Gas logs are a convenient option to wood-burning fireplaces
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have always loved a wood-burning fireplace. The smoky aroma, the warm glow of the flames, the heat on my body as I sit near the hearth. And yet I've put on only two or three fires so far this winter.
True, it's been fairly warm this season, but the real reason is that my fires take work. I have to carry logs in from the outside, arrange them just so in the grate, using twigs, rolled up newspapers and small fire starters to get, if I'm lucky, a blaze started.
Then it's a constant vigil to keep the fire going, with more treks outside to get logs, then staying up while the blaze burns down so I won't go to bed worrying about setting the house on fire.
So I've given some thought to converting to a fireplace with gas logs. I spent Christmas and New Year's in homes that had them. It was nice. Push a button and flames appear, taking the chill out of the room. Too hot? Ready for bed? Push the button and the fire's out.
I didn't ask my hosts about what troubled me (the gas bill). Instead, I decided to look into fireplace options and to consult the experts. That would be Steve and Emily Reynolds, who own Fireside and Patio Shop in Cross Lanes.
"We both have gotten our Ph.D.s in the wood burning industry," Steve Reynolds joked about all they've learned in their 29 years in business.
When they bought the business in 1984, wood-burning stoves were hot sellers. Gas was perceived to be costly, and wood was abundant and cheap.
"Now wood is out and gas is in," said Reynolds, pointing out that wood isn't as available and gas prices have come down.
"If you compare the best gas and wood stoves, gas is one-third the cost of wood for the usable Btu coming into the house," he said.
He explained in detail my options if I want to convert to gas. But first I have to get a gas line to my fireplace.
Fireside and Patio will do that job too, and Reynolds said it usually isn't difficult if the house already uses gas to run the furnace or other heating appliance. If not, a line is installed from the street to the house. The cost varies from $800 to $1,200 but may run higher depending on the terrain.
"Many of the subdivisions around here are all-electric. There was a moratorium on natural gas usage in the 1960s," Reynolds said.
In those cases, a tank for propane or natural gas can be set on the outside of the house and an opening drilled to connect a line to the fireplace.
The best flames
Once I have gas to my fireplace, I could buy a good set of vented gas logs for $800 to $1,500. They have the prettiest flames, Reynolds said, pointing out how the flames wrap around the logs.
However, if installed in wood-burning fireplace, the gas logs don't give out heat much beyond the hearth. The gas being consumed takes warm air from the house and up the chimney. My gas bill would definitely go up, Reynolds said.
But maybe not by that much. At residential rates, the average set of gas logs -- about 30,000 Btu -- would cost 25 cents an hour, according to Larry Meador, manager of communications for Mountaineer Gas. That amounts to $2.50 over a 10-hour period, he pointed out.
Best gas option
"Heat & Glo, which was developed in the late '60s, is the best method of using gas," Reynolds said.
For an existing fireplace like mine, a metal or firebrick firebox would be inserted into the fireplace, and the opening would be closed off with glass doors. An insulated, divided pipe would carry air from the outside for combustion and the gases would be exhausted back outside through the pipe.
I am not sure I like the idea of watching a fire burn behind a glass wall. And now, Reynolds said, there must be a screen over the glass because the glass gets so hot.
With Heat & Glo-style products, Reynolds said my gas bill shouldn't change and may even reduce it. He explained that the heat radiated through the glass spreads in ripples throughout the house. My living room would probably be snug at 75 degrees, and override the nearby thermostat set at 70 degrees.
However, the bedrooms down the hallway in my ranch-style house would be a bit nippy. Said Reynolds, "There would be about a 10-degree difference between the living room and distance bedrooms."
The air quality in the house, however, never changes.
On average, I would spend $3,500 to $4,500 for a direct vent gas fireplace, Reynolds said.
Vent-free logs are cheaper
Reynolds sells vent-free gas logs, but he doesn't like them. The logs don't require venting; they take air from the house and return the combustion gases back into the house.
A brochure from a vent-free log manufacturer says the logs are 99 percent heating efficiency, use less gas and are equipped with an oxygen-depletion sensor for safe operation.
Reynolds doesn't believe they are safe, and said they have been outlawed in several states. Still, when customers who have bought one call complaining of headaches or eye irritation, Reynolds said, a check of the air quality shows the level of carbon monoxide is safe.
A bigger problem, he said, is the water produced from burning gas. "You will get 3 1/2 gallons of water from eight hours of burning a 39,000 Btu set of logs. That can raise the humidity within the house," he said.
Too high a humidity level can set up conditions for growth of mold and mildew, and condensation on the attic rafters or on the ceiling leaves black streaks.
On the positive side, Reynolds said that with vent-free logs, the heat stays in the room, as does the odor. He conceded they might be my best choice if I used them only for Christmas and New Year's and during power outages.
Even in the glossy brochure, the vent-free gas logs may look natural, but the flames don't. Two or three flames rise straight up in a straight line. I see what Reynolds meant when he described the flames from vented gas logs as "wrapping" around the logs.
For a good set of vent-free logs, one would pay $800 to $1,200.
The sole set of electric logs on display truly looked fake. "The industry has been trying to develop a look that's normal and natural," Reynolds said.
The high cost of chimneys
My 60-year-old rancher has a real chimney, but most new houses don't. Masonry chimneys cost $15,000 to $20,000, according to Reynolds.
So most people who want a fireplace do what I did 25 years ago when I had an addition built onto another house: I had a zero-clearance fireplace installed. It was all metal, with insulated pipe leading to the outside. The exterior chimney was clapboard siding to match the rest of the house.
As Reynolds explained, zero-clearance means the firebox and venting pipe can be installed within one inch of combustible material.
There are zero-clearance fireplaces for burning wood or gas. Manufacturers of both offer a wide selection of fronts, mantels and finishes and, in the case of gas logs, a choice of embers -- sand, glass, river rock.
Fireplaces that heat by burning either wood or gas aren't, of course, the only way to warm a room in cold weather. There is a variety of stoves.
And more people are looking for alternative heating sources. Reynolds said after the June 29 derecho took out power for thousands of customers this summer, people started in July booking installations. "Then with the heavy snow in October, it was Katie bar the door. This has been the best year we've had in years."
Reach Rosalie Earle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5115.