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Buy the Fireplace of the Future

If you plan to add a hearth to your home, remember that today's fireplace is a quantum leap ahead of the standard stonework of years past. Our benchmarks are much higher from a design perspective and as a result of air pollution and energy efficiency rules. Manufacturers now offer new, easily-installed units that burn alternative fuels to provide substantial heat, says Better Homes and Gardens Magazine. It's not necessarily made of brick, nor does it have to burn wood.

Still, if you're looking for a traditional, wood-burning fireplace, don't despair, you'll just have to pay more--to the tune of $6,500 to $8,000 installed. Although wood is cheaper than fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), the new units must be designed to meet stiff anti-pollution standards. To do so, they must burn cleanly which means achieving operating temperatures up to 2,000 degrees fahrenheit. The advantage of a super-heated fireplace? All that heat is stored in the brick, stone or tile. Crank the thermostat down and enjoy the radiant warmth for hours after the fire burns out.

At the lower end of the price scale are the popular gas fireplaces--$1,200 to $1,500 installed. As the cleanest, most energy-efficient fuel, gas has several advantages in the fireplace marketplace. First, gas units are easy to install because no chimney is required. Since gas produces no soot or smoke, unlike wood, the most you'll need is a direct-vent to the outside air. Some units require no vent at all because they are exhaust-free. Gas fireplaces also have controls for adjusting heat output which is substantial enough for most rooms. And if you're looking for authenticity, manufacturers have developed sophisticated designs that mimic wood-burning fireplaces or Ben Franklin stoves.

The pellet stove is a compromise for the wood purist who can't quite picture gas as a fuel. Pellets are processed from wood byproducts such as sawdust and mill shavings. These compressed pellets store easily and provide enough energy to burn longer than raw wood. You just scoop a load into the hopper on the side of the stove, and the stove feeds the fire for you--at the rate you choose. Some even come with thermostats. These are powerful little heaters--one model generates up to 30,000 Btus of heat per hour, enough to heat a 1,800 square-foot house. It costs $2,100 and comes with a 45-pound hopper, a durable aluminum heat exchanger, wall-mounted thermostat, and automatic electronic ignition. As a fuel, pellets vary in price depending on the proximity of mills or manufacturers who generate the waste materials used to make them. Check into local fireplace stores for prices in your area.