- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

It’s the coziest spot for sipping hot chocolate or snuggling up with a good book, and a focal point for decorating and entertaining. Somehow, just sitting beside the fireplace warms body and soul.

As the ultimate sanctuary during Washington’s cold winter, a fireplace can provide auxiliary heat for a home while at the same time creating a magnetic attraction.

“Everybody wants to have a fireplace. Whether they use it or not is the question,” says Gopal Ahluwalia of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). A fireplace tops the list of the most desirable amenities that consumers want in a new home, he says.

Even if the fireplace isn’t used frequently, the fact that it exudes a sense of tranquillity is enough to sell many homeowners on the value of a warm hearth. In fact, according to an NAHB study, 60 percent of new homes come with fireplaces.

Jed Gibson, vice president of architecture for Toll Bros., says all of the homes the firm builds — with the exception of those in Florida — come with a fireplace as a standard feature.

So the question for most homeowners seems to be not whether to get a fireplace but what kind of fuel to use — wood or gas.

“You have gas-fireplace people, and you have wood-burning people,” says Christian Anderson of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA), an Arlington-based industry association for manufacturers, retailers, distributors, representatives and service firms. But professionals say today’s time-pressed homeowners are looking for easy fireplace maintenance to go along with the necessary heat and good looks.

Increasingly, the overwhelming choice, experts say, has been gas.

Beauty and renewability are definite draws of a traditional wood-burning fireplace, but experts say most people do not want to deal with the upkeep and mess. Wood-burning fireplaces call for buying (or chopping), stacking and hauling logs as well as cleaning up the ashes once the fire is out.

“Wood smells wonderful, but it creates soot, and you have to clean the chimney,” says Tammy Burns of Century 21 Village in Silver Spring. “I think a lot of older people, especially, prefer gas fireplaces because they’re easier to maintain and you don’t have to carry wood.”

According to the HPBA, since 1997, more gas than wood fireplaces have been shipped for installation. In fact, the shipment of wood products has decreased over recent years. However, a 2002 HPBA consumer survey concluded that 64 percent of homes with fireplaces in the United States currently still burn wood or fire logs.

“Wood is good, but it is a lot of work,” Mr. Ahluwalia says. “A lot of people are even converting their wood fireplaces into gas.”

Remote controls make gas fireplaces even more appealing. With the touch of a button, homeowners can turn on the fire, adjust the flame height and control the thermostat settings.

“Nationally, we are seeing more people choose gas fireplaces over wood-burning,” Mr. Gibson says. Toll Bros. no longer offers the gas log kit for wood-burning fireplaces because of recent code changes, he says.

“Gas is cleaner, easy to maintain and instantaneous to use, especially with a remote control,” says Joe Shahbazian of Shahbaz Custom Home Builders in Brookeville, Md. “I find that homeowners prefer gas fireplaces because they don’t have the time to acquire and store the wood, then clean up afterwards. There are efficient models available which give off warmth without having excessive heat loss up the chimney.”

Gas fireplaces have also evolved to look and sound very similar to wood by imitating the color and random flicker of the flame, embers and logs. Some manufacturers provide a CD of crackling and incense that smells like wood smoke.

In addition to the atmosphere provided by the glow of a fireplace, people — and government agencies — apparently are growing more concerned about what fireplaces do to the atmosphere outside.

The U.S. Department of Energy says wood-burning fireplaces add to atmospheric pollution, giving off carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases. Wood smoke can cause serious health problems, especially for children, pregnant women and people with respiratory ailments.

Unvented gas fireplaces pose their own dangers to indoor air. Check the manufacturer’s warnings. Burning propane, for example, increases water vapor in the air and can affect people with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

For die-hard wood-fireplace lovers, however, the HPBA suggests using EPA-certified wood-burning fireplaces. They use less wood and emit no smoke, officials say.

“These fireplaces are pretty new and provide a clean-burning version of the more traditional wood-burning fireplaces and produce about 90 percent less emissions than traditional fireplaces,” Mr. Anderson says.

The EPA-certified fireplaces provide enough heat to warm a room or two, the HPBA says.

Another advantage to wood fireplaces, and more specifically to the EPA-certified fireplace that requires less wood to build a fire, is that firewood is less subject to price fluctuations than gas. However, the laws of supply and demand still apply to firewood, so prices do go up and down — seesawing with the temperature, it seems. Wood fireplaces come in handy during power outages, too.

“People crave wood-burning fireplaces,” says John Crouch, HPBA’s director of public affairs. “They are romantic and create a soothing atmosphere. But in today’s pollution-reduction-focused world, people need to adopt a commitment to protecting the environment.”

Whether gas or wood-burning, when it comes to today’s fireplaces, homeowners aren’t settling for the basics.

“It is my experience as a builder of luxury homes that today’s new-home buyer is looking for a fireplace with distinction,” Mr. Shahbazian says.

Homeowners, he says, want “either a full wall of stone, or a marble hand-carved mantel, which covers the sides and top of the fireplace opening.”

Fireplaces have become fancier, and they’re not just for family rooms, anymore.

“Another desirous item is a three-sided, enclosed fireplace, usually in the master bedroom suites,” says Mr. Shahbazian. “See-through fireplaces have become most popular recently to allow lovely warmth in adjoining rooms like the family room and kitchen, or the master bedroom and master bath.”

“The family room is the number-one place that people will have a fireplace, with the living room and bedroom as the second and third choices. Basements are also popular for fireplaces,” Mr. Ahluwalia says.

Fireplaces are considered pretty wise investments as far as home improvements go because so many buyers put them at the top of their wish list.

“I wouldn’t buy a home without a fireplace because I love them. I prefer homes with beautiful brick chimneys,” says Mrs. Burns, who adds that buyers like to see a fireplace in a home, even if they don’t use it often.

Helen Leipzig of Long & Foster in Sterling, Va., says a fireplace improves a home’s marketability.

“When you look in the family room,” she says, “it seems like something is missing without a fireplace.”

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