The Good: Looks great, Heats remarkably well, Easy to control fire, Generally easy to clean parts, Efficient!
The Bad: Requires other items for best results, Must change fire habits
The Basics: This wood-burning fireplace is remarkably efficient, lending itself well to busier people who want a warm house, but don't want to smell like smoke or have to constantly tend fire.
Following the absolutely disastrous experience of heating my home for two years with a Sovereign Wood-Burning fireplace (click here for that review!), as winter neared the last year I had my house, I looked at my house and had to make a decision as to whether or not to keep heating with wood or to refill the heating oil tank. My house had one essential problem from a heat engineering standpoint; it was poorly designed for heating the entire house.
I lived in a split level where the house is essentially compartmentalized: there are two basement rooms, plus a utility room where the heating oil furnace is, above those rooms are the two bedrooms and the bathroom, as well as a brief hallway. A half-level in between and on the other side is where the kitchen and living room are. In the living room is the fireplace and the living room/kitchen makes up about 2/3 of the home's living space. The problem is, the heating oil furnace heats the half of the house with the bedrooms and basement rooms; the fireplace is able to easily heat the living room, kitchen, and upstairs rooms, but not the downstairs room like my den.
After much thought, debate and looking at the rising price of home heating oil, I decided that replacing the fireplace was the project I couldn't afford that I couldn't afford not to do. So, I brought in a (new! to me anyway) contractor and set to seeing what my heating options would be with a new fireplace system. My initial idea, which would have had the fireplace able to send some heated air through the ducts to the den was not feasible, but with the cold air return very near to the fireplace, there is a limited ability for me to heat the den as needed. But basically, the heating engineer and contractor looked over the Sovereign, joined me in a lament to its terrible quality, and proposed the Brentwood EPA-approved Wood-Burning Fireplace.
One home loan, many trips to scavenge wood and some dropping temperatures later, I was of the mind that this was the best decision I made in a long time.
The Brentwood Wood-Burning Fireplace is one of the Dave Lennox Signature Collection models. It appears to come in one size, the Brentwood SP, which is 36" wide in its outside to outside measurements. The Brentwood is attached to a fan system that sucks hot air in from the chimney array. It has black face plating which makes it look like it is made of cast iron. It is almost 37" tall, including the lower and upper air vents and it fits in well with virtually any decor, in my case it is accented by stonework on the sides and below and above there is a wonderful red rough-cut wood hearth. The Brentwood has a single door that seals it closed which gives it a very simple and clean operation.
The Brentwood has a fairly small firebox, the firebox being the inside of the fireplace, where the fire goes. It is a trapezoid shape with its widest point at the mouth of the unit, where the door to the fireplace is. The size of the unit versus the interior area for placing wood is somewhat deceptive, but it works! The Brentwood may be a yard-wide in front, but when one opens the door to it, the widest point is only twenty-two inches wide! At the back, it is approximately nineteen inches wide and that change happens rather quick as the unit is only a foot deep! Actually, it's fourteen inches from the door to the back of the unit, but there is a convenient bar that acts as a wood stop, something like the grate in most other units. The usable space inside the firebox is a consistent 11 3/4" high.
So, this was - to date - the smallest fireplace unit I have owned, but unlike when my Sovereign was thrust upon me, I had no trepidation over the size. After weeks of research and visiting many very warm hearth showrooms, I knew that this was the trend as far as wood stoves were concerned and that if they heat as well as they are supposed to, this system would make it worth my while to have to recut a lot of my wood. It's odd having to try to cut all of my wood to less than 24" (I can usually squeeze out wood a little longer than 22" if it's placed diagonally inside the firebox).
The Brentwood has a lone glass door that open on a hinge on the left side. On the right side is the handle to it, which seats and seals the door when locked in a downward position. Opening the door is as simple as rotating the lever up and pulling the door open. The door is easy to adjust to insure the seal is actually sealing the firebox closed - there's an adjustment nut on the outside of the unit. But most of the door is a sheet of beautiful ceramic glass that allows one to see the fire inside the firebox at all times. The door opens very easily, though closing it seems to vary a little as sometimes it seems to allow the user to turn the handle further down for sealing it than at others.
At the top and the bottom of the unit are grates for sucking cold air in (to be create circulation in the room) and blowing hot air out from the ventilation system in order to heat the house. There is no ash trap to magically remove ash, coals and debris. On the chimney outside is the main vent for controlling air going into the firebox and feeding the fire. On the lower left side of the Brentwood is a simple metal bar that controls the air flow dictating how much oxygen the fire is getting. This regulates the vent and either combusts the fuel to get it all going (very flamey) or chokes the air to consume the wood in a way that radiates a great deal of heat from embers.
Installing the Brentwood is the work of a trained contractor. All sorts of warranties are voided by improper installation of the Brentwood; the manual is 24 pages long! There are all sorts of specifications and codes needed to install this unit properly and without training and experience, in addition to violating warranties, home insurance provisions (in many cases), and local building codes, there is an increased risk of actually burning down your house. Besides, honestly, with the firebox assembly, the fan installation and the construction of the chimney array, most of us common people do not even have the tools or materials needed to accomplish this task!
Leave installation to a professional; in this area I recommend a contractor who has experience in installing heating systems and fireplaces like this. Because point of sale locations for units like the Brentwood are few and far between, the ones that do exist tend to have a trained staff able to install them properly. Because this might require indoor and outdoor work with potential alterations to the foundation of a house, professional installation cannot be under-recommended once you've chosen a Brentwood.
Operating the Brentwood is a journey into the mysteries of things working incredibly well without exactly knowing why. For one, there is no damper I've been able to find. Instead, the hot air is channeled up and over a lip in the front of the unit, then sucked back and up the chimney. As a result, it seems like the Brentwood is protected against backdrafts and excessive cooling. So, there is nothing to go into the firebox to open in order to operate the unit safely.
