Skip to content
Gas or wood, flame makes people glow
Pile up the kindling, turn on the gas or flip the switch. It's the time of year when even the most occasional of users decides it might be nice to see some flame.
Perhaps more than any other home feature, a fireplace reflects the triumph of emotion over reason, romance over efficiency.
A central heating system is almost always a more efficient source of warmth. Fireplaces may warm the room they're in, but overall, they tend to draw more cold air into the house, resulting in a net loss of heat. Yet it's not uncommon for home buyers to rule out resale houses if they don't have a fireplace, preferably in the family room.
In the Springfield, Va., home of Nicole and Barrett Kime, it's all about rekindling a sense of romance. This winter's fires come, once again, with the snap, crackle and pop of burning wood.
They just had their family room fireplace converted from gas to wood -- the reverse of the usual conversion. A previous owner had converted the fireplace to gas, which is popular because it allows a roaring fire at the push of a button and hours of faithful flame without the need for tending.
But the Kimes' gas-log setup was at the end of its life span, and instead of replacing it with the same, Nicole wanted a wood fire.
"When my husband and I were first married, 20 years ago, we would talk on the phone at the end of the day about our plans for the evening," she said. "Often my husband would say, 'We'll build a fire tonight.' Since a gas fireplace has been in my life there's been no need to plan. Just turn the key or find the fireplace remote. How romantic is that?"
According to the National Association of Home Builders, 53 percent of homes built in 2006 had at least one fireplace. Indoor fireplaces will be a critical component of homes built over the next 10 years, according to the association's survey of architects, builders, developers and manufacturers of housing materials. The organization reported that 85 percent of those surveyed think indoor fireplaces will be "critical" for upscale new homes; 49 percent said they will be critical for average new homes.
Gas appears to be the dominant technology, at least if you look at spending. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, shipments to retailers of gas fireplaces and accessories in 2006 were more than triple the shipments of wood-based fireplaces and accessories.
In addition to the one-click ease of gas fires, they're easier and cheaper to install. They don't require the larger fire boxes and chimneys needed for traditional wood-burning hearths. Some people with allergies find them less irritating than a smoke-generating wood fire. And some units don't even require venting of the exhaust to the outdoors.
Rich Cartlidge, owner of Bromwell's, a fireplace store in the Washington area, said gas-log sets cost $550 to $900, depending on size and style. You can choose from sets that look more like a scavenged-wood campfire and those that show more of the hewn side of the logs vs. the bark side, more singe marks vs. a less-burned look.
Kime had shopped the cost of replacing the components of her gas fireplace.
A basic gas-log setup would have cost $300 to $500, but the most-authentic-looking logs would have cost more. "They are convincing, and, yes, they are a lot easier," she said.
Instead, she spent about $300 to have a plumber replace the gas-log setup with just a gas starter, which will allow them the convenience of an easy start but the ambiance of burning real wood. "It requires you to calm down and to go and sit and monitor it," she said. Installation generally adds less than $1,000 to the price of the log set, depending on how far a plumber has to run the gas line, Cartlidge said. Installing just a gas starter to an existing wood fireplace to yield a system like the one the Kimes' costs only about $60 for hardware, plus the plumber's fee to install it.
If you don't have a fireplace, you still can find ways to enjoy the ambiance of a roaring fire, if only in facsimile.
For as little as $368 at Wal-Mart, or $700 to $1,200 for an upscale version at a specialty store like Bromwell's, you can get an electric fireplace, complete with mantel and remote control. Plug it in to an ordinary electrical outlet, and voila: glowing embers and wavy "flames" dancing in the background.
Yes, the electric fires are a tad cheesy, but they're a pretty fine-quality cheese. And they could be just the right touch for an apartment or any room that can't accommodate the real thing.
Remember, it's all about ambiance, however you find it.