COURTESY NW NATURAL  - A gas fireplace can add ambience to a room, and also save energy and cut down on carbon emissions. Gas fireplaces aren’t just for atmosphere any more.

Thanks to design changes in recent years, many gas fireplaces are energy-efficient enough to qualify for state tax credits and Energy Trust of Oregon incentives. That’s a recognition that, if you buy right and use it properly, a gas fireplace can save you energy, which translates into lower carbon emissions and heating bills.

And those willing to part with the romance of a wood-burning fireplace get an added benefit by switching to gas: cleaner air inside their home and in the neighborhood.

These days, gas fireplaces are considered “equally aesthetic and functional,” says John Frankel, NW Natural’s manager of marketing and channel development. “Where you spend a lot of time, that’s where they make the most sense.”

A gas fireplace can heat a living room quite nicely, alleviating the need to turn up the thermostat and needlessly heat the whole house.

“They’re very good zonal heaters in peoples’ homes,” says Harvey Gail, executive director of the Oregon Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

In the past five to 10 years, efficiency ratings on gas fireplaces have climbed into the 70 percent range or better, on par with many gas furnaces. Models now come with an electronic ignition so a pilot light doesn’t have to burn all the time. There’ve also been advances in blowers, glass and burners.

Starting in January, the Oregon Department of Energy began granting state tax credits for gas fireplaces for the first time. Someone buying a fireplace that’s at least 70 percent energy-efficient can get $350 off their state taxes, plus $250 off the purchase price through Energy Trust of Oregon incentives. For models that hit a 75 percent efficiency rating, the state tax credit is $550 and Energy Trust subsidy is $350.

People shopping for a gas fireplace should insist on getting one that’s 70 percent efficient or greater if they want to save energy. That rating is denoted by FE on the label. Make sure to get a direct-vent model. That draws in outside air and vents any exhaust outside the house.

Health benefits from a gas fireplace may be even more compelling if it's replacing a wood-burning stove.

That smoke you see rising from burning wood is incomplete combustion. There can be more than 100 chemicals released from the burning of wood, including carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde, says Todd Hudson, a public health toxicologist for the state Public Health Division.

“Wood stoves create a lot more pollution and more types of pollution than do gas fireplaces,” he says.

The worst problem from woodburning stoves is microscopic particles emitted that are smaller than 2.5 microns, says Rachel Sakata, air-quality planner for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. A human hair has a diameter of about 70 microns.

That largely invisible particulate matter emitted from burning wood can cause a host of respiratory, circulatory and cardiac diseases, some of them potentially fatal.

And the smoke coming from a woodburning stove can even give asthma to a neighbor, Sakata says. “It can be that localized.”

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