Heating hero

Feel the burn

When the seasonal chill starts to set in our attention inevitably turns indoors to warmth and comfort. Fireplaces are a cosy and attractive heating option in the home, but with them comes important design and installation considerations.

Photo: Dave Kulesza

Author

Laura Valic

From the time we set off that first spark, fires have aroused a primal responsiveness in humans. For our entire history – and still the case in cold off-grid habitats – fires have been a basic necessity to our survival. So, when the bite in the air tells us the cooler weather is coming, the desire to cosy up in front of the flames is common amongst us all.

Today, in our insulated and energy connected homes, fireplaces have evolved into complementary rather than primary heat sources. Now their functionality is more about creating an ambiance, a place to gather near, keep warm and relax – or a design statement in a room. Their popularity in home improvement reality TV programs and HIA award-winning projects (including the 2019 HIA Australian Home of the Year by Bellevarde Constructions), gives credence to their role in modern house designs. 

With the vast array of stylish units available on the market that’s not to say fireplaces have become purely ornamental; depending on the type you opt for you can certainly produce an impressive amount of heat in a home. You can choose from insert, freestanding, double-sided or even triple-sided units, with differing fuel sources and degrees of energy efficiency.   

With that in mind, if you’re looking to install a fireplace in your next project where do you begin? What type and fuel source will best suit yours or your clients’ needs? What locations in the house are you permitted to install one and what about material choices surrounding the fireplace? HOUSING speaks to experts about what you should know before you get to installation. 

Fire and TV
You can choose from insert, freestanding, double or triple-sided units, with differing fuel sources and degrees of energy efficiency.   
Photo: Dave Kulesza
Brick Fireplace
Many people still prefer the rusticity and ambiance a wood burning fireplace adds to their home. 
Photo courtesy BAM Constructions 

Wood burners

While electricity and gas connections replaced many log fireplaces there are still those who prefer the rusticity and feel of a wood burner in their home. According to HIA member Brett Howard, business development manager at Jetmaster, the ‘traditional and romantic’ open wood fires are fantastic for quick radiant heat but people need to be mindful they’re not a set and forget option.

‘Using wood [in your fireplace] is a more labour intensive fire – you have to procure, light and stoke the fire, plus there’s some clean up involved, and there are certain elements of the market who don’t wish to go to that trouble,’ he says. ‘But if you’re trying to produce a lot of heat over a larger area the slow combustion wood fires enclosed behind a glass door will produce the most amount.’

Introduced to Australia in 1980, Jetmaster revolutionised the open wood fireplace market and since then has been providing an increasing range of efficient fireplaces across the country in all makes and types. Brett says that when deciding on a fireplace for a home, you need to consider what the occupants’ needs are: are they working all day and only require heating for a few hours at night, or do they live in an extremely cold environment and will be relying on their fireplace as the main heat source 24/7?

‘Really drill down to where the fire is going to go, how the client intends to use it and what they’re expecting because a lot of fires will produce both radiant and convection heat but they’re not designed to be whole home heaters – they’re space heaters,’ Brett says. ‘As such you will need to ensure the clients understand just what the limitations are of each unit type.’

Thought should also be given to where you situate a fireplace in a home because the heat it produces will rise. ‘Positioning a fireplace close to stairwells leading to another floor, for example, runs the risk of losing that heat upstairs,’ he adds.

When it comes to safe installation, Simon Croft, HIA Executive Director Building Policy, says there are rules for both open fireplaces and wood heaters which should be considered during the design phase of building or renovating to ensure regulations are met. ‘You need to know whether a permit is needed or if a licensed professional is required for all or part of the fireplace installation,’ he says, adding this may vary state to state. 

‘Your local council or building regulator or building surveyor/certifier may advise if this work is exempt or not. [Plus] there are other things to consider, such as materials surrounding the fireplace and clearances between materials and the fireplace. If a structural alteration is required to a home to facilitate the installation, this work may also require a permit.’

White Fireplace
If you desire a lot of heat over a larger area the slow combustion wood fires enclosed behind glass will produce the most amount.
Photo courtesy Jetmaster
Fireplace
Gas fireplaces offer a contemporary aesthetic with the ease of push button operation. 
Photo courtesy Mazzei Homes

Gas burners

For those who desire a contemporary aesthetic with the ease of push button operation, gas fireplaces (typically connected to natural gas, but can run on LPG) can be both a sophisticated and efficient heating source for an interior space. Like wood fires, these can be open-fronted or sealed behind glass but the major advantage is gas burners offer the appearance of a wood burning fire without the smoky smell or the hassle of tending to one. 

