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21st Century Hearths


The trees are nearly shorn of their leaves. Gray skies have blanketed the final days of October. Suddenly thoughts turn to shorter days and colder nights. It’s time to turn toward making our homes warm and cozy.

In this year of COVID-19, when so much of the world seems too challenging to contemplate, many people are focusing on their houses, making them more welcoming and serene. To this end, a fireplace or wood stove can provide just the right touch on a winter’s night.

Indeed, so many homeowners have entertained this idea that there is currently a significant backlog of orders, according to Mark Mendel, owner the Wood Stove Gallery in Great Barrington. “All the stove companies are very, very busy,” he said. “For years, if you bought a woodstove, I would be there in a week, but now we’re kind of backed up. Usually, the first cold day, the phone rings, but now we even sell stoves in the summertime. If a new house is going up, and it’s time for the stove to go in, you could be there on the hottest day in July.”

Mendel, well-known in the region for his masonry—he has operated Monterey Masonry since 1982—has built hundreds of traditional fireplaces. “I must have built a thousand fireplaces,” he related, “but fireplaces are not being built in those numbers now. People are going to woodstoves because they are less costly and more efficient and you don’t have the issues you have with fireplaces. With a fireplace, you want to make sure when you go to bed at night that you have a screen in front. With woodstoves, you don’t have sparks flying out. And stoves just throw more heat.”

Mendel has sold stoves through his business for more than a decade, but this year opened the Wood Stove Gallery (789 South Main Street in Great Barrington) as a division of Monterey Masonry. He has focused on several lines of European wood stoves because he likes their superior quality and performance.

“Stoves today are not the old, beloved Vermont Castings stoves from the 1970s,” he said. “The older stoves were only about 45 percent efficient, with 55 percent of the heat going up the chimney as gas (smoke). In the chimney, the gas would start to cool and become creosote, which could start a fire.”

All that is changing. This year new EPA emissions standards went into effect that allow the release of only 2.5 grams of particulate matter in an hour.

“Everything we sell meets that standard,” Mendel said, explaining that a “secondary burn” reduces the particulate load in the smoke, improving the efficiency percentile from the “mid-60s to the low-90s.” (There is another benefit, too, in that the secondary burn directs jets of flame toward the inside of the glass viewing window, automatically cleaning it.)

Although all new sales must meet EPA standards, Mendel said older stoves can still be used by homeowners.

In addition to free-standing stoves, Mendel said he also supplies fireplace inserts, typically self-contained metal boxes with glass fronts units, and zero-clearance units that are fire-rated so that reduced clearance is required between the firebox and construction materials.

Mendel said he only briefly dabbled in selling gas fireplaces but quickly gave them up. He does not deal in pellet stoves. He noted that wood is a renewable resource. “It’s an old New England thing,” he observed.

Indeed, the concept of burning wood is ancient—from well before there was a New England—but the modern stove can be as contemporary as tomorrow. "Even in the Berkshires there is now a demand for contemporary architecture,” he said. “I work on a lot of contemporary houses and if people are designing one, they want contemporary woodstoves. I’m trying to make these stoves happy in their environment.”

The modern stoves are sleek and classic. One, The Wittus Shaker, has won international design awards, while another, the Stuv, has a smaller combustion chamber perfectly suited to smaller, well-insulated homes of today. For longer-lasting heat, a masonry heater can be fitted with an accumulator unit that stores part of the heat produced by the combustion of wood. The accumulated energy continues to dissipate for several hours after the fire has died out.

His new showroom displays several different styles of stoves in operation. Adding to the ambiance is a display of contemporary art. “It’s nice to show local artists,” he concluded.

While Mendel prefers the purity of burning wood, there are other dealers with different kinds of fireplace technology, some that do not require stacking wood. The House of Warmth co-owner Nyree Pieck says their outlet (449 Danbury Road in New Milford) sells a full range of products: wood, gas, pellet and electric—the last showing a surge in interest. “When we went into business seven years ago,” she said, “we had an electric fireplace on the floor and we got rid of it because there was no interest. Then two years ago we started to get requests.”

She said they carry the Dimplex brand, a firm, she says, is “always in the forefront of technology.” “You don’t need any special wiring. You can just plug the unit into a wall outlet and it will heat a 400-foot space. If you have an electrician wire it, you can heat 800-square feet. And there are no clearances from combustible materials, you can put it against a flat wall or even get a log set and just put it in a real fireplace.”

No venting is required and you don’t have to get up to throw another stick on the fire—just use your remote control to raise and lower the flames.

At Dean’s Stove and Spa’s new outlet in New Hartford (376 Main Street) customers can find a variety of technologies for both in- and outdoor use, ranging from wood to gas and electric. The units can be used for a primary heat source, supplemental heat for even pure ambiance.

For instance, DaVinci custom linear gas fireplaces provide endless possibilities for design and functionality and range from two feet to 66 feet in length. The gas flames stay safely behind glass that never gets hotter than 135 degrees, while the surrounds offer multiple fire art options. The Maestro Collection, on the other hand, has a modern, minimalist presentation for three vertical and two square models ranging up to 58 inches long.

Another solution: try an EcoSmart Ventless Fireplace, fueled by bioethanol, a clean-burning, renewable fuel based on plants such as corn and sugarcane. Again, there is no need to vent, no electrical, gas lines or utility connections needed and no soot, ash or air-quality issues.