Fireplaces have long been designed into homes and used to help provide heat to a room well before central heating systems were even a concept.
Not all homes have fireplaces, and there are many different names for what is essentially a way to burn material to provide heat to your home, whilst also being able to enjoy the view of a real fire.
So what is a fireplace?
A fireplace is an open area built into the structure of a home where a fire can be safely contained to generate heat and to provide a relaxing atmosphere, while allowing waste gases and smoke to leave the property via a chimney. A fireplace can also be used as focal point for a room even when it’s not being used.
I’ve discussed fireplaces in more detail using our own open fireplaces as examples to further explain what they look like, what they do and how they work.
What A Fireplace Is
The word ‘fireplace’ can be used to describe the whole range of different fireplaces available, including:
- Open fireplaces
- Fireplace inserts
- Gas fireplaces
- Electric fireplaces
- Stove fireplaces
- Propane fireplaces
However, this article discusses traditional open fireplaces.
For an explanation on what a wood burning stove is click here.
A number of different terms can be used to describe a typical open fireplace, including:
- Open fireplace
- Traditional fireplace
- Masonry fireplace
- Wood burning fireplace
Open fireplaces are typically made from masonry, including bricks, blocks, stone and concrete.
We have two open fireplaces in our home; one located in the living room and one located in the kitchen. The two fireplaces back onto each other with a course of bricks separating the two.
The open fireplaces share the same chimney stack.
The living room fireplace has a concrete hearth and surround while the firebox is made from bricks.
The kitchen fireplace also has a brick firebox but no concrete surround. The heath is made from granite and had wood surround. When we bought the house it had a gas fireplace installed (but not connected to the gas main).
Here’s what the fireplace looked like when we renovated the kitchen and removed the gas fireplace insert and wooden surround.
Using An Open Fireplace
The overall design and function of a fireplace remains similar across the world, but certain regions have open fireplaces that operate slightly differently.
Many open fireplaces have ash dumps located beneath the fireplace that collect the ashes as the wood burns through, while, like ours, many other fireplaces don’t have an ash dump.
Furthermore, many open fireplaces can be found with dampers located within the throat of the chimney located at the top of the fireplace. Dampers help to keep the air inside your home when the fireplace isn’t in use. Our own open fireplaces do not have dampers.
Some open fireplaces can also have blowers built into them to help disperse heat into the room.
The diagram below shows what a typical open fireplace looks like from a side on view, showing how the fireplace connects to the chimney.
A fire can be built either on the hearth or within a fireplace grate. A grate helps to raise the fire off the hearth to improve air circulation.
A fire needs both fuel and oxygen to survive. Lighting a fire in an open fireplace requires both a source of fuel such as wood, and a supply of air from your home.
Many homes, like ours, will have an external vent located within the same room as the fireplace to ensure that the fire is receiving enough oxygen.
It’s quite hard to burn a log with just a naked flame, and so fires in open fireplaces need to be built up gradually from smaller sized pieces of wood to large. Newspaper can be used in tandem with small pieces of wood (kindling) to help transfer the heat and flames to the initial smaller sized logs.
When a fire is lit, it uses fresh oxygen from the room to burn quickly through the kindling and smaller logs.
Burning wood releases waste gases and a certain amount of smoke. The amount of smoke being released can depend on how well and efficiently the wood is burning. An inefficiently burning fire resulting from issues such as poor air supply or wet wood can release more smoke than usual.
To remove these waste gases and smoke from your home, the chimney creates a drawing effect (known as the draft) and sucks them out of the fireplace. A number of factors can determine how well the chimney draws on an open fireplace, such as the height of the chimney, how much far it protrudes from the roof and how clean it is.
Open fireplaces are generally not very efficient as a source of heat for a room. Much of the heat generated by a fire will be lost up the chimney rather than radiating out into the room.
Open fireplaces can also pull warm air out of a home and effectively make a house colder than before a fire was started.
To help overcome this problem, different types of fireplace insert can be installed within an open fireplace to help improve the efficiency and heat output when having a fire in your home.
Types of fireplace inserts can include:
- Electric fireplace inserts
- Gas fireplace inserts
- Wood fireplace inserts
- Propane fireplace inserts
Wood burning and multi fuel stoves can also be installed in open fireplaces to help improve heat output, but the main difference is that unlike inserts, stoves don’t take up the entirety of the fireplace opening.
Wood fireplace inserts help to improve the effectiveness of open fireplaces by creating an enclosed environment where the air supply can be better managed. These inserts are also typically made from a material that is a good conductor of heat, such as cast iron or steel, to help radiate more heat out into the room.
Wood fireplace inserts also have insulated glass doors on the front along with controllable air vents to allow the air supply, and therefore the fire, to be more accurately controlled.
Inserts can also have blowers to help push more heat out into the room.