If you are considering installing a fireplace or upgrading an existing one, you’ll soon find out how many trade-offs between wood and gas as fuels exist. Start your decision process by first outlining your priorities and then narrowing down your choice to a particular unit from there.
Most homeowners, especially in urban areas, want a fireplace to provide a warm focal point in a room. The draw of a flickering, open flame is undeniable. A wood fireplace or insert naturally wins a realism comparison. However, modern gas fireplaces achieve a fire appearance very close to a wood fire, albeit without the crackle and smell of a wood fire.
Any open fireplace, gas or wood, is unlikely to be as energy efficient as a central heating unit, though modern inserts can burn either fuel quite effectively. Still, it is unlikely that most homeowners can actually save money heating their home with a fireplace or insert unless they have special circumstances:
Few homeowners consider wood, except in the form of pellets, to be a convenient form of fuel. At the least, it requires storage space, splitting and some cleaning up. The fire itself needs preparation and tends to produce a film on the surround and wall surfaces. A gas fireplace or insert starts and extinguishes a fire at the flick of a switch and the level of heat is easily adjusted. Its main drawback compared to wood is that if the gas or electric supply fails, there is no fire.
Gas tends to be a cleaner burning fuel than wood. Some wood stoves and inserts can achieve a very clean burn if the wood is properly seasoned and airflow to the fire is set correctly. Wood is a renewable resource, but it can produce more environmentally harmful gasses than natural gas or propane does when it burns.
A gas fireplace or insert does not need a large exhaust flue, which reduces installation cost compared to a wood fireplace. If you already have an existing wood fireplace, it is only necessary to install a flue inside the existing chimney, so new holes are not required in ceilings, floors or walls. Wood burning inserts can also utilize the existing fireplace flue by installing insulated inserts.
If your property does not already have a gas line, then you need to consider the cost of installing one to supply a gas fireplace. In that case, it usually pays to replace your water heater and furnace with gas-fired units as well, since gas companies often shoulder at least some of the installation costs in return for selling more gas or you may be eligible for government rebates.
If you already have a wood fireplace, but do not like the inconvenience of laying a fire, then an inexpensive solution is to add a gas grate or pipe that is used for starting a wood fire. With one of these, you no longer need to split kindling. Just stack the logs and light the gas.
There is no clear winner between a gas and wood fireplace as much of the decision is based on personal preference and pre-existing fuel availability. Do not be too quick to choose wood, however, based solely on its intrinsic realism. Gas fireplaces have come a long way in terms of realism, which is close enough to a wood fire that the other advantages of gas make it a good choice.