaces rank 3rd in return on investment in a list of the six smartest renovations for best return on investment:

  • Landscaping
  • Kitchens
  • Fireplaces
  • Paint
  • Bathrooms
  • Floors

With more people than ever opting to renovate rather than move, home renovation spending in Canada has climbed from $21 billion in 1999 to an estimated $42 billion in 2006, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC).

Renovating an existing fireplace, or installing a new one, is one of the most frequent choices by homeowners not only because it increases the enjoyment of the home but it also adds considerable value.

According to the National Home Builder's Association, 77% of home buyers list a fireplace as a most-wanted amenity. As a seller, you may enjoy a 6% to 12% increase in your home's sales price simply by adding a fireplace.

Fireplace Essentials


As a key component of any home ventilation system, the fireplace can be one of the biggest energy wasters if not properly outfitted. The damper, a piece of hinged steel inside the chimney, controls the air flow in and out of the chimney. When you light a fire, the damper must be fully open. Once the fire has started burning, the damper should be almost fully closed only leaving a small opening of approximately 1-2 inches. This enables the chimney to expel only the smoke, not the heat.  With the damper wide open, both smoke and heat are exhausted at about the same rate.

Almost closing the damper allows smoke to exhaust and in turn retain more heat inside the home.

Heat Efficiency

You can install glass fireplace doors and outside air ducts to retain even more heat and reduce overall energy consumption. Glass doors act as dampers when the fireplace is not being used and reduce the amount of warm air that is drawn out of the home and into the fireplace when a fire has been lighted. Outside air ducts (also known as combustion air ducts) are required in the construction of all new fireplaces and can be retrofitted into existing ones.

Fires burn oxygen, and in a tightly sealed home, a fireplace will drain its oxygen in no time. Combustion air ducts provide the air from the exterior of the home, leaving oxygen for you to breathe. If the fireplace draws air from ducts, it won't need to draw warm air from within the home.

Negative Pressure

Because a fire reduces the oxygen in a home through combustion, the air pressure in the home also is reduced. When the air pressure in the home is less inside than it is outside, the siphon action of the chimney slows (or stops) and the home quickly fills with smoke. This problem can occur to varying degrees, but is usually for the same reason. Outside air ducts can eliminate this condition.

Upgrading Your Fireplace

  • Although fireplaces are available in a wide range of designs and styles, there are three basic types:  wood burning, gas and electric.
  • Fireplaces that are used as heat sources require the installation of a high quality model to achieve the necessary efficiency. 
  • Builder-grade fireplaces or decorative fireplaces, as described below, should only be used for occasional, recreational fires such as family gatherings at holidays.
  • If you expect to use your fireplace more than once per week, opt for a higher end model that will last for many years if you want to avoid the cost of replacement.

Fireplace Aesthetics

If your open hearth brick fireplace is looking drab or has sustained damage over the years there are some affordable ways to improve the overall look and attractiveness.

Paint is a great way to change the look of your fireplace. However, keep in mind paint is permanent on brick surfaces. If you are painting a brick fireplace, masonry primer is a must. Because brick isn’t a very smooth surface two coats will help the paint adhere better. If your brick fireplace was painted once before you will need a bonding primer and use a top quality acrylic latex paint.

There are many different materials and products you can use to create a unique mantel design with stone, tile, wood, stainless steel, copper, chrome and more.

You may also want to think about re-tiling your hearth to create a more updated look for your home. Fireproof hearth tile can be made of ceramic, glass, porcelain, terra cotta or natural stone and is available in many patterns which can be used to build very creative designs.

Wood Burning Fireplace

A fireplace insert is designed to be very energy efficient and includes tightly sealed glass doors that help create longer burn times and provide increased heat output. If you are relying on your fireplace to supplement room heating requirements a high-efficiency fireplace design is the optimal choice.

