There is very little written in “green” literature about fireplaces, and most of that found is negative. There seems to be an underlying assumption that fireplaces are dirty and inefficient. Some would say that the concept of a “green fireplace” is an oxymoron.
The emerging National Green Building Standard pretty much views fireplaces negatively. The standard requires new masonry fireplaces to “have gasketed doors, outside combustion air, and a chimney top damper.” It awards up to seven points for removing fireplaces altogether in renovations.
The “LEED for Homes” program has some comments about fireplaces under “combustion venting.” The statements seem to be mostly concerned about smoking fireplaces and indoor air quality. LEED has also added a preferred “install no fireplace” option.
On a positive note, fireplaces are still permitted according to LEED and National Green Building Standard guidelines, but it may be a struggle to get any points for including them. Green fireplaces have to be clean burning and efficient. They also may have to be provided with combustion/ventilation air and sealed off with tight-fitting doors and dampers.
Fireplace doors, of course, would block most of the radiant heat emitted into the room, but the tight-fitting dampers and combustion/ventilation air sound good, if accomplished in conjunction with the LEED recommended whole house perspective on ventilation. With a passing familiarity with the LEED program and the masonry industry's efforts to emphasize its strengths, I would add durability and thermal mass to the list. Locating the chimney mass inside the exterior walls of the house and exposing the masonry chimney walls to take advantage of all that thermal mass could be worth points.
By knowing how fire places heat, I would also add the advantages of radiant heat and the use of wood as a renewable fuel.
Almost every fireplace tested in accordance with the Washington State standard, designed to be “equivalent” to the EPA Phase II stove standard, passed. Some fireplaces, like Rumfords and Rosins, tested two or three times cleaner than the stove standard.
So, why do so many people think fireplaces are dirty and inefficient?
It all began nearly 30-years ago when the American Lung Association tried to get the EPA to regulate the airtight European stoves that flooded the U.S. market during the energy crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Americans didn't know how to use the stoves and allowed them to smolder, as they bragged to their friends about how long they could bank a fire. The Lung Association eventually had to sue the EPA, which did not want to get into regulating on a retail basis. It was easier to regulate the industry than to dictate what people could do in their own homes.
The suit brought against the EPA resulted in a very narrowly drawn “smoldering stove” standard. Fireplaces, masonry heaters, and other “inherently” clean-burning appliances were exempted. The American stove industry and its Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association grew up developing equipment that would pass the EPA emissions standards, and while they were at it, keep the European stoves out of the U.S. market.