There Are Benefits to Forward-Thinking Fireplaces

Many area homeowners are responding to an increase in particulate matter pollution by replacing their wood-burning fireplaces with more eco-friendly gas fireplaces.


Eco-friendly gas fireplaces can be used anytime. Lo is glad she replaced hers and uses it more than the old fireplace.

Photo by Paul Haggard

Last winter, there were 19 Spare the Air Alerts. For almost three weeks, particulate matter pollution reached unhealthy levels in the Bay Area — from man-made sources and from the fires that ravaged the state. Exposure to particulate matter or soot can cause a variety of ailments, including lung irritation, inflammation of lung tissue, and even changes in blood chemistry, which can lead to blood clots and heart attacks. During a winter Spare the Air Alert, it’s illegal to burn wood in stoves or fireplaces.

Many area homeowners are responding to this increase in pollution by replacing their wood-burning fireplaces with more eco-friendly gas fireplaces. For example, Cathy Lo of Kensington chose a contemporary-styled unit to replace a two-story fireplace during the remodel of her mid-century ranch home. Besides being an earthquake hazard, the original red-brick fireplace was difficult to maintain and a safety hazard to her two small children. Rainwater also would seep through the bricks and trickle into the house.

“We never used the fireplace. It essentially became storage space with baskets full of toys,” Lo said.

Lo chose to demolish the fireplace and replace the hole in her home’s metal roof with a skylight. She and her architect opted to fabricate a limestone facade to house a new gas fireplace. She chose a Montigo brand corner unit from Kidd Fireplace in Oakland with white pebbles instead of faux-logs for a more modern look. A vent was installed inside the facade (similar to that of a stove) to direct the fumes outside.

For those who wish to keep their existing fireplaces, a gas-insert unit can be vented up the chimney, with intake and exhaust hoses, explained Perry Franklin of Kidd Fireplaces. “The size of your fireplace opening determines what model of insert you can get. From there, you can choose what type of look you prefer and what kind of bells and whistles you want.”

More traditionally styled gas inserts include faux logs with faux brick backgrounds. Other options include driftwood, stones, pebbles, and glass in many shapes, colors, and sizes. Inserts are produced as contained units with a mandatory safety screen so you don’t burn yourself on the glass. Some have dual burners, enabling those more interested in ambience, rather than warmth, to control the amount of emitted heat. The dual burner option is popular for mild Bay Area winters.

A standard gas insert fireplace, plus installation, starts at $5,500 and can cost up to $9,000 for fancy models. For about $1,000, a gas log set can be installed directly into a fireplace and uses the existing chimney for ventilation. Note that gas logs sets don’t emit as much heat as gas inserts.

Lo and her family use their new gas fireplace at family gatherings, mostly for ambience. With a touch of a button on the remote, a line of orange flames flickers and warms the room as the winter fog rolls in through the Golden Gate, which can be seen from her living room.