OK…it’s October, grocery stores are now sporting piles of pumpkins, and it’s time to break out all of those holiday song records…er…CDs…er…playlists.

ChestnutsBut what about roasting those Chestnuts on an open fire? Not so fast, buddy.

Over the past few years, city building codes in the Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular, have been moving to limit the number of wood-burning fireplaces in residences to cut back on the particulate pollution that they generate (and which is, surprisingly, still quite significant).

But fireplaces are romantic, you say!



Well, the building codes don’t stop you from having fireplaces – just open wood-burning fireplaces.  You can use EPA-Certified wood-burning fireplaces, but they have sealing glass doors, like woodstoves, which enormously improve the efficiency of their combustion and thus substantially reduce the particulate matter in the resulting smoke.

Vogelzang Colonial EPA Fireplace Insert

EPA inserts can be built into a zero-clearance setup with brick or stone trim and a traditional wood mantel, if desired (the black trim at left is much wider than would be needed).  You’re burning real wood, but it burns faster and hotter since the unit is air tight and it’s great for heating homes (you can see the vents above and to the sides of the insert).  But…it’s really not ideal for setting a mood since it gives off a “woodstove-heater” rather than a “romantic fireplace” vibe.

One  alternative would be to use a gas fireplace.  Gas fireplaces use natural gas as the  fuel and are much cleaner-burning than wood. While there is no particulate matter, they remain a source (albeit much smaller source) of global warming greenhouse gases.Napoleon Starfire Direct Vent Gas Fireplace

There are a wide range of different gas fireplace solutions, but in San Francisco, you can’t legally add an open firebox with a gas log set.  San Francisco and some other Bay Area cities require the use of sealed Direct Vent gas fireplaces where the gas log and fire are sealed behind a non-opening glass front.  These can have very realistic logs and embers and give off a lovely dancing flame, but to my taste, it’s a bit too much like watching TV with that shiny glass window between you and the fire.

Although not usable in most places in California, there are Vent-free gas fireplaces which do have open hearths and fireboxes and dancing gas flames.  They don’t even require any outside venting, so they’re easy to install even in a home that doesn’t have an existing fireplace or chimney…but again, not in California.

Monessen LoRider Vent Free Firebox

As you can see from the image above, this particular vent-free firebox can sit almost flush with the floor for a very authentic wood-burning-fireplace look.  The gas log sets often come with simulated glowing embers to make the look more authentic…and, frankly, they do look pretty good.

Real Flame Birch Log SetIf you want to go even more eco than a gas fireplace or if you just don’t want to tear up your home to add the gas lines in to the fireplace location, you can take a look at alcohol (ethanol) gel fire logs.  These log sets are much like the standard gas fireplace simulated wood logs, except that they are designed to fit around cans or a trough of gelled ethanol.

FireGlo Gel Fuel

The gel fuel can be made from renewal sources, burns very cleanly, and gives off just a little water vapor and CO2.  Each can lasts several hours.  A fire log set like the birch here would probably take 2 to 3 cans to create this fire effect and hides the cans behind the front large log.

You can retrofit this log set into an existing fireplace or it could be installed in a new vent-free gas firebox like that shown above, which, along with a mantel, allows a home to retain its historic character and warmth while making reducing your impact on the planet and keeping your air healthy and clean.