Regarding a recently-bought house in NC mountains: 1950 small cottage, on crawl space, fireplace in center facing living/dining/kitchen, with bedroom at its back, set up for gas, with gas heater sitting in front of and connected to fireplace. The fireplace is at floor level and about 2.2 feet high, with brick hearth and surrounded by wood floors. Keeping in mind that the house actually belongs to my 87-year old mother, but that we're also starting certain remodeling, including verifying and improving insulation and making changes to the roof, I thought Permies would be a good place to go for off-road ideas before I go out and get a wood-burning stove or fireplace insert. (Fireplace guy is coming by in a couple days to try to sell us something.)
House is being encroached-on by many trees, primarily oak, so wood will be available for a very long time. My experience with the NC mountains is that you couldn't stop the trees from growing if you tried all day long!
Part of roof reconfiguration/addition will be to set up a south-facing area for future solar. (Fortunately, trees to the south are minimal.) Also, house does have electric baseboard heat, so the fireplace is not 100% necessary for heating. The house is so small that it could overheat quickly. If you close off the office and porch additions, we're talking about maybe 450 square feet, almost literally square. Ceiling is 8 feet, although I've considered raising it.
Experience so far is that we will need heating for at least 7 months a year (and cooling not needed, other than the ceiling fans).
Despite the fact that the gas company says there is no leak, I believe that I can smell it, and don't like the idea of inhaling gas year-round. Water heater is on gas and will be until I can determine a better option, but that room can be closed off from the rest of the house.
All creative, off-the-wall ideas as to what to do with this fireplace are welcome! (Hopefully will not be only "seal it up.")
A compact space like yours would be easy to heat with a woodstove, but the notion that you would be heating at least a bit for seven months of the year says that much of the time you will want only a bit of heat. A woodstove capable of heating it in the dead of winter will be vastly oversized much of the year, and would have to be shut down to a smolder, which creates creosote (risk of chimney fires), pollution (bad air all around the place unless the wind blows it someplace else), and inefficiency (having to cut and haul much more wood than should be necessary).
I suggest looking into a rocket mass heater, which will let you burn only one or two fires a day in heating season, yet release the heat evenly all night with no fire burning. It is also extremely efficient, so there will never be creosote, and you will have to handle a small fraction of the wood an ordinary woodstove requires.
A RMH requires some floor space, but could be built into pretty much the area of your fireplace and hearth, possibly extending some depending on your particular layout. They can be built by anyone who can follow directions and handle tools, for little cash depending on your available material resources. The main downside is that insurance companies do not know about them and may not want to insure a house heated by RMH unless it got an official building permit.
First thing to do is check the fireplace out, if it is all in good working order then you can decide on using an insert or just removing the gas heater and capping off the gas pipe.
Gas has a distinctive odor (onion) that is put in just so we can smell a gas leak.
If you think you are smelling gas, you can make up a soapy water solution and spray or dribble some over each connection in the pipe, if there is a leak you will see soap bubbles.
I love old houses and particularly when they are restored (what I used to do for a living). Old fireplaces can be a dream or a nightmare, depending on if they are still sound or not.
A sound fireplace is great, not much to do except for having a sweep clean the flue. Look at the firebricks, if you see missing mortar then you may want to point in with fresh fire mortar so everything is ship shape.
One other thing to look at is the hearth and apron, I like to have at least 2 feet of apron when a wood floor is involved, no one wants a popping ember to set the house on fire.
As for the chimney and surround, if you like the look, you can keep it as is. If you don't you can change it with either tile or stone, your choice.
The biggest thing to do is talk to MOM, it is her house, most likely she would like to see it stay fairly close to what she likes but one never knows until the questions are asked (in a really nice way).
Sound exciting and I wish you good luck and much happiness with this project.
Thanks Redhawk! You are very kind. As to Mom, I have a lot of leeway since I'm managing and the house is to be a family place, but don't want to do something too far outside her concept. (Anyway, she's considering moving on to an "independent living" facility at some point in the near future.)
We are already aware that the firebricks in the attic are loose, so will have a "chimney sweep" come in to update that at the right time. I suppose that would be the local stove and chimney guy who is stopping by on Saturday.
Sounds like we need to at least expand the apron, because I'm very concerned about fire safety in the house. It's just a lot of old dry wood!
Of course I want to eliminate pollution, and also would like to have a stove that I can keep a teapot warm on top of, all day.
I'm thinking of building seating on either side of the fireplace, possibly covered in tile.
Wondering if it's possible to convert into a masonry fireplace, but there's not a whole lot of space, in general.
Rockets are one way to go but then there are others like a franklin stove insert, and even the cast iron or soapstone wood burning stoves could be incorporated.
If the chimney is too far gone for easy repair for use, see if a triple pipe could be used inside there for efficiency. I had an old house once that I replaced the flue by installing a triple wall stove pipe inside what was already there.
It ended up being cheaper than repairing the cracking ceramic flue pipes and I was able to install a really nice wood stove insert. It looked like it had always been there when we were done.
In the long run it will be what looks best to your eyes and how much work is involved overall.
If you are living in the house it may be that a big construction project isn't your cup of tea, what with all the dust and stripping a room of furniture, storing it during construction and then putting it all back.
Most of my worst jobs revolved around a family wanting to renovate while they remained living in the house.
Dust, containment barriers, and all the rest of the mess that comes with can be a huge hurdle for some folks.
Take your time or at least as much as is possible to think out a complete plan for each phase/step of the project(s), doing this makes it a lot easier all around.