Drafty fireplaces meet their match (© EcoSmart Fire; Hearth & Home Technologies)Click to enlarge picture

From left, the EcoSmart Zeta and Heat & Glo Solaris are part of a new breed of fireplaces. // © EcoSmart Fire; © Hearth & Home Technologies

When James and Maryam Shapland need to tend the living-room fire this winter, they'll reach for a remote control instead of the iron tongs.

With cold weather approaching, the Shaplands are relieved to have finally plugged up their fireplace, which Maryam Shapland called their energy-inefficient hole in the wall in their 1940s Minnesota home. Its replacement: a gas-fired unit that resembles a flat-screen TV with flames dancing along a bed of flat ceramic stones.

The new Heat & Glo Cosmo gas unit, which cost $4,500 installed and is operated by remote-control thermostat, "warms the room up immediately," she says. A fireplace "didn't actually make the house warm unless you were standing right next to it." (Bing: Can you get a tax credit for your new fireplace?)

More homeowners are looking to the hearth as a supplemental heat source to their house's main furnace or boiler, sometimes using them to heat individual rooms instead of the entire home. But many are discovering that the romantic crackle of an open fire doesn't actually add much sizzle to energy savings.

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Some, like the Shaplands, are making changes by inserting new, efficient appliances into existing fireplace openings. Others are buying stand-alone units that sit in the middle of the room and swivel 180 degrees or hang like a painting on the wall.

Replacement units gain popularity
After a difficult 2009 when home building stagnated, manufacturers say fresh designs and novel fuel options are helping drive sales, particularly in existing homes.

Slide show:  Hearths get hot

Take the $10,900 EcoSmart Fire Zeta, a portable, 42-inch-wide leather, stainless-steel and plywood fireplace that's fueled by bioethanol and resembles a giant Apple MacBook. Or the $5,998 Quadra-Fire Edge 60 from Hearth & Home Technologies of Lakeville, Minn. It's a sleek, prefabricated fireplace with a sealed door, and it can run on fuels such as compressed wood pellets, sunflower seeds and wheat kernels.

"We just dump in a bag of pellets in the morning, and it burns through the day," says Janette Eggiman, who installed an Edge 60 in her Roseburg, Ore., home in 2009. "It's clean and easy."

Even for those heating with old-fashioned wood, there's a widening array of updated appliances bearing scant resemblance to your grandfather's potbelly stove. Sales of items from HearthStone Quality Home Heating Products Inc.'s contemporary "eurocollection" are up 10% to 15% this year, the Morrisville, Vt., company says. That includes HearthStone's Bari wood stove that rotates to allow a view of the flames from different rooms.

"These are real efficient," HearthStone President Dave Kuhfahl says, "but they are also fun to watch, like a light show."

More consumers open to closed units
Open fireplaces were a staple before the days of centralized heating. There are 28 of them in the White House alone.

In the 1950s, manufacturers began supplanting masonry fireplaces with prefabricated units that were easy to install, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. About 44% of U.S. households now have at least one fireplace.

But while they are pleasant for ambience, most open, wood-burning fireplaces today are about 10% efficient, with most of the wood's energy going up the chimney, according to the hearth association. An open fire also feeds on room air and can actually draw heat out of a home.

More consumers are upgrading to closed units that burn with efficiency of 75% or more. The federal government is encouraging the switch with a tax credit of 30% of the cost of the installed new stove, up to $1,500, for some efficient units that burn renewable, biomass materials such as wood and pellets. The credit expires Dec. 31.

Andrew Weiss took advantage of the credit this spring when he and his partner, Marc Osterweil, installed a modern wood-burning stove insert from Danish manufacturer Morso in their 105-year-old home's fireplace.

"At first we loved it," Weiss says of the old fireplace. But as fuel costs increased, "I began to wish (the fireplace) were a source of heat versus a source of expense."