Is a Gas Fireplace for You?

Photo: mossimoinc/FlickrThe crackle of flames in a fireplace is especially appealing this time of year. It conjures up images of lounging on comfortable furniture, drinking hot chocolate, and snuggling into a wingback chair with a good book. But...there are a few flaws with this picture. For starters, maintaining a wood fireplace is a pain, and they tend to generate a lot of emissions thanks to the fact that it can be hard to get wood to burn efficiently. Plus, wood fires can be dangerous unless they're carefully monitored.

Ugh, suddenly a fireplace doesn't sound like much fun, does it? But neither does a central heating system or wall-mounted gas heater, which just doesn't carry the same...flare.

Enter the gas fireplace, which aims to be a combination of the best of both words. It's a fireplace like you're used to seeing, complete with logs, flames, and a warming glow, but it's actually gas powered (those logs aren't real). Better yet, when you want heat, instead of having to wrestle with building a fire, getting filthy, and crossing your fingers when you light it in the hopes that soot won't blow back in your face, you can just flip a switch.

Getting intrigued? Here's the skinny on gas fireplaces, so you can start thinking about whether one might be right for you. If it is, move fast: in the cold regions of the country, it's hard to get an appointment for an installation. Denver HVAC technicians, for example, are very busy this time of year with inspections, repairs, and new installs.


If you have an existing fireplace or stove that you don't want to retrofit, you'll want an insert ($2,000-$5,000). Inserts simply fit into what you already have; you'll need a heating company to install the insert and appropriate venting along with the plumbing for the gas, and you'll be ready to go. On the other hand, you can also put in a log set ($400-$1,000), which consists of a freestanding log burner set that sits in a fireplace. Be warned that if your goal is heat, you don't want a log set: they look nice, but they don't warm well.

Built-ins, on the other hand, actually wholly replace a fireplace, or allow you to install one in a new location. As the name suggests, they're built directly into the wall or a freestanding structure in the middle of a large room. They can generate a lot of heat in addition to the flames you want, although they're also more expensive than the other two options.


Depending on the model, you can have a lot of control over your fire. Some come with flame height adjustors, which allow you to make the flames bigger or smaller for a desired look and feel. A thermostat can also be provided for better temperature control, and some models offer LED lighting within the fireplace to enhance the look of a real fire. (It sounds cheesy, but it actually looks quite realistic.) You can also get tempered glass chips or fake coal for a different look. And don't forget to think outside the box when it comes to your fireplace surround, too.

Remote operation is a possibility with some models (you won't even have to get out of bed!) and another option that might appeal is battery backup, which lights the flames even when the power is out. (Generally, a pilotless model will cost less to operate, but the big disadvantage is that when the power goes out, it can't ignite.)

It's also a good idea to look into a model or casing with a built-in fan that will pull warm air into the room and circulate it. This keeps things nice and toasty instead of letting the heat escape up the flue. Furthermore, we recommend buying a vented model (some vent directly into the room) to pull away byproducts of combustion and fumes.

Size matters

When it comes to heating efficiently, you want to make sure your stove is up to the job. That's where this handy calculation comes in. That's right, sorry, to choose a stove, you'll need to do some math.

Multiply the floor area by the ceiling height of the room you'll be heating (to get an idea of total volume) and multiply that by your BTU Zone (reverse the numbers on this map for the purpose of your equation). These zones are based on climate and energy recommendations from the US government. That will tell you how many BTUs your fireplace needs to generate. If, for example, your bedroom is 12x10 (120 square feet -- yikes, call a construction company to talk about a remodel!) with 10 foot ceilings (1,200 cubic feet) and you live in Northern Montana (Zone 5, and brrr!) you'll need a fireplace that puts out at least 6,000 BTU.

If your fireplace is too small, it will struggle to heat the space, and you'll be piling on the extra blankets.

The advantages of using a gas fireplace are that it burns cleanly and extremely efficiently, looks great, and can act as a great heater if you get the right size. It will not, however, provide whole-house heating like a central heating system does, and of course it requires some maintenance. You'll need to order a yearly inspection to confirm it's in good working order and check all the components, and you should definitely consider having it installed and inspected by someone with a National Fireplace Institute certification.

Katie Marks writes for

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