Urban Natural Homes February 25, 2014

Wood-Burning vs. Gas Fireplaces: Which is Right for You?


There’s something so primal and wonderful about a real wood-burning fire. The smell of the wood burning, the sight of the dancing flames and the crackling sound it makes…all of the senses get involved. In fact, I am such a fan of wood-burning fires that it’s been hard for me to acknowledge any other alternative. As a Realtor, however, I see the growing popularity of gas fireplaces, and feel that I need to keep an open mind. So, I set out to learn more about the two types. As it turns out, it’s not an issue of one necessarily being superior to the other, but rather it’s more about what’s important to you and what works for your lifestyle.

So first off, wood-burning fireplaces. To learn more I turned to trusted home inspector extraordinaire, Brandal Gehr from VI Inspections. We sat down, in front of a fireplace of course, and he explained that although wood-burning fireplaces have been used as a heat source for thousands of years, they are actually very inefficient.  A typical wood-burning fire will fuel itself by sucking combustion air from the living space it is supposed to be heating while sending most of the heat up the chimney. This is why the corners of the room will actually be cold as there is nothing to push the heat out into the larger living space. In addition, when not in use, warm air is lost through the chimney space. Thus, in most cases, wood-burning fireplaces actually end up losing more energy than they generate.   They are also messy, requiring regular removal of the ash that builds up and can be costly, both in terms of buying wood and the amount of time and energy needed to split and store wood reserves and actually build the fire.

Enter the era of the gas fireplace.  Gas fireplaces speak to our culture of ease; flip a switch or push a button on the remote control and the flame leaps up. Gas fireplaces are, without a doubt, more efficient, cleaner and safer than wood-burning fireplaces. But what about those cheesy looking fake logs that have been such a turn-off with gas fireplaces in the past? To survey the latest I headed down to Sutter Home & Hearth and spoke with Van Thorfinson who showed me the wide range of options that are available, from traditional to ultra modern and everything in between. Granted, the log ‘look’ has come a long way from the early models, and the wide range of styles is tempting.

But what if you aren’t sold, despite the advantages and convenience, and still want the full wood-burning experience? Well the only way to make a traditional fireplace truly efficient is to install a wood-burning insert, which is basically a woodstove that fits into a masonry fireplace. I viewed some of these inserts at Sutters and they are very attractive and include clear glass doors for viewing the blazing fire within. According to Van, one of these inserts will cost you from $4,800 to $5,500, including installation (keep in mind that a gas fireplace will generally cost even more, and that is assuming that you already have a gas line from the street). The question to ask in contemplating one of these wood-burning inserts, however, is how important is efficiency to you? Are you really looking at the fireplace as a heat source? Because let’s face it, the vast majority of urbanites are looking to their furnace as their major source of heat.  If you really long for the full wood-burning experience, then maybe it’s best to acknowledge your furnace as your heat source while enjoying a real fire when you feel like it during the winter months. On the other hand, if you want some additional heat, and at least some background ambiance, on a regular basis and just want to flip a switch to get it, then maybe a gas fireplace is the ticket. Ultimately there is no right or wrong in the question of fireplace choices, but rather, what works for you?

Brandal Gehr
V.I. Inspections

Sutter Home & Hearth