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Warming Trends: The Latest in Timber Home Hearths

A hearth expert shares his years of knowledge.

Photo: James Ray Spahn

A lot has changed since Jerry Wemple entered the hearth business three decades ago. He's watched the industry grow to the point that information is much more readily available and the product options now are seemingly endless. But Jerry maintains some simple advice for consumers considering hearth units: Think of what fits you, both in a practical and literal sense.

From the product to the fuel type, keep in mind your ultimate needs and uses for your hearth, as well as the exact placing of your unit and the availability of various fuel sources. Jerry, who runs the Cracker Mill Hearth & Emporium in Shokan, New York, about his recommendations for consumers and — in addition to the industry changes he's witnessed — where he sees the industry headed. For Timber Homes Illustrated, Jerry shares with readers the latest hearth trends, initial installation considerations and what you may potentially be able to do with those extra cardboard boxes you've been storing.

Timber Homes Illustrated: What is the biggest surprise to homeowners learning about hearth products?

Jerry Wemple: The biggest surprise is probably the variety of products available and all the many things they have to consider, including how a stove will affect the existing heating system. If you are in a situation where you have one thermostat for your entire house, and you add a stove, you'll need to consider whether it makes sense to have a second thermostat.

THI: How should consumers select a hearth product?

JW: I like to start off by asking, "What do you want this unit to do for you?" There are differences in why people buy these products. Some may simply be buying for aesthetics, as opposed to people wanting to heat their home 90 percent of the time with this unit. Most people do see this as something to assist with heating their home, and they are very happy if it can help with 50 or 60 percent of the heating costs.

THI: What do you find to be some common traits among homeowners seeking special hearth products?

JW: Looks are extremely important today. Back in the '70s, anything to heat the house might have worked. But today, companies have made the units more attractive and provide more installation options.

THI: What recommendations would you offer on where to place hearth products in the home?

JW: A lot of times you'll hear people talk about a central location as the best spot to place the hearth. But I like to have customers diagram their space and then try and put it where it fits in best. Moving it 10 feet because you think it might heat a certain hallway better isn't worth it if it messes up all your space or is in the way.

THI: How should homeowners choose what type of fuel to use for their hearth products?

JW: The decision should be based initially upon availability in your area. Where we're located, we're in a big wood area. In terms of expense and budget, consumers should look at a fuel cost you can deal with for the next 10 years. You shouldn't choose something you'll want to change out in a year or two. You want to think long-term. I had a middle-aged person come in recently looking for options for an older parent. It was a situation where the children couldn't always be at their aging parent's home. I recommended a gas unit because you can go away for days and not worry. And if there's a problem or repair needed, you can call the gas company to come to the home.

THI: What about the popularity of each fuel type?

JW: Pellet is always up and down with its popularity. It almost depends on what articles ran in the newspapers recently; with certain reports, we can see a rise in the usage of pellets for a little while. Gas has always been consistent.

THI: What new trends are you seeing in the industry?

JW: The trend is away from actual wood pellets, and now we're talking about "biomass." It means rather than using just wood pellets, you're referring to any fuel you can use in that stove, whether it's cardboard or even types of vegetation. There's always a lot of talk about cost of fuel, but consider the availability. We had to deal with a shortage of pellets a few years ago. Biomass units then are designed to burn various types of fuels and pellets.

Want more information on hearths? Learn how to make the most of a freestanding fireplace.