Instead, one simply lays out the materials needed for the fire in the firebox; a little newspaper, tinder, kindling, a few big logs. The air supply is regulated by the vent bar (as previously mentioned) and when starting the fire, I open it all the way up (sliding the bar to the left) and engage the air boost (pull the lever out, I'm not sure if this is powering air in through a blower, but it does seem to push - or pull - the air in faster) and then light the newspaper, close the door and within moments, the miracle of fire.
The first hour the fire is burning it might require a little more fuel, but once there is a good bed of coals going, a single well-seasoned log of decent diameter can burn for hours and really radiate the heat. As the fire becomes based more on red-hot embers, close the vent so the wood supply is consumed more efficiently and the heat will continue to radiate from the unit.
There are two wonderful aspects to the Brentwood that I've not had on my prior systems. The first is that the fan is temperature regulated. For sure, I can still control how heavy the fan is blowing, but the fan cannot engage until the temperature of the air being blown out is of a certain degree. This is wonderful because this also means that if the unit cools off and I've fallen asleep, the fan will turn off automatically so it is not blowing cold air into the house! Conversely, it may take about an hour (more the very first time you use the unit) to get the fireplace and adjacent chimney assembly up to a temperature where it is heating sufficiently to use the fan.
As an interesting sidenote here, I have a smoke detector in the same room as my fireplace. After the first few times I used my Brentwood (when it was burning off the paint chemicals and seasoning - a perfectly normal process I was warned about by my contractor) my smoke detector has gone off a few times, but not because of smoke! Sometimes the Brentwood gets so hot so quickly it will radiate heat from the firebox without having the temperatures needed for the fan assembly to operate. The result is my living room heats up dramatically quickly and sets off the smoke detector (which apparently registers significant changes in heat), despite there being no smoke. Once the Brentwood is heated up through and through, I'm usually able to engage the blower and restart my smoke detector.
The Brentwood heats my living space, which is approximately thirty-two feet long by twenty-five feet wide by eight feet high over the two levels that are heated by it, within half an hour when the fire is good and the blower is blowing, to a comfortable 68 degrees Fahrenheit in the furthest reaches of the heated rooms. The thing is, when the outer portions of the rooms are heated to standard room temperature, the living room, hallway and bedroom tend to be in the mid-70s. Often, without actually trying, my house has been over 80! I'm still getting the hang of how much wood to use and the differences between burning hard woods (highly recommended) and softer woods (what I find most available and easy to obtain at this point).
The second wonderful aspect of the Brentwood is this: right before going to bed at night, I tend to load a few logs into the firebox and close the vent. In the morning, I come down to a house that is still fairly warm (mid-60s) and usable embers that easily restart the fire when the ash is removed!
I still miss having an ash trap! I understand the heating benefits gained by having a closed system, but it takes some serious getting used to. Cleaning the Brentwood requires either a hand broom and dustpan or an ash vac. Actually, I've found it pretty much necessitates an ash vac (which is why I bought one) for the simple reason that even moving the ash from the Brentwood around is liable to get ash all over. I purchased the Cheetah II and have found that it made my daily regimen of cleaning out the inside of the Brentwood very easy. Moreover, I can go a day without vacuuming it out, but I tend to prefer a clean firebox . . .
. . . usually because I'm still getting used to how this thing works. I've been around fires for almost my entire life and I'm used to being an active firemaker. This means when the fire gets low, one tosses some fuel on it and gently blows the embers. This cannot be done with the Brentwood. Why? It's such a small area inside that blowing on embers basically starts a storm of ash blowing out into the room the Brentwood is in! I've had more faces full of ash in the last few weeks than I care to mention and after painstakingly vacuuming off my mantle, I've vowed to let the Brentwood do the work. I help, though, by constantly cleaning out the lighter ash that takes up space and is easy to remove, allowing the embers to breathe wonderfully. The Brentwood so completely pulverizes wood into ash that it makes using a broom and dustpan less of an option if one wants to maintain a clean house. Indeed, it was seeing my blood-red rug getting frosted gray (and the catprints in it) that made me finally decide I needed to buy the ash vac.
As for the glass, I've been cleaning mine quite easily with Speedy White ceramic glass cleaner. The ceramic glass face plate has been getting more and more seasoned, making it easier and easier to clean. As well, the dryer the wood, the less need to clean the glass as there will be less build-up on it.
As with most all wood-burning fireplaces, usage of the Brentwood compels one to have their chimney swept at least once a year.
On my first winter with the Brentwood, I noticed a savings in the amount of wood I burned. I use less wood, the wood I use burns hotter, more efficiently (when I vacuum out the Brentwood, there's almost nothing that can be saved to make another fire of I've let it all burn itself out completely) and it is easier to get fires going in the morning. I've even tried warming the other areas of the house using the furnace as a simple blower, though that was a mixed results experiment (blowing out the ducts initially floods the house with cold air!).
I am especially pleased at how low maintenance heating with the Brentwood is. If I get busy for a few hours, the house stays warm and the fire does not die so completely that it cannot be easily restoked by simply tossing more dry wood on it. My home does not smell like smoke, which is a tremendous boon for me and I do not smell like smoke either. As a result, the Brentwood offers a generally clean, efficient system that heats remarkably well with little maintenance and less of a lifestyle alteration than some fireplace heating systems.
For other appliances, please check out my reviews of:
Dirt Devil KWIK vacuum cleaner
Dyson Air Multiplier
Kidde Carbon Monoxide Detector
For other home and garden reviews, please visit the appropriate index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.