Decorative fireplaces consume a lot of fuel, can produce excessive amounts of smoke and particulate into the atmosphere and offer little or no heat output. High end models are a much better choice offering many more years of service, longer burn times, more heat, less smoke and of course a cleaner chimney.

Your chimney won’t be clean for long if you burn inferior grade wood so find a good source of high quality firewood in your neighborhood. The type of wood you burn, how you store and care for your firewood will greatly affect your wood burning experience. 

Choose the Right Fuel

In general, hardwoods like oak, maple, birch, ash and beech burn cleaner than softwood logs such as fir, pine and cedar.  Softwood is prone to producing dangerous sparks that can permeate fireplace screens.

Use only seasoned wood from a reputable source.  A moisture content of at least less than 20 percent burns much cleaner than unseasoned wood.

Gas Fireplace Inserts

Gas fireplaces come in a variety of styles, sizes and designs and offer multiple venting options. Decorative models won't give you much heat, while higher end models can heat an open floor plan nearly as effectively as a furnace. Direct vent models may vent horizontally or give you enough options with offsets for the vent to terminate remotely from the fireplace. Every model from every manufacturer is different, so check installation requirements carefully to make sure your design can be implemented for safe and efficient use.

Gas fireplaces offer a convenient, realistic flame at the touch of a button. Remote controls are available for most models. Many can also use thermostat controls that adjust the flame or turn the fire on and off based on the room temperature. Venting options may allow installation in nearly any room, on any floor of your home.

Gas fireplaces are designed to burn either Natural Gas (piped into your home by the city gas company) or LP (Liquid Propane) which is stored in a tank in your yard.

Installation of a gas fireplace will require a plumber or HVAC technician (check local codes) to run gas lines to the fireplace and to install the fireplace and venting system, so this is a project that will require professional installation.

Electric Fireplaces

Once not even a consideration for fireplaces, electric fires are now all the rage. They operate at 100% efficiency and require no venting so they can be installed any where. They may also be the only option for renters or for high-rise condos and office buildings. Designs range from small to large, traditional to contemporary. Most include a heater than can provide plenty of warmth for smaller areas. There are no special installation requirements - just plug into an existing 3-prong outlet - so this is a relatively simple installation that most homeowners can accomplish on their own.

Hearths and Surrounds

The fireplace hearth is the extension into the room that provides protection to your flooring while the surround provides protection for the walls surrounding your fireplace. The fireplace surrounds extend from the hearth to both sides of the fireplace and blend with the mantel.

Requirements will vary greatly for the surround and hearth based on the type of fuel your fireplace burns and the individual requirements for the model chosen. Wood burning fireplaces will most often require a hearth 18" or more in front of the fireplace, and extending to each side to offer maximum protection for sparks and tumbling embers. Gas fireplaces and electric fireplaces may require little to no hearth or surround, although incorporating these elements into your design may offer a more authentic look and appeal for your room.

Hearths and surrounds can incorporate a wide variety of materials; just be sure and choose the right material, in the correct thickness for heat transfer protection and make sure it's installed correctly. Make sure there is adequate weight support beneath the fireplace and hearth area to support the fireplace, venting system and hearth/surround materials. A fireproof underlayment may be needed in some installations. Here are some materials you may consider for hearths and surrounds:

  • Brick or brick veneers
  • Stone, stone veneers or cultured stone
  • Ceramic tile
  • Slate, marble, granite & solid surface materials
  • Metallic surfaces such as stainless steel or copper
  • Cement slabs

Mantels and Trim

Your mantel and trim choice may have the greatest impact on the aesthetic design of your fireplace. A grand mantel can take a standard fireplace from ordinary to exquisite!

Many home owners choose to allot more of their budget for the fireplace installation into the mantel than any other part of the project, so consider how the mantel will affect your overall look and costs. The mantel is installed to the surround and provides a finished look. Detailed mantels are most often used in homes with a traditional design. The mantel includes decorative vertical trim that sits on the fireplace hearth and most often includes a mantel shelf.

