Renovation Planning for Fireplaces        

So your client is renovating, and she wants a fireplace. Now what? How will it impact your design, and what do you need to do to prepare?  As a fireplace expert, I have a few tips:

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  • Decide whether to go with gas or electric. This is the most important decision you will make, because it has the most impact on design, cost and comfort. Any new home or a home being renovated to current building code, will be much warmer than homes of the past. Windows and doors are better quality, insulation is heavier, and homes are generally more energy-efficient. This also means that they are warmer. Gone are the drafty, cold rooms of the past. Do you want a fireplace for heat or ambiance, or both? Be sure your client understands the difference in heat output between gas and electric fireplaces. A small gas fireplace can pump out around 20,000 BTUs, which is enough for about a 1600 – 2000 square foot space. An electric fireplace can generate 5000 BTUs, which is enough for a 400 -500 square foot space; or it can be operated without the heater, for ambiance only. Which one is right for your client’s space? When considering the budget, keep in mind that an electric fireplace will cost less to purchase, install and maintain, than a gas fireplace.

  • Find out if you can install a fireplace at the desired location. If you are installing a gas fireplace, you will need a gas line, as well as venting options. Do not assume that you will be able to go out the side wall with a direct-vent gas unit; there are exterior clearance limitations, among other factors, to consider. Always consult with manufacturer specifications and a licensed gas fireplace installer before committing. With an electric fireplace, you will need to run a dedicated 120 or 240 volt electrical cable to the desired location. If this is not possible, then you will need to pull an electrical connection from an existing outlet, and consider having the fireplace heater disabled to accommodate the reduced electrical capability. Again, it’s best to consult a licensed electrician on the ins and outs of the electrical lines, while consulting with an electric fireplace expert on the heating capabilities.

  • Consider the impact of gas or electric fireplaces on your design. Gas fireplaces generally heat up the walls as well as the space around the fireplace. An electric fireplace doesn’t heat up the walls around the unit, even when the heater is on. The reason this is important is for clearance to other materials. Does the client want a TV above the fireplace? If you place a TV above most gas fireplaces, you will have a much greater clearance requirement than with electric fireplaces. Gas fireplace manuals specify the clearances needed to avoid damage to TVs. TVs may be placed much closer to electric fireplaces, without risk of damage. You must also consider the combustibility of wall covering materials used in your design. Gas fireplaces must be surrounded by non-combustible materials; electric fireplaces are zero-clearance and may be built into wood walls and covered with any material you desire. Last but not least, electric fireplaces are much shallower than gas fireplaces, and will project into the room much less than their gas counterparts. In narrow or smaller spaces, this can make a big difference to your layout.

With a little planning up front, your client will have the perfect fireplace, and she will thank you for guiding her.


Jeanne Grier is a National Fireplace Institute Certified Hearth Design Specialist, and President of Stylish Fireplaces & Interiors.  www.stylishfireplaces.ca

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