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A Guide to Understanding Fireplaces

Fireplaces are a cozy, romantic option for home heating. While gas fireplaces are more common than traditional and wood-burning fireplaces, all are generally accepted by the population. To add that touch of natural ambience to your home, for heat or otherwise, read on to learn all about them.

Types of Fireplaces

Gas fireplaces are most common in modern homes, as they require less maintenance and upkeep than traditional fireplaces. Users also do not need to provide wood to operate the unit. There are three basic kinds of gas fireplaces, each with different piping and ventilation systems. For the best option in your home, consult a professional.

Top-vented: Top-vented gas fireplace inserts are used to convert a traditional masonry wood fireplace to gas. They have a gas log set inside a steel or cast-iron heat exchanger and are vented through the chimney using a two-pipe system. Optional features include fans to move the heat, remote controls, wall switches and wall-mounted thermostats.

Direct-vented: These fireplaces don't require a chimney and are a way to add a fireplace when there isn't one already there. Installation is done through an outside wall to allow for ventilation, and a pipe-within-a-pipe feature lets air in and exhaust out with just one vent.

Vent-free: Ventless gas units don't need a chimney or a vent, and they are either right against a wall or extremely close to it, unlike other models that need more clearance. Some states do not allow ventless fireplaces to be used for safety concerns, while others have very strict rules regarding use, such as requiring users to keep a window open while using the fireplace. However, with evolving technology, several ventless fireplaces are coming out with low carbon monoxide output, some even at levels below that of an average kitchen range.

"Traditional" wood-burning fireplaces require no piping system, but they do require a chimney to release the smoke caused from the burning wood and to prevent carbon monoxide buildup inside the home. Wood-burning fireplaces are more common in old homes, where chimneys are common, but are not as efficient at warming an area as a gas fireplace is, because most of the heat in a wood-burning fireplace escapes through the chimney.

Fireplace Safety

  • Hire a professional. Installing a fireplace correctly requires a moderate to high level of skill and knowledge, something that the average homeowner does not have. With professionals, you are guaranteed to get the job done right, or in the case that it is done wrong, be reimbursed for the trouble and have it redone. Whenever fire is involved, it's better to err on the side of caution.
  • Observe guidelines. With every fireplace unit, there are instructions for safety. Some are obvious, like don't leave a blanket next to the flames, and others are not, like leave a window cracked. Depending on the type of fireplace you have as well as the type of home you have, these instructions will vary and often dictate how safe your house is as a whole. Always read the instructions, and always follow them.
  • Invest in Fire Insurance. While wildfires seem like a long shot (and often are), accidental fires in the home are not. Whether from an escaped ember from your logs or a floating piece of cotton that catches and spread, fires can turn all your hard-earned belongings and memories into embers. The last thing you want after something like that is to have nothing you can start building with again. Fire insurance is not included in all homeowner insurance plans, so speak to a representative about your options.
  • Use a carbon monoxide (CO) alarm. When using a gas or traditional fireplace, the risk of carbon monoxide is always a danger. The smoke is odorless and colorless, so you may not detect a problem until it's too late. Some fireplaces even come with carbon monoxide alarms to keep consumers safe, but always have one on hand, just in case.

Fireplace Cost

In a fireplace that is currently wood-burning but you would like to convert to gas, is charged for per log. To have a gas fireplace, you need vented or unvented gas logs, which look like real wood but are made of non-flammable materials. Vented logs, which require a chimney, run between $300 and $550. Unvented gas logs, which are for fireplaces without a chimney or pipes, cost just a little more, at about $350 to $600. Installation involving a licensed contractor usually costs between $200 and $350.

Top-vented gas fireplace inserts are also used to convert traditional fireplaces to gas. These inserts cost between $1,200 and $2,900, and professional installation tacks on another $500 to $1,000. Direct-vent gas fireplaces average between $1,200 and $3,200. Installation for a direct-vent unit varies extensively depending on hearth design and complexity, ranging cost anywhere from $600 to $5,000. Ventless fireplaces cost between $400 and $1,500, in addition to installation costs for the gas lines and any additional mantling and features.

Last Updated: January 18, 2012
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About Emelie Battaglia Emelie Battagila is a contributing writer for

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