Some folks have a real knack for building a fire, a blazing beauty that leaps high and strong, with smoke that heads right up the chimney. But the vast majority of us prefer not to haul in logs, dump the ashes, or open windows to let the smoke escape. Thank goodness we don't have to. These days we get the hearth without the hassle. And our options grow every year: Vented gas logs. Ventless gas logs. Direct-vent fireplaces. Electric fireplaces. You name it, you're likely to find it at Memphis-area fireplace shops.
Louie Bishop, of Bishop Hearth and Home, deals primarily with architects and high-end homebuilders. His biggest seller is the Isokern™, a modular masonry fireplace made from volcanic pumice extracted from Hekla Volcano in Iceland. Fitted with gas logs (you can burn wood in the Isokern if you're a purist), this Danish product is "more efficient, absorbs and radiates heat longer, and gives a true European masonry look for a fraction of the cost," says Bishop. Another benefit of the Isokern, he adds, is that it can be altered in depth and height: "The dimensions of those prefabbed at a factory can't be changed. But with Isokerns you have some flexibility."
In choosing a fireplace, people usually consider either efficiency or aesthetics. "In our market, aesthetics is more important," says Bishop. "Customers are buying a $750,000-plus home and they've brought mantels over from Europe they want to fit on their fireplaces. So they have to be beautiful." Others may want a custom-made mantel. "We work with a company here called European Stone Werks," says Bishop, "and owner Mark Pepke can design a limestone hearth to a buyer's specifications."
While Bishop's customers focus on the interior, he reminds them that exteriors matter too: "I tell them to give a thought to what the chimney will look like. Many of the French country-style homes here have copper or terra-cotta elements on the front elevations -- gutters, gas lanterns, finials. We offer copper or terra-cotta chimney pots that will be consistent with the look of the house." Most of these have spark arrestors that keep sparks in and rain and rodents out.
For Jim Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Fireplace Shop, a product growing in popularity is the electric fireplace. "People want the look of a fireplace all year," he says. "They want the glow without the heat." For $1,000 and the flip of a switch, they've got just that.
But Hamilton's biggest sellers are gas logs, either vented (up the chimney) or ventless (which uses a special burner to achieve a smokeless flame). The vented variety features logs that resemble oak, birch, hickory, or other woods, with "jumping flame" burners that lick up high through the logs and "sort of draw you in," says Hamilton. The ventless flames, on the other hand, are shorter and the logs look less authentic.
Although ventless fireplaces heat up a larger area more cost-efficiently than the vented version, they have their detractors, who claim the moisture production of a ventless fireplace can cause mold, and the carbon monoxide, though by no means deadly, can aggravate respiratory problems. However, Hamilton says, "Using a ventless fireplace for only two or three hours at night on low should cause no problem. And it's also a great backup heat source in case of an electric power outage."
Yet another option is the direct-vent fireplace, which requires no chimney because it's vented out the side of the house. "For indoor air quality, it's the best way to burn gas," says Bishop. Sold with hand-forged copper faces that meet his customer's aesthetic demands, direct-vent fireplaces make up 75 percent of Bishop's gas hearth sales.
There's more to keep you warm: elaborate outdoor fireplaces, and the eco-friendly wood-pellet burning stove that uses compressed sawdust otherwise destined for a landfill. To enhance your comfort, remote controls come with many products and add about $350 to the price. So fire it up, snuggle down, and savor the joys of a contemporary hearth.