Nothing beats a fire in the fireplace on a cold night, but wood burning fires can be really tedious, smoky and dangerous, so many of our clients have chosen to use gas fireplaces in their homes instead. There are a lot of factors going into installing a gas fireplace, or turning a wood burning fireplace into a gas one, and I get a lot of questions about our see through gas fireplace, so I thought I’d delve into the topic a little bit today.
In our living room, there was a classic one-sided wood burning fireplace when we bought the house. We loved having a fireplace, but even when burning just a fire log, our house got really smokey and I’d get a headache – never mind having to wait until it’s fully out to go to bed. So when we did the addition of our family room, we decided to turn it to gas. Actually, we made the call before then, when we renovated our basement! While the ceiling was open we ran the gas line across the basement in preparation for someday turning it to gas. When we designed the family room addition, it seemed a shame to not have a fireplace to enjoy in there. But we also did not want to close up the living room side, either – so instead we thought, why not see through!? Back to back fireplaces that are not see through require two flues and a lot of depth, which we did not have, but there used to be a fireplace directly below this one in our basement (thus there were two flues) so see through was an option.
It also connects the rooms nicely and allows for a more open feel.
Now, the real trick to making any wood burning fireplace a convincing gas fireplace is to use just a gas log set, NOT a gas insert! If you already have a chimney and a masonry firebox, it is THE way to go! That is what we have and it feels way more like a real fire than insert fires. We had louvered custom glass doors made for both sides and that allows for excellent venting. Although I will warn you – the see through element is a little louder than I thought – the wind across the chimney seems to reverberate. It doesn’t get super hot, which I like. We plan to turn the large wood burning fireplace in our new house into gas by utilizing a good gas log set!
When it comes to inserts, it’s all about the quality, shape and interior finishes. This is a good example – the brick interior and flush to the ground opening makes it look much more like a wood-burning fireplace. I like kinds that have skinny frames around the fixed glass best. And then it’s all about the mantel, surround and hearth. Many times with inserts, you won’t need a hearth, but they make the fireplace way more convincing to have one! This one we did in Danby marble (like mine) and a gorgeous cast stone mantel from Chesney’s, giving it a more modern touch.
This insert is an example of a traditional, often-seen insert – the thicker metal surround and height off the floor make it a little less realistic (this was existing to the house). A nice large wood millwork mantle makes it feel in line with the traditional lines of the room though. Your choices in gas inserts are determined by the type of venting system you have in place or plan to put in place – there are ventless systems and those that are vented either through a chimney or out through an exterior wall. Read more from This Old House about each type.
We also are planning a vented insert fireplace in our new house so follow along as we get our fireplace game going strong!
Photography by Michael J. Lee
Some options I like:
Vented gas fireplace with herringbone liner
Insert with brick liner
Gas log set
We have one of these gas log sets.
Just last week, we had our 1980s gas log set replaced. What a difference it made! The folks from the fireplace store came out and cleaned out our firebox, repainted the back, and installed the gas logs. By the way, they told us to always have the glass doors open when there’s a fire. We ordered a new facade for our firebox. Unfortunately, we’d have to take our whole masonry fireplace down to the studs in order to pull out our old firebox and replace it, so the facade will give a fresh look without all that expense. I really love the look of brick behind the fire, but apparently there’s no way to add that to a firebox that’s meant to just be painted. I never knew there were so many options and decisions about a fireplace before delving into this update project. Are there rules about a floating mantel, like how high above the firebox, width of mantel vs firebox width, etc? That’s our next update. Thanks for your tips!
Great post and timely for me as I’m building a house and need to design the fireplace, etc. Who makes the gas log set in your last photo?
I wish I read this post 10 years ago! We have an insert. I always thought it looked realistic until I saw a gas log inset!
When we built our home some years ago we had 2 fireplaces put in…using a masonry chimney. We wanted the option of wood, but decided to immediately put gas in each. Our main floor fireplace works beautifully and we never have any backflow smoke. This is not the case with our lower level gas fireplace. We’ve had 2 fireplace companies out and they both said the same thing. Because the chimney is over 2 stories high and the lower level fireplace is below grade we aren’t getting enough draft up the chimney. The only thing we can do when we want to use the lower level one, is create a draft up the chimney before we light the gas flame. We do this by lighting a rolled up section of newspaper, holding it inside the fireplace to warm the air. This creates the draft needed and then we can light it. Needless to say, we don’t use that fireplace very often.
Sometime in the last century, we installed gas logs in the main fireplace of our house built 1910. It already had a gas line with a key in the floor to start the flow of gas. (I don’t know when this was installed. In our area, many houses have these, installed in the ’30s and ’40s, for certain.) I didn’t want a standing pilot, so we kept the key arrangement and have to light the logs each time we want a fire. It’s a hassle, and we haven’t used the fireplace since sometime in the ’90s. Our vacation home has a gas insert with a remote start. The convenience means we use it all the time. It’s also rated as a furnace, so that in the event of a power outage, it could heat the condo (battery powered back-up). The condo’s gas furnace has electronic ignition, so the fireplace could save the day, though it’s never come into play. I have been toying with converting the logs to an insert for the last couple of years, though maybe I should just consider an easier mode of lighting the logs.
Than you for this post, Erin! We are building a new home and have a see through wood burning fireplace (Great room through to Master bedroom) planned, the same as the house we are in now. We love it and have always disliked the unrealistic look of a gas version; however your great options are giving me second thoughts! Thank you!
A timely post as my husband and I were just discussing the protentional of tackling this project. Appreciate all the good advice in this post.
We are so fortunate to have 3 wood burning fireplaces in our 1835 home. Purists at heart we uncharacteristically decided to convert the kitchen fireplace to gas. We chose the exact same log set from Peterson but sadly, ours are still in the box waiting for the plumber. Your blog confirmed that it will be worth the wait!
Seeing this post reminded me about what happened to my 8 year old granddaughter several years ago and felt that I should warn parents about a danger you cannot see. It was a cold day and so my granddaughter decided to read in front of the fireplace, to keep warm. Unfortunately, she leaned back and her bare upper arm touched the glass and she suffered 1st and 2nd degree burns. She had to wear a silicone sleeve over the scar for a year afterwards and be sure to always wear sunscreen to prevent scarring and discoloration. It was very traumatizing for her and the family, of course. Teach your kids that the glass doors are very hot and of course don’t leave little one’s unattended in a room with a burning fire. I know, in our family, it had never occurred to us about this safety issue in regard to the heated glass doors.
Perfect timing! I am looking at converting my fireplace. Thx for sharing!
We had a gas fireplace and replaced it with a gas starter wood burning fireplace. Never has any issues with smoke. We found a tall wood grate that allowed the proper air flow.
Hi Erin! We just had this exact set of gas logs installed in our fireplace (just waiting on the town inspector). You always keep your fireplace doors open while its burning?
With a see through you have to keep one set of doors open for air flow, with a single opening I’m not sure if you have to?
Hi Erin – do you have any recommendations for sources for fireplace screens and fireplace tools? Also would love your thoughts on fireplace styling tips. Could be a fun blog!