Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Annette Pelled of Reston has added yet another remote control to her collection. Aside from the ones controlling the TV and VCR/DVD, she also has one that directs her gas fireplace.
“It’s so convenient. You just flick it on and off,” Mrs. Pelled says.
Gone are the days when Mrs. Pelled and her husband, Giora, spent 10 or 15 minutes chopping wood and wadding paper. Now they start a fire with, well, the push of a button.
The Pelleds are not alone in having switched from a wood-burning to a gas-burning fireplace. The electric fireplace, another alternative, or “fake,” option, also is gaining popularity.
Margaret Laurenson, co-owner of Woodburners Two, a fireplace store in Falls Church, says gas fireplaces are becoming increasingly popular because they are so easy to use.
“It takes time to start a fire, and it doesn’t fit in with a lot of people’s lifestyles,” Ms. Laurenson says. “Choosing a gas fireplace is about convenience more than anything else.”
She and co-owner Judy Miller opened their store almost 23 years ago. They started out selling only wood-burning fireplaces and accessories to go with them.
Now, about 70 percent of their sales fall into the gas-fireplace category, while the wood-burning category is down to less than 30 percent of sales. Electric fireplaces constitute a small but growing portion of sales, she says.
The trend toward gas fireplaces is not just local; sales figures from around the country show it’s a nationwide trend, says John Crouch, spokesman for the Arlington-based Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.
“Gas fireplaces are definitely growing in popularity,” Mr. Crouch says. “Fundamentally, they are more convenient. And with an aging demographics we grab our remotes, and one of them is for the fireplace.”

Aside from being more convenient, gas fireplaces also have become aesthetically pleasing, Mr. Crouch says.
“They look like ‘real’ fires,” he says. “A lot of retailers have several fires burning in their stores, and they ask their customers to spot which one is wood. Many times [the customers] can’t spot the real fire.”
Not too long ago, imitation fireplaces had a tacky look shared by other ‘70s household items such as orange wall-to-wall carpeting and brown vinyl couches, Mr. Crouch says.
The logs made out of cement were conspicuously fake, which probably is why Ms. Laurenson and others in her business don’t like using the term fake about modern gas fireplaces. They don’t want customers to think about the cement logs.
Today’s logs are all ceramic and modeled after real firewood in order to look, well, real. “They actually make a mold of real firewood,” Ms. Laurenson says.
Later the ceramic is painted to further the authentic wood look.
A whole fireplace custom-made including mantelpiece (which can be obtained in anything from marble to cherry), glass doors, a hearth floor, logs and gas vents may go for about $5,000 at Woodburners Two.
“It’s really a piece of furniture,” Ms. Laurenson says, “and there are a lot of choices of colors and materials.”
The store also carries gas fireplace inserts, which are cheaper but require that the home have a wood-burning fireplace (which may not be in use anymore) in which vents can be installed.
A third category is the free-standing gas fireplace, which people in the business call “gas stoves.”
All categories require vents, which consist of 3- to 4-inch ducts that have to have an outdoor outlet.
Installation is about $800 to $1,000. Also, permits have to be issued for any gas- or wood-burning fireplace inside the home in the District, Maryland and Virginia, Ms. Laurenson says.
Home Depot has cheaper versions of gas fireplaces which are not custom-built that start at around $700, says Donnie Mason, a sales associate at the chain’s Brentwood facility in Northeast. This price does not include venting kits and other accessories, Mr. Mason says.
“The money really adds up with the gas fireplaces,” Mr. Mason says.

That’s why Mr. Mason is a proponent of the electric fireplace, the next generation of fireplaces.
“They are really popular this year,” he says. Home Depot sells them for $299 and up. They require no installation or maintenance, and they can be used by renters, who may wish to take their fireplace with them when they move, Mr. Mason adds.
Electric fireplaces heat an area of about 400 square feet and take standard voltage, 220 volts. Electric fireplaces that are purely decorative and don’t emit heat take 110 volts.
An electric model “gives off the same appeal as a real fireplace,” Mr. Mason says.
That can be debated.
While a gas fireplace emits real flames that neatly (no ash or flying sparks) engulf the ceramic logs, the electric fireplace has no flames. At best, it provides a hologram image of flames.
Nevertheless, Mr. Crouch, who studies trends in the fireplace industry, says he thinks electric fireplaces are the future.
“Electric fireplaces open up a whole new decorative possibility that didn’t exist,” he says. “Now, anyone can have a fireplace in each room of their house or apartment, if they want to.”
Electric fireplaces, however, are so new and so solidly in first gear that it will take them a while to catch on, Mr. Crouch says. In 10 years, he predicts, they will be very common.
Another appealing aspect of electric fireplaces is the idea of zone heating heating only the room you’re using.
“It’s the logic of putting heat where you are, like task lighting,” Mr. Crouch says. There’s no use having the bathroom light on if you’re at your desk.
“The real epiphany is for people who never thought they would have a fireplace because they live in an apartment or condo,” he says. “Everyone can have an electric fireplace, or two.”

What about the fragrance and sound of a real fire?
The hearth industry has taken care of that, too. Gas fireplaces emit heat and have real flames. The smell and crackle have been provided, too.
Woodburners Two sells the Pine Cone Crackler, a battery-driven gadget in the shape of a pine cone with recorded crackling that can be played whenever the gas logs are on. The store also sells incense with wood fragrance.
Some true wood-burning enthusiasts will never embrace the gas or electric fireplace, Ms. Laurenson says. “Oh, no,” she says. “They’ll just say, ‘It’s not the real thing.’”
It’s not the real thing in a good way, too, Mr. Crouch counters. “There are no spark chips or ashes,” he says. “There is no cleanup.”
Convenience is the No. 1 reason customers give Ms. Laurenson for buying gas fireplaces. (A gas fireplace may not be any cheaper, even if a cord of wood in this area costs as much as $150 to $200.)
“They say, ‘I love to get up in the morning and turn on the gas logs while I have my coffee,’” Ms. Laurenson says. “Do you know anyone who gets up in the morning to start a [wood-burning] fire?”

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