Fretting & Fireplaces

Category: Daily Diary

Everytime I talk to my mom on the phone lately, she asks me about the blog. 

"Why aren't you posting?  When are you going to post?"

"I'm busy," I tell her. "What I'm doing takes a lot of energy.  So much energy that I fall in bed at night exhausted and wan, a mere husk of my former self because all of the spirit has been sucked out of my body."

What is it that I am doing?  I am fretting.  That's right, fretting.  And not just any fretting.  Fretting over figuring out what to do about the fireplace.  Fretting about which contractor to trust in our pursuit of putting the living room back together.  

Contractor-related fretting is the most intense kind of fretting ever.  Worse than worrying if you will ever get asked to the prom and by whom, because you can always go hide in the bathroom at the prom if things go badly. I never have to look at pictures of my prom again if I don't choose to. I didn't have to keep the dress.  And I eventually dropped the "Farrah hairdo."


But I would have to wake up every morning and look at what the wrong contractor did to my house until we sell the house. *shudder*

Originally, we were hoping that we could retrofit the existing fireplace to be woodburning, thus satisfying Aaron's desire for burning things and my desire to have an alternative fuel source when natural gas prices drive me to let Aaron burn things in order to stay warm.

Unfortunately, a few things dashed that dream to pieces.  One, the flue above the fireplace is too narrow for a wood burning fireplace.  Two, at some point, the previous owners of our house climbed onto the roof and stuffed fire-retardant insulation down the flue that would normally vent the fireplace.  Which wouldn't have been SO bad except that they also poured a lot of Portland cement in on top of that.  A lot.  About 15 feet of it.  So, bye-bye wood burning fireplace.

Okay, next idea?  Rear vent gas insert that would fit into our existing firebox, with a blower for the heat.  


Or maybe something that looks a bit more in keeping with the style of the house.


We don't know anyone who has ever installed something like this so I am in a bind.  Most of the time I am able to get contractor referrals from people I know and product reviews on the internet.  I am learning that I like to shop for fireplaces and fireplace contractors as much as I like to poke a sharp stick in my eye.

I am overwhelmed.  The choices are all over the place.  To make it more complicated, some of the top fireplace manufacturers have been acquired by other companies in recent years and so it isn't always clear who produces a quality fireplace anymore.

And the installation requirements?  Argh.  But after nail-biting research on Google night after night, here is what I have been able to determine:

  • Craig, who runs, is the Man.  He is the guy who knows fireplaces. 
  • When you need to vent a gas fireplace out of the side of your house because you can't go up?  That is called a Direct Vent fireplace with a Rear Vent option.  I think.
  • When you are looking at heating efficiencies for fireplaces, you want to examine the AFUE (this is total efficiency) and steady-state (operating efficiency) of different models.  If no efficiencies are listed, it might be a decorative model, which is less efficient.
  • Blowers for a gas fireplace insert are not standard, you have to ask for that. 
  • Gas fireplace inserts have a sealed glass front, so your toddler cannot easily burn your checkbook or your good pair of house slippers.
  • Ventless fireplaces are less than ideal because of the health concerns attached to using them.  I actually had a ventless in an old apartment and I feel that my lungs have never recovered.
  • It is difficult to find a contractor who can line a chimney AND install your fireplace.  Usually, there is the fireplace guy/gal, the chimney guy/gal and the sales guy at the fireplace dealer.  It seems to be the sales guy's job to hand you the quote for installation and then explain that they will consider taking your first born child as payment. (Since that seems to be the requirement for getting a fireplace in Chicago.)  They also keep smelling salts in their pockets to bring you back to conciousness after you pass out.

I know.  I know.  Everything costs three times more than you anticipated.  But I didn't expect that this fireplace project would cost more than a 2005 Chevy Malibu.  That doesn't include our recreating the built-in bookshelves, the windows on either side and the front of the fireplace ourselves.

And then, who do we trust to do this?  For degree of difficulty, this project involves almost everything I get the most nervous about.  Fire.  Gas.  Electricity.  Ventilation.  Carbon monoxide.  If the project also involved running water or drains, I would run screaming out of the back door of the house.

I searched the Chicago area for possible names of fireplace dealers and installers.  I immediately eliminated any of them who have been in business less than five years or who have poor ratings with the Better Business Bureau.  But I'm still less than confident about my remaining choices because this purchase decision is so confusing.

So.  Here I sit.  Fretting.  Paralyzed.  And not getting a whole lot done.

But I posted about it, Mom! 

At this point, I'm so desperate that I'm thinking of getting a plasma TV and this fireplace DVD, and just propping it up in front of what is there now.  It would certainly be less expensive.



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Look into pellet/corn stoves. We are going to put two of these into the "Crack House". They require 3" ss vent and can go directly through an outside wall instead of up a chimney. Here is a url for you.

Hi ! I'll talk to my contractor friend here as well as my building supply nmanager friend about their thoughts and we can discuss that in about a week.

Do you want a gas unit or a different unit ? Wood / Pellet insert ?

Let me know !

