3 Alternatives to a Wood-Burning Fireplace

Wood-burning fireplaces are 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.

Image: Ayne St. Martin

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 heat A 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

Installation Pro 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.
Fuel Gas
Pollutants Flame is behind glass, so pollutants are expelled via the vent, not into the house.
Fire Produces a real fire.
Sound and Scent No crackle or wood-burning scent.
Cost Expensive. 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.
Maintenance Before 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:

2. Electric Fireplace Insert

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

Installation Some 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.
Fuel Electricity.
Pollutants None.
Fire It’s faux for sure, but new models use LED lights to suggest realistic flames.
Sound and Scent No crackle or wood-burning scent.
Cost Moderate. 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.
Maintenance Before 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 alcohol Image: Cathgrace

Installation Just place the logs inside your existing hearth.
Fuel Alcohol gel (a combo of isopropyl alcohol, water, salt, and thickeners) is sold in cans, like Sterno; one can burns for up to 3 hours.
Pollutants Emits 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.
Fire Produces real flame.
Sound and Scent Crackles like the real thing (thanks to the salt), and fuel is available in odorless and scented options.
Cost Inexpensive 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.
Maintenance The 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 Burning Direct-Vent Gas Insert
Electric Insert Alcohol Gel with Faux-Log Insert
Installation Costs Installing a wood-burning fireplace could cost up to $10,000. $2,000 to $5,000 $500 to $1,500 $200 to $400
Fuel Costs Cheap. 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.
Pollutants Yes Emits a small amount of air pollution. No Small levels.
Practical Benefits Not an efficient heat source. Can be a good supplemental heat source. Can be a good supplemental heat source. More about looks than heat.
Crackle/Scent Yes/Yes No/No No/No Yes/Different scents available
Ease of Use Requires kindling and lighting. On-off button On-off button Add a canister of fuel, and light.

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