Remodeling 101: Wood-Burning vs. Gas Fireplaces

By Janet Hall  / Courtesy of Remodelista.com

Dancing flames and crackling wood are warming to the body and soul. But looks can be deceiving. Wood-burning fireplaces can actually lose more heat than they generate. Then there are air-quality concerns and maintenance issues to consider. Purists moan about the antiseptic nature of gas fireplaces. Are they truly soulless? Or is it time to consider making a switch? Here are six issues to consider. 

Note: This feature focuses on traditional, open, wood-burning fireplaces, not their newer, closed, high-efficiency cousins. Stay tuned for more on high-efficiency wood-burning fireplaces, the different varieties of gas fireplaces, and how you can retrofit an existing fireplace.

Above: A roaring wood fire with a sleek white marble surround. Photograph via Hanna Lovgren.

1. The Sensory Experience

Wood-burning fireplaces win in the character category: They offer the snap, crackle, and pop (and the possibility of roasting a marshmallow over the flames) that gas-fueled fires can't match.

That said, advances in gas fireplaces are putting their characterless reputation to rest. Flames have become more realistic (some even offer variable height adjustment), and ceramic logs better resemble the real thing. All that's missing is the sound and smell (wait long enough and there may be an app for that).

Made of ceramic or refractory cement, gas logs come in a variety of lifelike wood styles, complete with glowing embers. Here are two examples in ceramics. Above L: A set from US specialist Monessen Hearth. Above R: Metalfire logs from Belgium. 

Above: Is it the mantle rather than the fire that steals the show? This Avion Spanish marble mantle in a New York City townhouse was designed by O’neill Rose Architects, a member of the Remodelista Architect & Designer Directory. See A Brownstone for the 21st Century for a full tour. Photograph by Michael Moran.

2. Heating Efficiency

Great at creating ambiance, traditional wood-burning fireplaces are poor performers: When it comes to heating, they get only about a 15 percent efficiency rating. Wood fires do get very hot—upwards of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit—but most of that heat disappears up the chimney. To make matters worse, as the hot air rises, it creates a draft that pulls warm air from other parts of the house up the chimney with it. 

With energy-efficiency ratings between 75 and 99 percent, depending on the type of appliance used, gas fireplaces are the winner in the heating category. They come in three types: log sets that sit in existing open fireplaces, inserts that can be installed in most masonry fireplaces, and complete new built-in fireplaces. Inserts and built-in gas fireplaces are the best heat producers, filling rooms with a mix of warm air and radiant heat. 

Above: An open gas fireplace by Belgian architectural fireplace company Metalfire

3. Emissions

Air quality is another consideration. Wood-burning fireplaces create particle pollution indoors and out. That woodsy smell can be a health and environmental hazard (as I write this we are in the third day of a "spare the air" burn ban in San Francisco). 

Above: According to the EPA, traditional wood-burning fireplaces emit 28 pounds of particulants per MMBTU (one million BTUs) of heat output as opposed to natural gas, which produces up to 99 percent less (about 0.28 pounds per MMBTU). Simple math suggests that wood-burning fireplaces are 100 times more polluting than gas. Diagram courtesy of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

4. Cleaning and Maintenance

The soot and ash that are by-products of wood-burning fireplaces require frequent cleaning. 

Above: Rooms, such as this Axel Vervoordt–Designed Greenwich Hotel Penthouse, with open wood-burning fireplaces are susceptible to soot being blown inside when air gusts come down the chimney. Also air flow to the wood, necessary for good burning, is restricted by soot buildup at the base of the fireplace. Photograph via The Greenwich Hotel.

Wood-burning fireplaces bring the burden of chimney maintenance that gas fireplaces don't have. Burning wood creates creosote, which accumulates on the lining of the chimney and becomes a fire hazard. Chimneys should be checked annually and will need to be cleaned periodically to prevent this buildup. The EPA also recommends checking chimneys inside and out for cracks that can allow smoke to enter a house or expose the chimney’s components to high temperatures that may cause a fire.

Gas fireplaces require little more than a dusting, a boon for the neatnik. They're not, however, maintenance free: It's recommended that gas fireplaces be cleaned and adjusted annually by a professional to ensure safe and efficient operation.

Above: No cleaning tools are required for gas fireplaces, such as this white-clad design by Oomen Architecten.

5. Convenience

Gas fireplaces trump wood-burning fireplaces in ease of operation, starting with the fuel source: Wood has to be stored and is bulky and dirty; a cord is four-feet tall, four-feet deep, and eight-feet wide. Gas is fed through a pipe and no storage is required. That said, if you don't have natural gas in your area, propane is the alternative gas and it requires a bulky tank for storage.

Fire-start with push-button ease if you have a gas fireplace—some even come with remotes (though, we admit, that seems a bit sterile). And they roar on until you turn them off. Wood-burning fireplaces, on the other hand, require wood stacking, lighting, and tending. A ritual that's part of the whole experience or a nuisance? You decide. 

Above: Wood storage as a decorative element (complete with a simple, built-in shelf) in Michelle McKenna's London town house. Tour the whole house in the Remodelista book and The Power of Pastels. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.

6. Cost

The cost of operating wood-burning and gas fireplaces is relatively low. A cord of wood is anywhere between $200 and $400, depending on your location and the type and condition of wood. Natural gas runs from $0.20 to $0.40 per hour for an average gas fireplace. Variations depend on the BTU rating of your burner. 

Gas fireplaces can have a positive effect on overall heating costs by enabling you to turn down the central heating down and use the gas fireplace to heat a frequently used room. Zone heating also reduces the amount of money spent heating rooms that sit unused. Conversely, using central heat while burning wood in a fireplace can make your heater to work harder to maintain temperatures throughout the house.

Above: A fireplace in the streamlined kitchen of a New York Upper West Side Brownstone by O’neill Rose Architects. Photograph by Michael Moran

Wood-Burning Vs. Gas Fireplace Recap

Benefits of a wood-burning fireplace:

  • Wood is a renewable fuel source 
  • Offers character to a room
  • Ritual of making and tending a fire
  • Creates an unmatchable ambiance

Benefits of a gas fireplace:

  • Efficient heating
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Requires virtually no cleaning and little maintenance
  • Effortless operation

Looking to warm your space? Read 5 Things to Know About Radiant Floor Heating. And see Michelle's Domestic Dispatches: Good-Bye to the Romance of the Fireplace to follow her adventure switching from wood to gas.


This article originally appeared on Remodlista.com