Hi guys-

My wife and I took on a similar project in Philadelphia. We can not be any help in terms of referrals, but I can tell you that a quality distributer will be able to do the entire thing without contracting the chimney or vent portion to someone else.

One tip: go to a local mason supply and ask them who they would recommend. They supply the stone to the installers, and they will know who the most reliable people are.

Good Luck!


Your best bet will be having the fireplace dealer do the installation as well. That way, if there are problems you won't have your contractor pointing fingers at the dealer and vice versa.

I was going to put a vented gas fireplace in here a couple of years ago and visited a fireplace store on Staten Island. After telling them the basics of my house they gave me a flat price of five grand for a code installation, which included the fireplace I wanted. That was a lot of cash at the time and I had more pressing investments to make.

I may still do it in a year or two. But one thing I wanted from a fireplace is the smell of a fireplace. Maybe by then they'll make 'em with synthetic smoke smells.

Wow! How times have changed. I remember when personal computers didn't exist. Now our mothers ask: "why don't you blog more often?"

It's a shame that the "hearth industry" is such a complicated mess. From the few minutes I spent on it's clear there are hundreds of solutions in search of problems. To me it smells like a marketing trap. Your original fireplace was a fairly simple affair that required the skills of only one trade; A mason. Remember those guys that re-tuck-pointed your steps? (I think it was your steps) In light of the cost of retrofit, I wouldn't discount the option of rebuilding the entire masonry structure (to code), particularly since the interior hearth surround needs to be rebuilt either way. I'm assuming the original design was wood burning (?).

Now if you are hoping to gain more efficiency over the traditional design or use a particular fuel, maybe a hearth insert is the better option if you can believe the claims. But it seems Aaron might value the experience of interacting with the open flame over the actual heating effect. A slab of glass between you and the fire and the noise of a blower would detract from this experience. I replaced my high-end Thermador professional range with a 50's vintage stove primarily because it had a noisy fan and made all sorts of clicking noises. The old stove cooks so much better, too!

Even with glass the fireplace is not be toddler proof. That's a distracting notion.

It will be interesting to see how you guys go. My 1908 fireplace lost the top of its chimney in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. The p.o.s reduced the firebox and replaced the chimney with a metal vent so it can only burn gas now. I hope to rebuild it. Thanks.

We used American Heritage Fireplace - (Western & Belmont-ish) to install a Lopi Bedford direct-vent gas fireplace (also available as an insert model). Due to the positioning of the fireplace they installed a metal chimney which went about 3 feet horizontal and two floors up through the roof. It was part of their standard installation and was priced quite reasonably. I was pretty happy with their work and very happy with the fireplace, but I did know pretty much exactly what I wanted going in.

I too wondered about rebuilding your chimney. Some friends of mine had their chimney completely rebuilt and re-lined this past fall. They have a late 1920s English cottage style home and had never been able to use their original, woodburning fireplace in the five years they'd lived in the house. Now, it works perfectly. It cost them about $3900. Of course, that was here in Oregon - not in Chicago, and their firebox was in decent shape. Still, it might be worth investigating. You never know - it might not cost quite as much as Chevy.... :-)

gah! I was recently doing some research on this very thing for a friend but finally had to give up simply because I couldn't handle all the fretting over a project that wasnt even ours. Good luck with finding a solution!

This is one of those mortal sins by a previous owner. I cannot believe that they poured cement down the chimney. All that deferred maintenance, yet they had the initiative to do some really cuck coo stuff like this!!!

Tha does sound like a hard problem. We haven't dealt with fireplace issues, but we heard they are expensive. My Dad's neighbor spent $25K to have one made from scratch. I could ask him for a referral if you want- he's in Lakeview.

Keep the faith!

I installed a gas fireplace about 18 months ago. It was definitely pricey, but I haven't regretted it even once. My fireplace is for heat not just looks, and it's in my studio. I work with textiles and all the other options came with risks of soot or odor settling in the fabrics. Even pellets can cast off an odor.

We searched for about 3 years, and finally found a reputable company that handled the whole thing. When we added up the price of paying all the individual contractors, this company's single price was just about the same and we didn't have to worry that the chimney guy didn't finish in time for the gas guy to install..... blah, blah, blah. We did get the super-plain looking fireplace. It's fine for now and we can replace the front later once the rest of the house is done (allow me my dreams, ok?)

I'd recommend this company, but they are in New York. Good luck and stick with it. It is seriously worth your time to continue.

your hair held the farrah 'do significantly better than mine. :)

know any good (and inexpensive) wedding photographers?

When we first moved into our vintage condo, we redid the (wood-burning) fireplace. We used Alltypes, and while it wasn't cheap, we were happy with the work they did (for example, they pried out existing mantle and reattached it without damaging it).

you should go to this place called Fireplace & Chimney Authortiy in elmhurst they have great product and a wonderfull sales staff i hear!!! Thanks so much for your business see you on monday ........Chris

THere's a place in Oak Park that has done a lot of restorations on older homes. They have a nice showroom too Alltypes Fireplaces. I haven't used them yet, but they'll be the first we call when we get around to repairing our fireplace.


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