QUESTION: I'm tired of the mess when I burn wood in my fireplace. Can I replace it easily with a new remote-controlled gas fireplace? Is a gas fireplace efficient and what features should I look for in one?
ANSWER: With new gas fireplaces, it is difficult to distinguish the gas log flames from real wood flames. Special burner materials and orifice patterns create the natural look. The rest of the fireplace front is identical to a wood-burning model in appearance.
Even with the golden flame color, some gas fireplaces have efficiencies as high as 80%, probably more efficient than your furnace. Most designs have air-circulation blowers and wall thermostat options. With a 40,000 Btu/hour heat output, a gas fireplace can easily heat a small house.
If you don't currently have a fireplace, there are easy-to-install "zero-clearance" gas fireplaces available. Zero clearance means that they have multi-layer insulated sheet metal sides.
This allows you to build them into a wall, directly against the studs, without creating a fire hazard. These can vent flue gases horizontally through an outside wall so you needn't build a chimney. If you install one in an existing fireplace, you can vent it vertically up the chimney.
The convenience features of gas fireplaces also increase their efficiency. From your sofa, you can use a hand-held remote control (like a TV remote) to start the fire, control the blower speeds and heat output. This avoids wasteful overheating and longer fires than are actually needed.
Sealed direct vent designs are energy efficient and safe. Flue gases vent directly out the fireplace back to outdoors. Through the same double-wall concentric pipe or a separate pipe, outdoor combustion air comes in.
This eliminates the loss of heated room air up the flue and chilly drafts inside your home. Since there is adequate outdoor air intake, the chance of incomplete combustion and backdrafting fumes into your room is minimal.
Multi- or variable-speed room air-circulation blowers improve comfort and energy savings. A wall-mounted thermostat connected to your gas fireplace, like a furnace thermostat, maintains a fairly even room temperature. It switches the burners up or down depending on the heating needs.
A few models have variable heat output burners. With three or four heat levels, you can maintain a constant room temperature. The burners are located forward and rear, so even on low, the flames look like wood flames.