Hearth of the matter: Sales of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces are roaring

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January is the gloomiest month of the year. The economic climate and the long dark nights of winter dictate that staying in is the new going out. And as the rain beats on the windows or the snow piles up outside, it seems many of us are dreaming of the warmth and elemental pleasures of throwing another log on the fire.

Both the Solid Fuel Association and the National Association of Chimney Sweeps report business has increased by 20 to 40 per cent since 2008. And fireplace retailers across the UK are reporting a successful 2010, with sales up even before the icy winter hit.

According to Christine McLoughlin, financial director at CVO Fire, sales at the company increased by 35 per cent in 2010. Fireplace manufacturer and retailer Chesney's has seen a similar trend. Managing director Paul Chesney says that, after a generation of new-build homes designed without fireplaces, they are now becoming de rigueur again. "We've seen sales increase by 100 per cent in our contract business," says Chesney, "and that's across both new-build and refurbishment projects."

Barney Dorman, managing director of the Cast Iron Fireplace Company, confirms the trend. The company has seen increased demand across its range and Dorman says the rising cost of gas and electricity is fuelling the growth. According to the Solid Fuel Association, Britain's big freeze has forced domestic oil prices through the roof, with some rural residents paying 50 per cent more to heat their homes. "Solid fuel has become an economical way to heat your home," says Dorman. "It is an efficient way to generate a massive amount of heat." The desire to be more eco-friendly is also playing its part. Wood is a replenishable fuel and wood burning stoves in particular are very environmentally friendly – "they're carbon neutral," says Dorman.

Chesney also points to new eco-friendly government regulations, which affect both refurbishment projects and new-build homes. "Gas-effect fires are no longer acceptable in terms of efficiency," he says. So as the January nights draw in, make yourself cosy and see which of the following fireplace solutions might work for you.

A roaring fire

They're not the most efficient way to heat a room but nothing beats the emotional and primal appeal of a roaring fire in an open fireplace. If you want to restore your fireplace to use, you'll first need to have your chimney swept. Try the National Association of Chimney Sweeps (www.chimneyworks.co.uk) or the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps (www.guildofmasterchimneysweeps.co.uk) to find a qualified sweep near you.

Once you have the all-clear, take measurements of your fireplace and the room – including the ceiling height, width and length of the room and width of the chimney breast. A common mistake is to choose too small a surround, says Chesney. "It's essential that the proportion of the fireplace suits the size of the room otherwise it won't sit comfortably, no matter how attractive the design," he says. If in doubt, go for a larger surround and make a statement with it. After all, it's likely to be the room's focal point.

Modern surrounds are proving more popular than period reproductions. "We're seeing a demand for clean, contemporary and glamorous designs," says McLoughlin. "Limestone is the most popular but grey slate and black surrounds are becoming more fashionable."

Chesney says it's best to choose a design you like rather than feel constrained by the period of your home. "Contemporary designs can look great in period homes. Don't be too purist; choose whatever you like the look of," he says. Try Chesney's (www.chesneys. co.uk), Fireplace World (www.fireplaceworld.co.uk), Fireplace Megastore (www.fireplacemegastore.co.uk), Fire By Design (www.firebydesign.co.uk) and Modus Design (available from Chaplins, www.chaplins.co.uk) for contemporary surrounds and designs.

If you're after a period look, try salvage and reclamation yards such as Lassco (www.lassco.co.uk), Canterbury-based company Bygones (www.bygones.net), which pledges to have 40 to 50 reclaimed cast-iron fireplaces new in each week or Toby's in Exeter (www.tobysreclamation. com). Expect to pay from around £1,000 for a reclaimed original. To have your fireplace installed contact HEATAS (www.heatas. co.uk) to find an accredited local installer. Expect to pay around £500. But remember before installing a fire visit www.smokecontrol.defra.gov.uk to find out if you live in a designated smoke control area and the sorts of fuel you are allowed to burn.

Wood-burning stoves

The big story in the fireplace world is the growing popularity of wood-burning stoves. "We've seen massive exponential growth of more than 500 per cent in sales of wood-burning stoves in 2010," says Chesney.

All the experts agree that wood-burning stoves are the most cost-efficient and eco-friendly way to heat a home. You still have the pleasure of loading logs and watching the flames flicker but unlike an open fire, where as much as 70 per cent of the heat is lost from the chimney (which can also be the source of cold down-draughts when the fire isn't on), wood-burning stoves transmit up to 85 per cent of their heat directly into the room. A wood-burning stove gives off a radiant heat which bleeds through to the rest of house slowly and more efficiently than an open fire and more cheaply than gas. "I have two wood-burning stoves downstairs and they heat the entire house," says Dorman.

Safer than an open fire, particularly if you have young children, they're eco-friendly, too, and running costs are low. A £5 bag of wood will last an entire day or a minimum of two evenings, says Dorman. Note, in London and some other cities, be sure to choose a smoke-exempt stove, which allows you to burn logs in an urban environment without breaking the law.

Stove designs have moved on significantly as well. The chunky, black, country-style stoves of yore are still available but today they're supplemented by an eclectic variety of design inspirations. Whether you're after Victorian Gothic, Fifties retro or ultra-contemporary minimalist, you'll find it – and in matt or enamel finishes and colours ranging from red and cream to blue and green.

Wood-burning stoves now look as effective in a contemporary urban home as in a country cottage. For a colourful and contemporary look, try Chesney's retro-style Alpine (www.chesneys.co.uk) or the Firebelly FB1 and FB2 (www.stovesstovesstoves.co.uk) which have vast glass doors and come in a range of colours. For a more traditional look try brands like Carron or Aga (www.castironfireplace.com).

Expect to pay from between £400 and £1,400 for a stove and between £400 and £1,300 for installation. Installation costs vary depending on whether you simply install the stove or include a chimney liner. The experts believe it's worth spending the extra and lining your chimney. "It really enhances the efficiency of the stove so it pays for itself over time," says Chesney.

No chimney? No problem

Fireplace technology has developed to such an extent that you no longer need a fireplace or chimney to enjoy an open fire in your home.

If you have access to gas, you can install a wall-mounted flueless fire. Because they're designed to have very low emissions they don't need any kind of chimney. CVO Fire (www.cvo.co.uk) has a range of open-fronted flueless fires that look like the real thing. There's no glass separating you from the fire and the gas flames flicker beautifully. They're efficient, too, as there's no chimney to lose heat through. Expect to pay between £1,000 and £2,500. For cheaper options try John Lewis (www.johnlewis.com), which stocks a range of Smeg flueless fires for £699.

Wood-burning stoves can also be used without a chimney. You need to have a special insulated stovepipe fitted, which will run through the roof or wall (try www.castironfireplace.com). Expect to pay from around £2,500 including installation.

And if your heart is set on a traditional fireplace, having a chimney built is not particularly difficult, though it can be expensive (around £10,000). The Solid Fuel Association (www.solidfuel.co.uk) can put you in touch with a qualified specialist in your area.

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