Esthetically, a fireplace is a traditional part of most houses. Conventional fireplaces are, however, notoriously inefficient and may actually remove heat from a house rather than produce any. National Resources Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the EPA, has a very detailed discussion of fireplaces in which they review the problems with conventional fireplaces. In particular, they recommend advanced combustion fireplaces which have efficiences of 50-70% (and are thus more than 10 times efficient than a conventional fireplace.) Another discussion of energy efficient fireplaces comes from Home Energy. See also. These fireplaces are more efficient and produce significantly less pollution than conventional fireplaces.
Magnum, one maker of advanced combustion fireplaces, offers a comparison table of the top 7 brands. An advanced combustion fireplace from FireplaceXtraordinair comes either in wood fired or gas fired options. In particular, the Elite 44 is said to produce 2.5 grams of emissions/hour and burn with an efficiency of 72%. The BIS II from Security is yet another advanced combustion zero clearance fireplace. The EPA has a web page listing certified wood stoves (which includes some fireplaces.) Among fireplaces that a) meet our current dimensions (see below) and b) are EPA certified are the Lennox Brentwood and the RSF Onyx and Opel. RSF has a helpful vocabulary guide to fireplaces. Majestic Fireplaces seems to have one "advanced combustion" EPA certified fireplace, the Sequoia. The Quadra Fire meets our energy requirements, but is too large for the space. Similarly, the Regency is EPA II certified but requiresd 59.5 inches from bottom to mantel.
(A problem we encountered with the Fireplace Xtrordinaire which we thought we would install is that it requires at least 24 inches of clearance from the top of the face plate to the mantel. Although this is clearly stated in the manual, no one, including the installer, bothered to notice this. So, we now need to look for another fireplace! Everyone focussed on the code requirements (12 inches) and were misled by a diagram in the FPX installation guide. Careful reading, however, shows that our mantel is much too close to operate the fireplace safely. Discussions on hearth.net suggest that this is not an unusual problem. Meeting our requirements for a raised hearth and the mantel we have put in is difficult, in that the distance is just 45 inches. However, the RSF Onyx seems to work. )
For a debate about whether conventional fireplaces should be illegal or not, see the pages of Hearth.net. From fireplacesnow.com "A Traditional wood burning fireplace (either masonry or factory-built) is what most people own and the type most people associate with the term "wood burning fireplace". Now there are two newer high efficiency fireplaces. Clean-burning and EPA-certified (by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) fireplaces produce less than 7.5 grams of particulates per hour and are more technologically advanced than the traditional types. "
Fireplaces, as do all combustion devices, produce a number of biproducts that can prove fatal (e.g., CO, CO2) or harmful. The EPA offers advice for how to deal with combustion devices in the home. Other advice for the operation of catalytic wood stoves (which the advanced combustion fireplaces functionally are) comes from the Hearth Products Association who also offer general advice on how to choose and operate fireplaces and stoves.
The environmental advantages of wood burning firelplaces (as compared to gas or other fossil fuels) are discussed in a set of pages devoted to Wood Heat. They do not address issues having to do with soot and other particulate matter. A comparison of types of wood burning heating sources (e.g., fireplaces and stoves) and includes a discussion of the EPA regulations.