Hello, Norman Rockwell: Fireplaces as works of art.

A good book, a steaming mug of Swiss Miss and a toasty fireplace emanating a warm glow. It's a picture perfect winter evening in front of your cozy hearth. Or it could be. "Nearly everyone has a little bit of fascination with fire," says Brent Buchan, owner of Energy Products & Design Inc. "We're drawn to it for different reasons, but it's almost universally hypnotic."

Fireplaces have won their way into our hearts, still evoking Norman Rockwell images of home and family. Although traditional styles from back in the day are still popular, fireplaces today are also becoming works of art in their own right, Buchan says. "The diversity in fireplaces is growing rapidly," he says. "Many manufacturers are coming out with their own interpretations of what a fireplace can be." The Soho gas fireplace design from Heat & Glo, for instance, offers an eye-level portrait installation that mimics a contemporary work of art with its 24-by-24-inch picture frame shape - and at that compact size, it's a fireplace you can put in any room of your home.

Also evolving are the materials that adorn the flames themselves, Buchan says. Some manufacturers use a shattered-glass bed for the fire, creating a modern art look. Stainless steel Marble "fires" or black onyx rocks are also possibilities. "While this may not occur in nature," Buchan concedes, "it creates a peaceful, calming look, with a fire that drifts around other objects."

One issue with some of these art-style fireplaces: They may not actually provide heat. Keep that in mind if you're hoping to save on energy bills or if you have visions of that perfect winter evening at the warm hearth. "Some say these are fireplaces for the sake of art, not for heat," Buchan notes. "But because you can put them in the bar, the dining room or the living room, you can still enjoy them for a gathering, even when they're deliberately engineered not to heat. It's more for the ambience."

The fuel of choice today is gas, not wood, Buchan says. "Gas fireplaces are very durable," he says. "They don't have to put up with the punishment and unknowns of how hot the fireplace will burn because they're very predictable devices since the amount of gas that goes into them is regulated."

One thing that people sometimes overlook with the fireplace is the required maintenance. "You should regularly maintain your fireplace just like you would maintain your car or furnace," Buchan says. "Keeping it clean is especially important when the fireplace becomes the focal point of a room or a piece of art."

Dust your fireplace regularly and wash the glass as needed, but probably at least every two to three months, Buchan suggests. Learn whether your fireplace window can be removed for more effective cleaning. Ask your installer or the manufacturer about special cleaning products for your fireplace. Don't use perfumed cleaning products, such as those with a citrus scent, because they can leave a residue on the glass that will burn, leaving the glass even dirtier. Also avoid ammonia-based products, which can etch the glass dramatically, forcing you to buy a new one, Buchan says.

Thinking about getting a vent-free or room-vented fireplace? Don't bother. Although such vent-free fireplaces exist, they're not legal in Minnesota, Buchan says. Direct vent fireplaces, on the other hand, are legal. Direct-vent fireplaces are vented to the outdoors, drawing outside air to start a flame and venting fumes outside. Vent-free or room-vented fireplaces, in contrast, don't vent to the outside. Instead, they draw air from the room for combustion, purify the exhaust gases, and then vent into the room. Although some critics still contend they pose a health hazard, Minnesota - along with a handful of other states - bans them because of problems with interior oxygen consumption and condensation, Buchan says.

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Copyright 2007 Rochester Area Builders, Inc. No part of the Remodel It Right Handbook articles may be reproduced or printed without written permission from Rochester Area Builders, 108 Elton Hills Lane NW, Rochester, MN 55901. Phone (507) 282-7698.