‘Gas burner units behind glass are more efficient in the use of gas and will produce more heat over a longer time and over a larger area,’ Brett says. ‘But they’re not meant to heat an entire house. We recommend to use them in conjunction with ducted airconditioning – turn them on at the same time, the environment will warm quickly and you can then let the gas fire take over.’

A growing trend in modern homes has been what Brett calls the ‘linear or landscape’ fireplace, a sleek horizontal look incorporated into a feature wall and often, in the case of living rooms and bedrooms, with a TV mounted above or in the vicinity. However, if you plan to build one in it would be wise to take some precautions.

‘There are no specific standards on how much heat a TV can withstand but logic will tell you that as heat comes out of the fire it will rise, and if you have a TV just above it that heat will wash over the TV,’ Brett explains. ‘To be completely safe what we recommend is to include a floating shelf or mantle underneath that protrudes out past the TV, so any rising hot air is diverted away from the appliance.’ 

Other popular gas fireplaces are the double-sided varieties, where you can peer through the flames into the other room or create a divider in an open space. Then there are the newer triple-sided models, such as the Horizon range, which Brett says is the latest innovation on the market. ‘They’re completely open on three sides and designed to be in the corner or one end of an internal wall in a home. It’s almost as though the fire is floating.’

According to Simon, unlike wood fires the installation requirements for gas heating is not covered in the Building Code of Australia (BCA). ‘For these units you must refer to the gas installations Australian Standards, which covers both the performance and installation of the unit including the flue, if required, and use a suitably licensed or registered installer to carry out this work.’ 

Hanging Fireplace
Suspended fireplaces make a sophisticated design statement in a room. 
Photo courtesy Beaton Projects
Fire and TV
If you plan to incorporate a TV in the vicinity of your fireplace, it would be wise to take some precautions.
Photo courtesy Paul Tilse Architects

Care with customisation

For the charming, traditional looking brick or stone open fireplaces, often with a mantle over the top, you need to ensure there is adequate clearance from combustible materials.

‘A masonry open fireplace requires both side and front clearances and a certain height hearth above a combustible surface such as a timber floor. The construction of its chimney is also regulated in relation to walls of the chimney and the height of the chimney above a roof line to ensure it functions as intended.’

Simon adds that the BCA Volume Two contains installation provisions for both open fireplaces and wood heaters. ‘Where the ‘fire box’ is inserted in a masonry surround and chimney with a separate metal flue, the BCA and relevant Australian Standards cover the hearth requirements and clearances, and termination height for the flue,’ he says. ‘It’s important to note also that when choosing a fireplace insert it must have been successfully tested to an Australian Standard requirement; this information should be sourced from the supplier or manufacturer of the insert.’

With regards to freestanding units Simon explains there are several options provided. ‘These include installing the unit with clearances determined by testing to an Australian Standard, or using the default clearances provided in the BCA or using a heat shield. The provisions for flues for freestanding wood heaters are also provided which detail the clearance requirements.’ 

Other types of fires, particularly in the gas range, allow for zero clearance installations meaning you can use standard timber framing and gyprock walls. But Brett says some gas fires need a non-combustible material such as a fire-rated board on the wall. 

‘With some of the linear fires the whole firebox isn’t just what you see in the glass viewing area, it goes up higher behind the wall so there is a transmission of heat through the wall,’ he says, adding certain materials such as large slabs of stone is something builders need to be wary of in a project. 

‘Most stone slabs will be man-made engineered stone and if they are in large sheets there’s a component of resin. How the resin reacts to the heat has to be more or less taken on a case by case basis, though it’s not such an issue with smaller sheet tiles because the joins allow more flexibility. 

‘Overall, it really depends on the fire as to what type of wall material it has to be.’ 

Fireplace finder

Common interior fireplaces:

Type:

  • Open wood fire
  • Slow combustion wood fire
  • Enclosed gas fire
  • Open feature gas fire
  • Electric fire
  • Bio-ethanol fuel source (pictured)

Style:

  • Inserts/inbuilt
  • Freestanding
  • Suspended
  • Double sided
  • Triple sided
    Photo courtesy Cocoon Fires 

Easy as electric

Homeowners can opt for an equally attractive effect in an interior space with electric fireplaces. They are less effective compared to wood burners or gas fires in generating heat, therefore are better suited to smaller rooms such as bedrooms and bathrooms. ‘Electric heating may not be as common as gas but it can be a fairly reliable and clean source of heating,’ says Simon Croft, HIA Executive Director Building Policy. ‘But obviously the installation of an electric space heater must comply with the electrical installation Australian Standards and be installed by a licensed person.’ 

With certain models electric fireplaces can offer a striking ambiance of leaping flames with different settings. They also give homeowners the option of a fireplace in a home where they otherwise could not flue their fire outside.

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