Real Estate

Keeping the home fires burning

Even on Spare the Air days, gas-burning fireplaces bring warmth, atmosphere

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.

Freelance writer Joshua Alvarez can be emailed at

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1 person likes this
Posted by Woody Heatmaker
a resident of Woodside
on Feb 1, 2015 at 12:34 am

So you don't think that the whole idea is a set up from the Natural Gas Industry and its projected profit from day one? They have been pouring PR dollar through the Sierra Club, the corrupted John Beale and Robert Brenner run EPA air quality dept. and the American Lung Association. Sounds outlandish, yet there is evidence that that sponsorship relationship happened. How many carbon monoxide deaths have occurred from natural gas compared to a wood fuelled system? Isn't methane fairly serious too? Don't asthmatics react to natural gas too? How roughly estimated, and roughly compared are your risks that you preach from naturally formed 'particulate matter'? What is safer about natursl gas emissions trapped inside an inversion? Why, for heat would anyone swap to a commercialised, economised - politisised, market floppy 'apparently cleaner' fossil fuel when they could use a fuel many times more sustainable, and in it's production no doubtedly 'cleaner'.

11 people like this
Posted by CaresAboutHealth
a resident of another community
on Feb 4, 2015 at 3:36 pm

Wood Heatmaker is clearly suffering from the Fireplace Delusion -

The UN Environment Program (UNEP), the World Meteorological Association (WMO) and the American Lung Association all offer impartial advice that people should switch to clean heating instead of burning wood. It's a classic case of trying to shoot the messenger instead of listening to what is said.

The American Lung Association urges the public to avoid wood burning and to consider cleaner burning alternatives. Burning wood emits harmful toxins and fine particles into the air that can worsen asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “Breathing particle pollution – or soot –can shorten life and send those most at risk to the emergency room,” said Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD

The UNEP/WMO also recommend phasing out log-burning heaters in developed countries to reduce climate change as well as improve health -

2 people like this
Posted by Tin Foil Hat Vendor
a resident of another community
on Feb 4, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Oh I just love comments like Woody's.

9 people like this
Posted by Illusory
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2015 at 6:00 pm

Fireplaces are very, very inefficient ways to heat a room. Heat rises, and most of the heat goes up the chimney with the smoke.

BTW, thanx, Woody, for your part in making my asthma so severe this winter that I had to spend five days in the hospital--something that hadn't happened to me since 2006.

4 people like this
Posted by no rain no fire
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 4, 2015 at 6:56 pm

The forecast is for several days of rain this week. If you want to light a fire, do it while it is raining. Thank you.

4 people like this
Posted by Vic Steblin
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 4, 2015 at 6:58 pm

We don't need that much gas either. When gas came to our city in 1978, we all rushed to convert to gas, which cleaned up the air. Then in the 90's many of us rushed to put in all sorts of gas units. I added a $3500 unit to our solarium, used it once, since it was on an outside wall, and haven't used it since. ONE TIME in over 20 years, how stupid. I also disconnected the gas unit in the downstairs family room a few years back,... it was totally unused. I plugged up all the old chimneys with insulation and caps. Now we have a high efficiency unit that vents to the side, takes out the water, a DC motor, and programmable thermostat.... set to 65F often, no problem. How can gas be so toxic like some claim? Look up basic chemistry! I can breathe in the heat from that side vent, not like wood smoke! Home heat in Palo Alto, California, 1000 of kms below northern Canada and they need heat? Get real!

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2015 at 11:36 pm

When will Asian countries fall into compliance with our Spare The Air days?

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 1, 2015 at 10:03 am

I do not burn wood in my fireplace - the smoke would go up the chimney as well as smudge the front of the fireplace.
Good idea - I put is an expandable candle holder that would typically be used as a center piece. Holds six candles - three bigger in back and three shorter in front. This looks great when lit and okay when not lit. Color of candles matching the holidays.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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