Choose the Right Fireplace for Your Needs


Over the years, I have seen a strong trend away from wood-burning fireplaces toward gas fireplaces.

There are two reasons for that. First is the cost. Traditional, all masonry fireplaces are very expensive to build. The entire chimney must be built of masonry and the tall column of cement blocks, bricks, and terra cotta flue liner is very expensive. Plus, a true masonry fireplace requires a foundation to carry the weight. That adds more cost. Pre-fab metal units have taken over the marketplace for cost alone. Some pre-fab fireplace companies are Heatilator, Majestic, and Heat-n-Glo. These fireplaces have some limitations on the size of the firebox opening. If I need a particularly large opening, I turn to Isokern. This is a fireplace that is made of a special type of concrete block system, but it does not require the full masonry flue. So it is a compromise between the design freedom of the traditional masonry fireplace and the cost benefits of the pre-fab units.

Wood-burning models of pre-fab fireplaces are readily available, but in spite of that, most of my clients choose to set these fireplaces up with gas logs for the sheer convenience of starting and stopping a fire whenever they want. Many people have grown tired of chopping and carrying wood, cleaning up the mess and bringing bugs into the house and give up the ambiance of a real wood fire in favor of the convenience of a gas log fire. These days, there are many very good choices of gas log sets that provide a realistic wood fire look. Because most of the heat goes up the flue, fireplaces are not energy efficient. They can actually draw more heat out of a house than they can provide. Fireplaces should be viewed as decorative elements in a house.

Some gas fireplaces require a vent pipe and others do not. The vented gas fireplaces give the most traditional look since they do not have to have glass doors on the firebox. But vented gas fireplaces must have the damper held open permanently according to the building code. This allows heated air from the house to continually escape up the flue twenty four hours a day. This is obviously an energy loss. Open fronted, vented fireplaces also use the air inside the house for combustion and can allow combusted air to return back into the house. People who have allergies or sensitivities to petroleum products could react negatively to this. For those people, a direct vent fireplace might be a better solution.

Direct vent fireplaces take outside air for the combustion and vent the combusted air back outside. No indoor air is used. No pollution is added to the indoor air. No heated house air escapes the house. They cost less initially because no chimney is required. A direct vent fireplace can add heat to the house, but not as efficiently as a gas furnace. The major objection to direct vent fireplaces is that a fixed glass panel covers the firebox. Sometimes people describe this as an aquarium look because of the glass. But there are decorative frames for the glass that make it look like a set of good glass doors.

All in all I would say that most of the fireplaces I design are gas log types with the exception of outdoor fireplaces. For those, wood-burning is still the preference. Of the indoor fireplaces, most are the vented variety primarily because of the appearance. People prefer the traditional open faced firebox. But in some situations, the direct vent type is the best choice, especially if finding a location for the flue and chimney is difficult or cost is a priority.

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I hope this information is helpful to you. You might want to get yourself a copy of my best-seller, Designing Your Perfect House. It is chockfull of valuable tips and advice that will save you many times the cost of the book on your house building or remodeling project. You might also like The Well-Centered Home: Simple Steps to Increase Mindfulness, Self-Awareness, and Happiness Where You Live. It will show you how to make your home a happy place.

Bill Hirsch | Architect

Bill Hirsch


  1. Real Flame Fireplaces on July 7, 2010 at 3:46 am

    Hi Will,

    Great to hear your insights on gas fireplaces – I agree with you 100%! We have been selling these units for quite some time now, and I’m still surprised that people go for wood burning fireplaces over gas ones…

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