Cozy Up to a Roaring and Fuel-Efficient Fire

A fireplace can instantly turn a house into a home and, with a fuel efficient gas fireplace, you can stay cozy in front of a crackling fire without the back-breaking wood chopping.

Snuggling up in front of a cozy fire is one of the true joys of Midwestern winters. While the crackle and aroma of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces create a relaxing environment, having to chop wood, light fires and clean up ashes can be exhausting. Luckily, the traditional wood-burning unit is just one of many styles available for homeowners – and many of the ultra-efficient, low-maintenance varieties are some of the top choices these days.

“We still do some wood-burning units, but the majority of people want gas,” says Kevin Obee, general manager of Benson Stone Co., in Rockford. “Gas units have come a long way in the past 20 years to the point where they look very real.”

Most modern units can be vented through an exterior wall or be retrofitted into existing fireplace openings, making them extremely versatile and easier to install than having to run a vent all the way to the roof.

It can be overwhelming for homeowners to walk into a showroom and see so many different shapes, sizes, features and styles. That’s why companies like Benson Stone have experts on hand to help customers select not only the look they want, but the type of system that best fits their budget and lifestyle.

“We have designers on staff who can help you narrow it down and design a fireplace real quickly,” Obee adds. “We can do the whole turnkey installation, or we can put the fireplace in and let do-it-yourselfers put on the stone, brick or panel stones, which are really easy to do.”

Along with deciding what your new hearth will look like and where you’ll place it, your most important choice is whether you want an open-vent fireplace, a direct-vent insert, gas logs or an electric fireplace.

“There are fireplaces, and then there are inserts. Many people get that confused with laymen’s terms,” Obee says.

The terminology can be confusing for homeowners, so here’s a quick explanation: To your salesperson, a fireplace is a brand-new unit where one has never existed.

Gas logs with glowing “embers” can be found in open-vent systems (like your traditional fireplace unit) and direct-vent systems (more on that in a minute).

Inserts are sealed systems that pull air from outside (instead of your room) and send exhaust directly outdoors.
Each system has pros and cons, from efficiency and heat output all the way down to the color of the flame.

Open Vent vs. Direct Vent: The main thing homeowners need to know about open-vent and direct-vent systems is quite simple. While both exhaust fumes outdoors, open-vent systems – like traditional masonry fireplaces – draw in air from the room to feed the flames. It’s less efficient than sealed direct-vent systems, which pull combustion air from outside your home.

Wood Burners: For centuries, wood was the fuel of choice for fireplaces. And for some people it still is.

High-efficiency wood fireplaces and wood inserts for existing fireplaces are popular because you get the look of a traditional wood fire without as much heat loss. Most modern models are equipped with fans that blow the heat back into the room. Sealed combustion systems also mean you’re not using indoor air to fuel the fire.

Gas Logs: Gas logs can be found in both open-vent fireplaces and direct-vent inserts. Most of today’s log units are made to radiate more heat than those made just a decade or two ago. Obee estimates that, given current gas prices, running 80,000BTU gas logs in an open-vent fireplace adds about 30 cents per hour to your gas bill.

“They’re roughly 0% efficient, because a typical masonry fireplace is gaining as much heat as it’s losing, but you’re only paying a dollar every 3 hours to enjoy a fire,” he says. “You turn it off and set your damper, and it’s no big deal. You’re not cooling your house down, but you’re warming up the room you’re sitting in while you enjoy it.”

On the other hand, Obee says direct-vent gas inserts in the 25,000-40,000BTU range are between 80-85% efficient. Using his own fireplace as an example, he says he usually runs it on the high setting with its thermostat set around 72, and it doesn’t cost a penny to run.

“That’s because I’m trading the gas for the furnace, which I’d have to kick up to heat the whole envelope of my home,” he says. “Instead, the gas in the fireplace is heating the family room where we’re watching TV.”

The fireplace essentially serves as a zone space heater, thus reducing how long the furnace runs. In the event of a power outage the fireplace will continue heating when your furnace won’t. “It actually saves me money every single time I use it, because I’m not using my furnace to heat the same space,” says Obee.

When it comes to appearances, gas logs with sand pan burners in open-vent systems immediately offer a rich, yellow-red flame, while gas log flames in direct-vent fireplaces might start out blue and turn yellow after heating up.

Electric: In situations where installing a gas line or proper venting would be impractical or expensive, some homeowners opt instead for electric fireplaces.

“There are some applications where there’s just no way to put anything other than an electric unit in,” Obee says. “Electric fireplaces have come a long way in the past few years. They’re much better looking than they used to be, but they put out almost no heat. They’re more for ambiance.”

He estimates that direct-vent units put out anywhere from four to 10 times as much heat as an electric fireplace.

The latest trend in this type of fireplace is a water vapor system. “It’s actually mist that looks like flame coming up when orange and yellow lights are on it,” Obee says. That water can add a bit of humidity to a room, but no heat. These models offer the ambiance of a fire and tend to be more popular in warmer climates.

Installation: If you want to build a new fireplace where none has been before, plan to spend at least $6,000 to $10,000, and possibly double that for some direct-vent fireplaces. There are a lot of variables, from the materials you choose to the proximity of your gas lines (if you opt for gas) or if you’re having a full chimney chase built.

If you want to convert an existing masonry fireplace to gas logs and need to run a gas line, it could cost around $2,000, depending on the type of gas logs you choose and whether you opt for a remote control.

Installing a direct-vent insert into an existing fireplace could cost two to three times as much, if not more. It all depends on the manufacturer, the size of the unit, the style you choose, and the ease – or difficulty – of installation.

Obee estimates the average cost of installing a direct-vent system into an existing masonry fireplace could range between $5,000 and $8,000.

Whatever system and style you choose, adding a functional hearth to your home is an investment that can pay off over time by reducing heating costs and increasing the value of your home – not to mention that warm and cozy feeling it provides on a chilly evening.