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Fireplaces have gone high tech and become more energy efficient.

As winter approaches, the fireplace becomes a focal point in a home. And today, that generally means a gas burning system instead of the traditional wood burning versions.

When converting a wood burning fireplace to gas, the least expensive way to upgrade is a vented gas burning system. The downside of a vented system is that you lose much of the radiant heat from the gas fire right up the chimney, just as you did when you were burning wood.

For a fireplace that will help you heat a room, a direct vent gas burning system can be a better option.

“The majority of my customers who want to upgrade their fireplace are looking at direct vent systems,” said Tim Godderris, a fireplace specialist at Randazzo Heating, Cooling and Fireplaces, (888) 884-3322, callrandazzo.com. “The advantage is that direct vent fireplaces can range from 17,000 to 45,000 BTUs and have the capability to heat space in your home from 800 square feet to 2000 square feet.”

Godderris said that these direct-vent fireplaces vent directly through the wall and have improved their energy efficiency over the years.

“Most furnaces range from 45,000 BTUs to 135,000, so turning the furnace down and turning up the fireplace when you are using certain rooms can be more cost effective while providing the heat you need,” Godderris said.

He said homeowners with a traditional fireplace can get a direct-vent insert installed, and they can be used for new construction and in older homes without a fireplace. The costs to install these units range from around $3,800 up to $5,000 depending on the type of façade you want on the exterior.

For another fireplace alternative, consider a vent-free fireplace insert, which draws its combustion air from inside the home and is designed to burn so efficiently that it eliminates the need for venting.

When buying a gas fireplace insert, make sure you get the most energy-efficient system by comparing the Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency rating, which takes into account all of the energy used as the appliance cycles on and off and gets up to a target temperature. The rating ranges upward to 100, so look for products with an AFUE rating of 78 or higher.

While gas fireplace systems have become more efficient over the years, they also enable you to use remote-control technology to control everything from the flame to the amount of heat it provides.

“Today’s fireplace remotes now allow you to program your fireplace to go on and off according to your lifestyle, just like a programmable thermostat,” said Steve Tremills, national sales manager for Skytech (skytechpg.com), a manufacturer of fireplace remote control systems.

“The remotes also come with touch screen models similar to a smart phone and we are seeing a lot of people with older gas systems that had a wall switch upgrade to these higher tech remotes,” he said.

If you have a newer gas system, you can generally add a remote system for under $300, but Godderris from Randazzo said that a new remote-controlled gas system would run between $1,100 and $2,000 installed.

Even if you are happy with the type of gas fireplace system you have, you can upgrade those old log sets with the newer logs. Today’s logs are made with sturdier materials, such as refractory cement, can deliver a higher range of BTUs to help generate more heat, and some even come with a limited lifetime warranty. Manufacturers of these log sets include Monessen, monessenhearth.com, and RealFrye from RH Peterson, rhpeterson.com.

So there are plenty of options and price ranges to choose from when upgrading a fireplace, or adding a new one to a home.

If you would like to suggest a question for this column, e-mail askglenn@masterhandyman.com. If you want to talk to Glenn Haege, call his “Handyman Show” on WJR-AM (760) at (866) ASK GLENN, (866) 275-4536, between noon and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. “The Handyman Show” can be heard on more than 130 radio stations.

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