3 Alternatives to a Wood-Burning Fireplace

Before a wood burning fireplace was converted to gasImage: Ayne St. Martin

They’re charming, but not so great on the lungs and the budget. That doesn’t mean you have to take the spark out of your hearth.

There’s nothing better in fall and winter than the crackle, scent, and warmth of a wood-burning fireplace. It’s a romantic and coveted household feature. 

In fact, homebuyers will pay up to $1,400 more for a home with a fireplace, according to the “2013 Home Features Survey” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

1. Direct-Vent Gas Insert Fireplace

A fireplace that has been converted to gas heatA direct-vent gas fireplace is a more efficient heat source than its wood-burning brother. Making the switch from wood to gas also helps protect your in-home air quality. Image: Regency Fireplace Products

InstallationPro install required to properly vent fumes outside through the roof or wall. Also need a pro plumber to hook up the gas line. Permanent option.
PollutantsFlame is behind glass, so pollutants are expelled via the vent, not into the house.
FireProduces a real fire.
Sound and ScentNo crackle or wood-burning scent.
CostExpensive. Including installation, prices range from $2,000 to $5,000. Since it uses gas, it could increase your utility bill a bit, but these units don’t have the heat loss associated with a wood-burning fireplace. To help offset the expense, turn down your thermostat while you’re enjoying your fire.
MaintenanceBefore using each season, have a pro remove the dust that collected inside the fireplace around its internal components and on its glass screen.

This video shows how a pro cleans a direct vent fireplace:

Cleaning a Direct Vent Fireplace

Video: askthechimneysweep

2. Electric Fireplace Insert

A home fireplace that was converted from woodImage: Stacy Risenmay from Not Just A Housewife

InstallationSome just need to be plugged in to a grounded outlet, so you’ll likely be able to install it yourself. Can be moved to other rooms.
FireIt’s faux for sure, but new models use LED lights to suggest realistic flames.
Sound and ScentNo crackle or wood-burning scent.
CostModerate. Including installation, prices can range from $500 to $1,500. It can increase your electricity bill, but it’ll last years longer than a gas fireplace because there’s no combustible fuel.
MaintenanceBefore using each season, clean out the dust that collected inside the fireplace and on its screen (if it has one). Unplug before cleaning.

3. Alcohol Gel Fireplace with Faux-Log Insert (Ventless)

Fireplace that has been converted from wood to gel alcoholImage: Cathgrace

InstallationJust place the logs inside your existing hearth.
FuelAlcohol gel (a combo of isopropyl alcohol, water, salt, and thickeners) is sold in cans, like Sterno; one can burns for up to 3 hours.
PollutantsEmits heat, steam, and a minute amount of carbon dioxide. To put this in perspective: One fuel brand claims to emit levels of 16 parts per million; for most people, prolonged exposure to levels 70 ppm or higher is dangerous. Although alcohol is considered a clean fuel, if you use the fireplace more than two times a week, air out your home on a regular basis to prevent minimal pollutants from building up.
FireProduces real flame.
Sound and ScentCrackles like the real thing (thanks to the salt), and fuel is available in odorless and scented options.
CostInexpensive to moderate. Faux-log inserts hover around $200 to $400, depending on how fancy you want to go on a unit; a case of 16 to 24 cans of gel fuel costs around $70.
MaintenanceThe log insert and fireplace can accumulate dust. Before using each season, you’ll need to remove the log insert and clean inside of the fireplace. Afterwards, wipe down the log insert and replace.

Note: For any combustible fireplace option, install a carbon monoxide detector in the same room as the fireplace. The device should meet UL 2034 safety standards.

But if you haven’t gotten the memo, cozying up to a wood-burning fire is an impractical and even risky pleasure. Here’s the deal:

  • Traditional fireplaces are heat thieves. The chimney sucks up 90% of the warmth a fire creates and siphons off some of your home’s heated air, according to the EPA. And that ratchets up your energy bills.
  • Inhaling burning wood smoke is as harmful as smoking; wood smoke is loaded with carcinogens like benzene.
  • Lighting up logs fuels global warming. The soot your fire creates is a heat-trapping pollutant.
  • Wood-burning fireplaces need lots of maintenance, including routine ash cleanup and a professional cleaning every other year to keep combustible creosote at bay. (Both gas and wood fireplaces need an annual inspection.)

Enough buzzkill. Here are our three favorite alternatives to burning wood. And all are great solutions whether or not you have a working chimney and fireplace.

Why Isn't an Ethanol Ventless Fireplace on Your List?

We considered ventless ethanol fireplaces, since ventless options are less expensive than vented ones. Plus, ethanol is often touted as a clean-burning alternative to gas and wood. But, we backed off: Ethanol can emit carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide; some also spew benzene and formaldehyde, according to study cited by the EPA. They’re also considered a fire hazard because they’re combustible. 

With any ventless fireplace, exercise caution, especially if your home is tightly sealed. Since they’re duct- and chimney-free, they emit carbon monoxide and other airborne nasties directly into the home while sucking up oxygen. Some also create water vapor, which can lead to mold growth. Ventless fireplaces are outlawed in California and Massachusetts and in some municipalities.

At-a-Glance Comparison of Wood-Burning Fireplaces and the Other Three Options:

 Wood BurningDirect-Vent Gas Insert
Electric InsertAlcohol Gel with Faux-Log Insert
Installation CostsInstalling a wood-burning fireplace could cost up to $10,000.$2,000 to $5,000$500 to $1,500$200 to $400
Fuel CostsCheap. Wood is less expensive than other types of fuel. A half cord of wood (enough for winter weekends): about $75-$150.Natural gas is more expensive than wood; check your rate with your utility.It may be cheaper than gas, but it depends on your local utility costs.$2 to $3 for a can of fuel for a single fire.
PollutantsYesEmits a small amount of air pollution.NoSmall levels.
Practical BenefitsNot an efficient heat source.Can be a good supplemental heat source.Can be a good supplemental heat source.More about looks than heat.
Crackle/ScentYes/YesNo/NoNo/NoYes/Different scents available
Ease of UseRequires kindling and lighting.On-off buttonOn-off buttonAdd a canister of fuel, and light.