Our ancestors first sparked a fire by rotating wood swiftly under pressure, and ever since, we have forged a special relationship with fire and fireplaces.
Traditional gas, wood and electric fireplaces all do a good job of providing heat and enjoyment. But there's a lot that's new, innovative and just plain fun in fireplaces that invite you to think outside the box, albeit the fire box, this season.
You don't have to stray far afield for an intriguing range of styles and innovative products, say Al Leitao of Winnipeg Supply and Service and others. Winnipeg Supply sells a range of styles and brands, but one in particular is well suited to Winnipeg's grand old houses.
It's the Valour line called Fires of Tradition. "These are the kind of fireplaces that could go into some of the places in River Heights," said Leitao. The models are generally ornamental, some painstakingly so, and made of vintage materials like cast iron and ceramics in order to remain true to heritage architecture.
Meantime, if you still think fireplaces are all wall mounted units at floor level with a homogeneous look and function, then you haven't been to Flame & Comfort.
In a quick tour of the premises, owner David Rousseau stops at a HEAT-N-GLO fireplace with a wall mounted control that operates a gas fireplace. The fireplace has no pilot light, a usual amenity for gas fireplaces that costs about $10 a month to maintain. Removing the pilot light saves owners about $100 per year on their gas bill, said Rousseau.
"The unit (Intelli-Fire) services several HEAT-N-GLO fireplaces," said Mike Braybrook, assistant manager.
Another very modern number is the CFX-Diamond. This diamond-shaped totally sealed unit (42 inches by 54 inches) is made to be mounted high on the wall similar to a large piece of art for a unique look. A flick of the switch and the gas unit comes to life.
Some new developments in the HEAT-N-GLO line include the replacement of a metal firebox with the manufacturer's 'ceramic fibre firebox', giving the units' interior a masonry rather than a metal look. Another is a 'clean face' that allows finishing products such as masonry surround to be brought up close to the edge of the fireplace for an authentic look.
Some innovative models include a see-through that allows a person to see through the fireplace to a room on the other side of the wall; The Everest, which features a unique campfire arrangement of logs, and The Crescent, a kitchen model complete with food warming shelf.
The company, says Rousseau, also sold two very large units in another line it sells: Town & Country Fireplaces. These are fireplaces for grand homes that can accommodate the larger more expensive units.
"We sell some models that range in price from $8,000 to $10,000," says Rousseau.
Meantime, a Winnipeg dealer, Superior Heating & A.C., is selling gas fireplaces made right here in Winnipeg, and Tom Higham, sales manager, says if quick service and buying locally is important to you, check out the Kingsman Fireplaces line.
The private family company has a track record of 25 years behind it, and Higham refers to the old saw of the company being "the best kept secret." "But it's actually about the fifth largest seller of gas fireplaces and exports all throughout North America."
With respect to service, Higham defies anyone in the industry to do a quicker turnaround for repairs. "I can usually do a repair and have it going again in an hour."
For some, only the look of stone will do, and that's where the masonry industry comes in. There are hundreds of ways experienced companies can jazz up a fireplace for an unparalleled look consistent with many decors.
Think alcohol is just for the Christmas cocktails? Think again.
Alcohol-based fuel in a gel-like canned substance is behind one of the biggest innovations in fireplaces in years. An alternative to traditional fuels, the canned fuel is manufactured and marketed under more than one brand name and has given rise to the phenomenon of alcohol-burning fireplaces.
One Ontario-based Canadian distributor for a line of American-made fireplaces, Inflame Fireplaces Inc. (www.inflame.ca), has developed its own ethanol alcohol fuel that is so clean burning that its only significant byproduct is water vapour.
"It will increase the humidity in your room by 10 to 15 per cent," said Tim Petrullo, president, but added that the increase could be a welcome development in dry winter air.
The fuel, called Sunjel, and the Inflame fireplace has been ULC-approved for sale in Canada and received an Environment Canada certification for its ecco-friendly ways (it's a renewable resource). The unit was recently featured on a segment of HGTV's Designer Guys.
"We brought the gel into Canada three years ago," said Petrullo. "And we realized when we brought it in, we weren't happy with the way the gel was burning." Petrull set about to develop a better burning gel, resulting in today's product, which is made from corn or sugar cane.
You won't find a Manitoba dealer yet, but anyone interested can get information or buy directly from his company, says Petrullo.
Users simply open a can of the gel fuel, place it in the Inflame Fireplace with its special fire box designed to hold the fuel canister upright, and light the fire. Each can is reported to burn for about three hours and generate 3,000 BTUs of heat. Up to three canisters can be burned at any one time.
Alcohol fireplaces are not really new, said Petrullo, and have been sold in the States for about 16 years. In Canada, they've been available for a few years, and by many accounts still command a small share of the market, but that is something Petrullo is determined to change.
Leitao takes a cautious approach to the alcohol fireplaces.
"There's a lot of things that sometimes come up in the market that sound really good, but there tends to be problems," Leitao said. "We went through the same thing with pellet stoves when they first came out. They were great on paper until you get them out into the marketplace, there tends to be a lot of technical problems."
But he stops short of advising consumers not to buy the product. "It could be an excellent product, we don't really know."
Rocky Chaika, owner of Debrock, decided to think big when finishing a wood burning fireplace on the main floor of his Oakbank house. He and his wife Deborah decided to finish the whole wall surrounding the fireplace in black granite. Reclaimed brick was used on the other side of the same fireplace.
Upstairs, Chaika installed a fireplace of man-made prairie stone.
Finally, if the word fireplace is to be taken literally as a place for fire, there is no reason why a fireplace has to be inside your home. That's where chimeneas come in.
Chimeneas are outdoor fireplaces -- for comfort, for heat and esthetics. But many manufacturers include grills for basic cooking.
Created centuries ago in Mexico to celebrate the natural elements of earth and fire, chimeneas come in a range of styles in cast iron, terra cotta and aluminum. And yes, they still provide heat, but they can also provide an awesome focal point for your patio as day fades, usually burning wood or artificial logs.
Some offer a 360-degree view of the fire and others have long vertical chimneys to funnel acrid smoke away from users. The major criticism is that when the early models were being sold a few years ago, some buyers were unexpectedly returning the product due to cracking.
Kim Fletcher, assistant manager at Shelmerdine Nurseries & Garden Centre Ltd.'s gift shop, can't comment on the early experience of buyers, but agreed that homeowners should exercise common sense.
"They are not for roaring fires."
Shelmerdine staff also give buyers a list of safety rules when they buy a chimenea. The garden centre sells a variety of models but chimeneas are also available almost anywhere home-improvement products are sold.
HEAT-N-GLO also offers an outdoor fireplace, in fact several styles of outdoor fireplaces, for those who want to embrace a hot new design trend: creating outdoor living rooms.
The Fireplace Surround Builder Set fits around a stainless steel fireplace, and comes unfinished for the owners to finish in the way they want.