The Basics: Kitchen and Bath Fireplaces

New options in gas and electric fireplaces are offering homeowners the freedom to install these cherished fixtures in every room of the house -- even kitchens and baths.

For the better part of the last half-century, fireplaces were reserved for a home's living room or family room. The need for a masonry footing, stone hearth and roof-clearing brick chimney all but guaranteed it. But thanks to the arrival of new gas fireplaces, some requiring little or no ventilation, homeowners now have the freedom to install these heart-warming fixtures in any room of the house, including the kitchen and bath.

Adding a fireplace to your home can increase its value, provide warmth and ambiance and, in the case of some kitchen models, provide an additional cooking source. But selecting the right fireplace for each application requires some research. We spoke with fireplace experts, a kitchen designer and a celebrity chef to discuss what's hot in fireplaces.

Determine Your Needs

"The first question you need to ask is, 'Where is the fireplace going and for what purpose do I want it?'" says Bruce Carlson of Consolidated Kitchens and Fireplaces in Omaha, Neb., a hearth industry expert with 30 years of experience. Do you want your fireplace to provide warmth or just look pretty? And if you want it to provide warmth, how big (or small) is the room it will be installed in? "You want a fireplace that produces an appropriate amount of heat for the size of the room without overheating it," Carlson explains.

For most kitchen and bath applications, Carlson recommends direct-vent gas fireplaces. These self-contained units require no foundation: They're vented horizontally out the nearest sidewall, requiring no chimney; and they're sealed units, so there's little risk of carbon monoxide entering the room. Two- and three-sided models allow multiple rooms to take advantage of the same unit, making them ideal for kitchens that open into a family room or bathrooms that open into a bedroom.

Vent-free gas fireplaces, as the name implies, require no venting whatsoever, making them less expensive to install. These fireplaces produce a very hot flame that minimizes the production of dangerous carbon monoxide. But Carlson warns that these units aren't ideal for every application. "These fireplaces emit a tremendous amount of heat, making them inappropriate for small kitchens and baths," he says. And because they don't vent outdoors, they tend to introduce a lot of moisture, a byproduct of combustion, into the room.

Of course, both direct-vent and vent-free gas fireplaces require a natural gas or propane supply to work. If you have neither but still want the look and feel of flames, electric fireplaces may be the next best thing. "These units simply plug into a wall," says Carlson. "A bank of lightbulbs and a reflective panel give the illusion of flames." He adds that today's electric fireplaces offer a much more realistic experience than earlier models and, while the bulbs provide little heat, there are some models with built-in space heaters.

The Designer's Eye

"Fireplaces in the kitchen or bath are a great selling point. They really set your home apart from the others," says designer Cheryl McCracken, of Cheryl McCracken Interiors in Foxboro, Mass. "The kitchen is where everyone hangs out already, so why not make it as cozy and comfy as possible by adding a fireplace?"

McCracken recommends treating fireplaces like any other design element being introduced into the home. "You want the fireplace to complement the cabinetry, furniture and fabrics in the room," she says. Fortunately, today's gas fireplaces come in a wide range of materials, including fieldstone, brick, marble and granite. "The new gas fireplaces on the market look great; they look like real wood-burning fireplaces."

While there's nothing like the crackle and hiss of a real wood fire, McCracken's clients most often opt for the convenience of gas. "People today are looking for quick and easy, and gas is quick and easy," she says. Gas fireplaces require no wood, need minimal maintenance and turn on and off with the flick of a switch or — better yet — a remote control.

Cooking with Wood

Authentic hearth cooking requires a ton of work: You have to chop wood, lug it into the house, build a fire, wait for it to reach optimal temperature, and only then begin cooking. Thank goodness for the gas range! Yet, some enthusiastic home chefs are choosing to install wood-burning fireplaces in their kitchens for the specific purpose of preparing food. The heat and beauty they provide are a bonus.

The Mercedes-Benz of kitchen fireplaces is the Tulikivi soapstone bake oven, a stately wood-burning model that combines a firebox with a separate cooking oven. "Soapstone is the densest stone in the world and one of the best natural materials for conducting and retaining heat," explains Ron Pihl, the owner of WarmStone Fireplaces & Designs in Livingston, Mont.

A two-hour fire in one of these Finnish masterpieces can provide hours of steady, even heat for baking pizzas, roasting meats and simmering stews. And because they continue to release heat for 24 hours, they make an ideal secondary heat source.

When Joanne Weir, cookbook author and host of PBS's Joanne Weir's Cooking Class, renovated her San Francisco Victorian, she converted her traditional fireplace into a cooking hearth. She raised the firebox three feet off the floor, installed a motorized spit for roasting and added a gas starter for convenience.

"This isn't something I would do on a Tuesday night," Weir says. "I use it mostly when I'm entertaining friends or family. But when people walk into the house and see a leg of lamb roasting on a spit over a wood fire, it just blows them away. They absolutely love it."

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