Anne Markstein may design contemporary fireplaces for her clients, but as for herself, she likes the "real McCoy" - wood, wood, wood.
"I insisted on a wood-burning fireplace," the interior designer said. "If a fireplace doesn't burn wood, it's like sitting in front of a stove watching it cook. Wood is more fun."
Markstein, who's upgrading and designing several fireplaces for clients, as well as at her own home in northern Baltimore County, says love of a fireplace taps into man's primitive roots.
"It goes back to the cave days," she said. "I've never met someone who wants to give up a fireplace when renovating their house. The fireplace never leaves - and many people add them."
While Markstein has plenty of wood-loving company, others are just as zealous about firing up with natural gas, compressed-wood pellets or electricity. The $3 billion hearth industry is hot, with more high-tech varieties than ever.
"It's O'Hare airport here," said Ralph Baumgardner, owner of Baumgardner's of Westminster, who said the fireplace industry brings in 70 percent of its income between August and January.
Better technology and a wider variety of products have made it tougher for homeowners to choose a fireplace. How much to pay? What about energy conservation as well as the cost of fuel, safety and design?
According to the National Association of Home Builders, 78 percent of all new homes built in 1950 did not have a fireplace. Last year, that number dropped to 39 percent.
But understanding various products is the first step in determining what to build or purchase. A consumer can choose from the following:
Masonry fireplace: These are aesthetically pleasing, but often are not energy efficient. The flue of a masonry fireplace allows warm indoor air to escape up the chimney. Conventional masonry fireplaces can lose 80 percent to 100 percent of their heat, plus 10 percent of the heat already in the room.
Wood stoves: These firebox appliances sit on the floor, usually away from the wall, although some of the newer models may now be placed as close as 8 inches from the wall.
Fireplace inserts: They are different from a traditional brick or masonry fireplace. An insert is basically a wood stove designed to fit into a conventional fireplace. Inserts are usually made from plate steel or cast iron and have glass doors so you can see the flames.
Gas stoves and fireplaces: These are designed to look like their wood-burning counterparts. Modern design advancements have created simulated logs and flames that are difficult to distinguish from the real thing. They can also serve as an alternate source of heat if the power goes off. They don't need electricity to work.
Pellet stoves: These appliances are simpler to operate and more convenient than other wood-burning appliances. In fact, they are almost as easy to use as gas, oil, or electric heaters. These stoves and inserts burn wood pellets - compressed wood that resembles rabbit food.
"Gas fireplaces are like personal computers," Baumgardner said. "They change once a year as the manufacturers continue to improve on flame appearance, fuel efficiency and reliability."
Though gas fireplaces and gas "logs" have been top sellers in the last five years, the pellet stove is a close second.
"Gas [sales were] ... crazy because [the fireplaces were] ... more available. You can have small [propane] tanks and they can be hidden. It's an excellent option. But I've seen some changes this year ... gas sales are steady, but pellet stove sales are coming back strong," said Jim Kunkel, co-owner of Courtland Hearth & Hardware in Harford County.
Firewood hasn't gone by the wayside, either. Those who consider themselves purists demand it.
Destined for gas
Even so, dealers, such as Watson's Fireplace & Patio, say the industry is still destined for gas.
"It's clean and easy," says Mary Jo Watson, who owns the company.
"Even with wood fireplaces, people tend to put gas logs in them," added Mark Schmidt, Watson's manager, who oversees the Lutherville retailer's installations.
Baumgardner, who estimates 70 percent of his sales are gas-related, says technology has come so far that the beauty of a quality gas unit is indistinguishable from a wood-burning unit.
Honeywell has developed systems fully powered by the pilot flame. These units can convert heat from the pilot flame into electricity, therefore, no electricity is required to operate the gas hearth appliance. Power outages won't be a problem, so the fireplace can become a supplemental heat source.
Direct-vent gas units are the most popular, though unvented units are catching on.
Direct-vent hearths can be placed against any wall in the house as long as a vent can be punched through that wall to the outside, or a pipe run through the roof (top-vented), to allow air to escape.
Air is drawn from the outside, heated and radiated into the room. Exhaust goes back outside. The more expensive direct-vented fireplaces are those that run piping or a full chimney to the roof, Watson said.