Make sure the mantel is installed to allow sufficient clearances to amply meet the fireplace manufacturer's instructions. Deep shelves, for example, can present challenges with wood burning fireplaces as the overhang can cause fire hazards due to the excessive rising heat.

Mantels are available in a huge variety of materials, styles and designs:

  • Marble
  • Wood
  • Cast Iron
  • Limestone
  • Cultured Stone
  • Plaster
  • Resin

Create a Fire Escape Plan and Practice It

Dirty chimneys and smoker’s materials are two leading causes of house fires.  There are over 50,000 house fires in Canada every year and many lives lost so it’s critical to take every precaution possible.

In addition to properly working smoke alarms, the best defense against a fire is a well-rehearsed, escape plan. Knowing exactly what to do can save precious seconds in the event of a real emergency.

The Canada Safety Council recommends these steps to prepare for a family fire drill:

  • Draw a floor plan of your house.
  • Mark two ways out of each room.
  • Establish a meeting place outside the house.
  • Be sure each family member has the plan and knows the escape route.
  • Post your fire escape plan on the fridge or family bulletin board.

Hold a fire drill for your family once or twice a year. Vary the drills, to practice escaping from different fire sources.

Key Factors in Home Fires

The most dangerous room for fire is the kitchen, and grease fires are very often the culprit. Over the past few years, candles have led to more and more home fires. Outside the holiday season, candle fires most often start in the bedroom. Fires caused by cooking and candles can be prevented by never, ever leaving cooking or burning candles unattended.

Most fatal fires start at night. Smoke alone won't necessarily wake you up — in fact, the fumes could put you into an even deeper sleep. That is why you need a smoke alarm on every floor, near the kitchen and outside all sleeping areas. Test each unit regularly, and replace the batteries regularly. A good way to remember is to change the batteries when you change your clocks in the spring and fall.

Staying Alive is a non-profit organization that promotes public safety education through classroom and community multimedia presentations.  They have prepared a checklist of fire hazards to assist in creating a safe home environment.

  • Are fuel-burning space heaters and appliances properly installed and used?
  • Are all space heaters placed away from traffic? Are children and elderly persons cautioned to keep their clothing away?
  • Has the family been cautioned not to use flammable liquids, like gasoline, to start or freshen a fire (or for cleaning purposes)?
  • Is the fireplace equipped with a metal fire screen or heat-tempered glass doors?
  • Since portable gas and oil heaters in fireplaces use up oxygen as they burn, do you provide proper ventilation when they are in use?
  • Are proper clearances provided between space heaters and curtains, bedding, furniture, etc?
  • Do you stop members of your household from smoking in bed?
  • Do you know you should give matches or lighters to an adult if you find them? What about your younger brother or sister?
  • Do you check up after others to see that no cigarette butts are lodged in upholstered furniture where they can smolder unseen at night?
  • Are matches and lighters kept away from small children?
  • Do you dispose of smoking materials carefully (not in waste baskets) and keep large, safe ashtrays wherever people smoke?
  • Children get burned climbing on the stove to reach an item overhead. Do you store cookies, cereal, or other "bait" away from the stove?
  • Do you keep your basement closets, garage, and yard, clear of combustibles like papers, cartons, old furniture, or old rags?
  • Are gasoline and other flammable liquids stored in safety cans (never glass jugs, discarded bleach bottles, or other makeshift containers) and away from heat, sparks, and children?
  • Is paint kept in tightly-closed metal containers?
  • Are there enough electrical outlets in every room and special circuits for heavy-duty appliances such as space heaters and air conditioners?
  • Are furnace, stove, and smoke pipes far enough from combustible walls and ceilings, and in good repair?
  • Is your heating equipment checked yearly by a serviceman?
  • Is the chimney cleaned and checked regularly?
  • For safety against chimney and other sparks, is the roof covering fire retardant?
  • Did you have a qualified electrician install or extend your wiring?
  • Do all your appliances carry the seal of a testing laboratory?