by Joshua Alvarez
Bay Area temperatures dipped below freezing on New Year's Day and remained frigid during the first week of the year, which allowed fireplaces to take up their original mantle of turning refrigerated homes into warm sanctuaries.
But residents wanting to thaw themselves in front of their wood-burning fireplaces were prohibited by a record streak of Spare the Air days -- which hit 16 by late January.
According to the Spare the Air program website, when a Spare the Air Alert has been declared, "burning wood, fire logs, pellets, or any other solid fuels in your fireplace, wood stove, or other wood-burning device is illegal." Ironically, the alert season runs through winter (Nov. 1 through the end of February), which is when a fireplace would be of most use.
Violators of the rule are subject to monetary fines. First-time violators can take a wood-smoke awareness class or pay a $100 ticket. Second violations result in a $500 ticket and subsequent ticket amounts increase.
The regulation, however, does not apply to gas-burning fireplaces. For residents with gas-burning fireplaces, staying warm during cold Spare the Air days is just one of the advantages over wood.
"We've been told how much more efficient they are in producing heat than a traditional wood-burning fireplace, so much so that we could probably turn off our furnace when we are running it," said Katherine Pompili of Palo Alto. She is replacing her wood-burning fireplace with a gas one she purchased from The Energy House in San Carlos as part of a remodel.
Gas-burning fireplaces also don't carry the same health and environmental risks as do wood-burning fireplaces.
"We went with gas because of environmental and health concerns. We didn't think all the smoke going into the air was good for us or our indoor cat who has asthma yes, our cat has asthma," said Geri Hampshire, another Palo Alto resident. During a remodel a few years ago she had her contractor run a gas line to her fireplace. She purchased gas logs from The Fireplace Element in Mountain View.
However, installation fees and accessories like doors and screens can be very expensive. Hampshire used her contractor to install the fireplace and she purchased doors and screens from Amazon, which she said saved her more than $1,000.
Burning wood also comes with logistical hassles. Logs must be kept dry, and a fire must be physically started and then manually sustained. The convenience of gas allows owners to pick and choose when to have a fire.
"Now we even turn it on for an hour or two on cold mornings. We could never do that with a log fire," Hampshire said.
That said, there are some things a gas fireplace can't replace.
"There is something magical and captivating about a wood-burning fireplace: the light and warmth of it," Pompili said. Nonetheless, for Pompili the benefits of gas outweigh the natural aesthetic of wood.
Hampshire also appreciates the look of burning logs, and her gas logs are carefully arranged to reproduce a natural aesthetic.
"The logs have really improved over the years. There are burn marks on the logs and glowing embers. It looks really good," she said.
For others, the benefits of a gas system could be better.
"My only complaint is that there is no set-back function whereby it can be programmed to go on early in the morning to warm the living room and kitchen without the furnace needing to heat the whole house," said Bob Millavec of Palo Alto.
Since the Spare the Air regulation was instituted in 2008, gas fireplaces have been selling at a steady clip, said Amy Barthelemy, manager of The Fireplace Element.
"Gas fireplaces have become popular for two reasons: Spare the Air days and also they are more user-friendly than wood," she said. Starting a fire is as easy as pressing a button on a remote control, which can also control settings like the strength and look of the flames.
Barthelemy has had customers report that installing a gas fireplace has led to utility savings. "Gas fireplaces use less gas than the house heating system typically does, so they're environmentally friendly, too."
Most gas fireplace customers go shopping during the holidays. "The majority of them are people who have never used their wood fireplaces and want to make their space functional and more visually appealing," Barthelemy said. "Over the past few years I've also had more wood burners coming in who are sick of the Spare the Air days," Barthelemy said.
In the long run, log fireplaces may be pushed into obsolescence by regulations, residents' environmental concerns and utility efficiency. Gas fireplaces can spare, and warm, the air.