Fireplaces: A Debate Kindles

Cultural divide: Choosing between a gas and wood-burning fireplace is like debating the benefits of an artificial Christmas tree over a real one.

February 02, 2003|By Trif Alatzas | Trif Alatzas,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

The sounds of crackling wood and the smell of smoldering bark are being overtaken by technology.

Sales of gas fireplaces have grown 500 percent since 1992 and now outpace their wood-burning cousins.

Technology has made the gas units the fireplace option of choice in most new homes, say builders. The remote-controlled flames, the efficient heat and the affordability help gas easily overrule the allure of the traditional fireplace.

Industry figures show that today almost six of every 10 new fireplaces are fueled by gas. But experts said the business is volatile since the popularity of each type of fireplace tends to move with economic forces.

For example, when natural gas prices soared last year, sales of wood-burning units increased. And wood suppliers said they have seen no drop in demand for firewood deliveries - especially with this year's cold snap.

"It's a seesaw business," said Don Johnson, director of market research for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an industry group in Arlington, Va. "But both of them are here to stay."

Choosing between the two is a little like debating the benefits of an artificial Christmas tree over a natural one: Traditionalists hate to budge and the progressives insist that technology has made it difficult to tell the difference.

"At my old house we had two wood-burning fireplaces and we never used them," said John Invernizzi, who in March moved into a new Sparks home that has two gas fireplaces. "I didn't feel like fooling with the wood. These are just nice and a whole lot more convenient. We have a switch on the wall. We use them all the time."

But wood lovers said there's no replacing the real thing.

"There is a feel and ambiance that wood provides that gas never will," said Jay Endre, president of Firesafe Industries, a Northern Virginia company that makes and restores chimney liners.

Fireplaces have become standard on the checklist of today's homebuyer.

The National Association of Home Builders' recent study on buying habits showed that six of 10 new homes were built with fireplaces.

Experts said the average homebuyer is not interested in the heat a fireplace provides. Most of them consider the feature a detail in a room and an opportunity to decorate or arrange the setting around the fireplace.

"The reason they have a fireplace is the atmosphere it provides," Johnson said.

Almost 1.6 million fireplace products were shipped in the United States during 2001 - 112 percent more than in 1992. Of those shipments, 57 percent were gas-fueled appliances; 40 percent were for wood and 3 percent used pellets. The figures include fireplace inserts, boxes, stoves and other items used to warm or decorate a home.

Many builders of new homes say that, for the most part, gas fireplaces are what consumers want. Also, some builders said they often face stricter building codes when constructing wood-burning fireplaces.

Prices vary, but gas fireplaces are likely to be cheaper depending on the type chosen, experts said, primarily because they can be built without chimneys. Gas fireplaces can be sealed, have vents that release the exhaust outside the home or through chimneys. Professional installation and maintenance is recommended for safety concerns.

"It's the demographics that we see today," said Steve Watson, a manager and owner of Watson's Fireplace and Patio in Lutherville. "People who are younger probably don't have time to do the wood. They just aren't fire-building people."

Gas fireplaces in most new homes cost $3,000 to $5,000, some builders said, though gas logs can cost a few hundred dollars at a hardware store. Wood-burning fireplaces can cost between $5,000 and $7,000, depending on the masonry work, some builders said.

Some chimney sweepers and masons said brick fireplaces can reach beyond $10,000 to install in existing homes, depending on the placement of the chimney.

The hearth organization conducted a recent survey of homeowners who had fireplaces and stoves installed: Average costs for both gas and wood were $2,000 for a fireplace and $1,400 for a stove.

The efficiency of gas or wood depends on the home, though most experts said gas has an edge.

For example, fireplaces with chimneys often need to produce more heat to warm the home and heated air escapes through the flue.

Wood stoves for heat

Wood and pellet stoves that are inserted into fireplaces can produce radiant heat that can help warm a home faster and more efficiently.

Gas fireplaces can include inserts that can better heat the home. Experts said homeowners should decide if they want the fireplace for decor - meaning they'll use it just a few times a year - or for heat when making a decision on what product to choose.

"There are a lot more options than most people realize," said John Crouch, director of public affairs for the hearth organization.

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