Phillips: Real fireplaces pour heat, but can be demanding

Phillips: Real fireplaces pour heat, but can be demanding

October 17th, 2009 by Ellen Phillips in Business Ellen Phillips

Q: We're in the process of adding a fireplace on to our house and can't decide between gas or wood logs. My husband prefers a "real" fire, but I think a gas fireplace is much safer. Can you please settle our dispute? -- Samantha Safety

A: Dear Mrs. S.: Hubby has the right idea. In my opinion, nothing beats the warmth and smell of crackling logs on a crisp, cool evening. But since I'm no fire marshal or marriage counselor, I investigated the pros and cons of each.

n Wood-burning fireplaces: These babies can't be beat when it's really brrrr outside. (And even in the Middle South, our weather can get pretty nippy in the winter.)

-- The colder the conditions, the longer you can burn logs; alternately, experts advise us not to use a gas fireplace for more than a few hours at a time.

-- If your locale suffers a power outage, toasted marshmallows aren't the only food your fireplace is able to provide. When we lived in Northern Virginia -- the frozen "Nawth," in my opinion -- ours furnished soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and other delectables not available without electricity. Obviously, a gas fireplace wouldn't be as cooking-friendly.

-- Along this same lines, a fireplace offers an alternative heat source if an emergency occurs. In 1982, when Birmingham and much of the South was crippled with winter ice and snow storms, cuddling in a blanket in front of a roaring fire was about the only means my young daughter and I prevented Jack Frost from freezing us and our toes. Thank goodness for friends with a log-burning fireplace!

-- Of course, this type includes certain disadvantages. For example, hauling wood from outside the house mandates physical strength and dexterity so no weenies need apply for the job. And once you've built the fire and it burns merrily along, you must regularly clean ashes out of the hearth.

-- Sparks can pop out and, perhaps, start a fire where you don't want one.

-- The cost of firewood is aggravated by a chimney sweeping company's seasonal fee, a step you mustn't pass up to avoid the potential for a chimney fire and also unless you desire a face full of ashes to accessorize your winter attire.

n Gas-burning fireplaces: Currently the most popular style in warmer climes, heat and a fire is obtained quick as a wink (or click, as the case may be).

-- Obviously, we don't worry about a chimney fire with a gas fireplace.

-- With a gas fireplace, there aren't nearly as many emissions or smoke affecting air quality.

-- Because a gas-burning fireplace does not have to vent straight up, there are many more location options.

-- Much more energy-efficient, gas logs can warm up a room more quickly.

-- On the other hand, if converting a too-small wood-burning fireplace, the gas insert may not provide the same amount of heat as one built with the original structure.

Thanks to for helping me to answer Mrs. Safety's question.

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears on Saturdays in the Business section of the paper. An expanded version is at under Local Business. E-mail her at