If you’ve been thinking about how nice it would be to have the warmth and ambience of a fireplace but without all the hassles associated with cutting, storing and hauling firewood, it might be time to consider the benefits of installing a gas fireplace.

Freestanding and built-in gas fireplaces are available in a surprising number of sizes, styles and colors. They are powered by natural gas and if you don’t have that available most can be easily converted to burn propane. If you currently have a wood-burning fireplace, in many cases a gas unit can be retrofitted into the old fireplace without extensive changes to the hearth and other masonry.

The first step in the process is to find something you like. Given the wide variety available, your best bet is to visit at least two showrooms and see the fireplaces in person. Check out the fit and finish of each one, as well as the overall style and available colors and options.

One of the features that really adds to the appeal of a gas fireplace is the log set it contains. Manufacturers have gone to great lengths to create log sets that are as close as possible to the look of a real burning wood log, right down to the embers underneath, so when you find a fireplace you’re interested in be sure to see it operate before you make the final decision.

As with wood-burning fireplaces and woodstoves, gas fireplaces are typically used to heat one or at most a couple of rooms. Trying to heat the whole house with one will cause the room where the fireplace is located to become uncomfortably overheated well before sufficient heat reaches the rooms at the back of the house. You’ll want to have a good idea of where the unit will be located, and how much area you are hoping to heat.

Many gas units will be advertised as being capable of heating a certain number of square feet of living space, but this is usually based on 8-foot or even 7.5-foot ceiling heights. If you have vaulted ceilings, or if you have a two-story house that is relatively open between the floors, these figures can be misleading. A more accurate way of sizing the unit is to have the dealer conduct a modified heat-loss calculation for your home. This takes into consideration the actual cubic footage of the area you want to heat, as well as how good or bad the insulation, windows and other energy features of your home are. 

Two options worth looking at are a fan and a remote thermostat. Electric fans, unobtrusively built right into the fireplace, will help circulate the heat to warm the room up faster and provide a more even heat distribution. A thermostat mounted on a wall that’s somewhat removed from the fireplace allows you to maintain a preset temperature in the room in much the same manner as you would with a conventional furnace. For the dedicated couch potato, some manufacturers also offer a remote control option for activating and controlling the fireplace.

INSTALLATION

If you’re a skilled and versatile do-it-yourselfer, most gas fireplaces come with complete instructions that allow you to do the installation yourself. If that’s not something you want to undertake, most fireplace stores either employ their own installers or can arrange for a qualified person to do the work for you. Remember that the installation company must be licensed, bonded and insured.

The building codes and the manufacturer’s specifications will specifically dictate the type and size of the hearth that the fireplace sits on, as well as the clearances between the fireplace and any combustible materials behind and to the sides of the unit. Gas fireplaces also utilize specific types and sizes of flue piping, and in most instances they cannot be vented into an existing masonry chimney or utilize existing woodstove flue pipes.

Gas piping should be done be a qualified plumber. Pipe size is determined by the size and location of the fireplace, and must be done with an approved gas piping material. Do not use copper or galvanized water pipes. A shutoff valve is required at the fireplace, and the type, location and accessibility of the valve is specified by the building codes.

Remember that gas fireplace installations require a mechanical permit for the gas piping, as well as a permit for the fireplace and flue installation. Don’t skip the permit process – in addition to ensuring that the installation is safe and proper, failure to obtain the proper permits may void your homeowner’s insurance policy in the event of a fire. Consult with your dealer and the local building department for complete information before any installation work begins. 

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at paul2887@hughes.net.

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