fireplaces in old house - what kind are they & can they be used?

hildaJanuary 25, 2008

I'm looking at a house built between somewhere in the teens (1910-1920). There are two fireplaces, very small (way too small for wood logs). They each have heavy, cast iron, solid panels that fit in the opening to close them off completely.

What did these burn originally? Coal? Oil? Natural gas?

A contractor is trying to talk me into putting an UNVENTED gas stove or gas logs in these small fireplaces. I'm wary of unvented appliances. Since these fireplace worked at some time, and have chimneys, why couldn't the gas logs be vented up the chimney? (We'd be looking for charm more than a heat source.)

Has anyone with an old house turned a tiny fireplace like this into something that produces flames for a little ambiance? I'd like to hear any thoughts.

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We looked at several homes here with identical fireplaces, and were told they were coal-burning fireplaces.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2008 at 7:32PM
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Yes, those kinds of fireplaces generally burned coal - depending on where you are they may well have burned lignite, which is a sort of in between peat and bituminous coal.

The solid panels are a nice touch to have, still. Many times they've simply disappeared. The ones on Mom's fireplace (I'm about 95% certain hers had one) are long gone, possibly to a scrap drive during World War II.

I'd love to see pictures of your fireplaces.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2008 at 8:54PM
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We have a 1918 bungalow that had 2 of these fireplaces when we bought it. They were back-to-back, but not see through. As you noted, these boxes are very small but we were able to "steal from Peter to pay Paul" and enlarged one box enough to convert it into a wood burning unit, and plan to convert the other side to a vented gas coal unit in the next few weeks. We've also uncovered another one of these fireplaces (a previous owner and removed it) and are currently restoring it to add a gas coal fireplace at the same time. You might check out - the Victorian Fireplace Shop - they have tons of information on these direct vented units on their website and have been very helpful to us. good luck!

    Bookmark   February 10, 2008 at 8:56PM
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Hilda, hope you are still checking on your post.
We just converted one of our coal burning fireplaces to wood burning in the living room/ front parlor. Required a new firebox and smoke chamber built with firebrick and a stainless steel liner. The other one in the bedroom we closed off from the chimney and converted to gel burning. Look into gel inserts or logs. It's a very easy thing to do and not expensive. Does not produce much heat though, just flames and crackling. But he flame is not constant like gas. It flickers quite a bit.
If you want to install gas logs/ gas coal baskets you will need a fireplace that is qualified to burn wood. See
A gas coal insert on the other hand does not require the whole shebang.
Our 'panels' also called summer covers also probably were donated in the War too.
I am including a link to the pictures. View as a slideshow and click on the 'i' to read my comments. Tell me what you think!

Here is a link that might be useful: Coal burning fireplace restorations

    Bookmark   February 11, 2008 at 12:51PM
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We also have an old home with double sided coal burning fireplaces. Mantel in one room is marble and wood on the other side in another room. We do not want to destroy the mantels or the face and interior baskets of the fireplace. We realize it is not safe to use and the chimney has been partially dismantled from the roof to the floor in the attic. We would love to convert these fireplaces to wood burning, gas is not an option in our area. If anyone has any suggestions we certainly would appreciate the help!
Thank you.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2011 at 6:46PM
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Why not just buy some good bituminous lump coal and use that? It's what they were designed for. Additionally coal is safe to use in older unlined chimneys, as it does not produce any flammable creosote (liners initially came into favor because they reduced/eliminated creosote seepage through the soft mortar joints of older chimneys - when there was a chimney fire the flammable creosote with a low ignition temp that had soaked through the porous mortar would ignite not just on the inside of the stack, but on the outside as well thus igniting the home). It is likely that there is a coal source in your area. Coal is less expensive than burning firewood (unless you cut it from your own lands), doesn't spark, doesn't produce flammable creosote and requires much less frequent tending - a 5 gallon pail full of lump coal will create a bright cheery fire most of the day. The covers on your fireplaces would improve the efficiency for heating, however, they were always a pain to deal with and are difficult to use once the fire has gotten hot; for a recreational fire I would highly reccomend leaving them off (this is why they are so hard to find - most people didn't use them even back then).

Here is a link that might be useful: scroll to the second post down - demonstraition of a fireplace coal fire

    Bookmark   February 17, 2011 at 2:21PM
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Just a quick note for your information concerning older chimneys. When your chimney was build it may not have a clay flue tile lining. It would be a fire hazard to use any chimney before it has be lined with an approved chimney liner. Whether it be wood, coal or gas venting the heat transferring to the surrounding structure can burn your house down. This means the wood surrounding the chimney can spontaneously combust due to the high temperature. Get a certified chimney sweep to evaluate your chimneys potential for the type of use you are considering.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 2:09PM
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