There’s something undeniably soothing about an evening spent with family and friends gathered around the fire. The crackle of the wood, the subtle colors of the flames, the gentle warmth permeating the room. It’s no wonder fires are so popular with log home owners.

Of course, how you bring your fire to life is a matter of personal taste. For many home owners, the idea of roaring flames and the look of a large, majestic fireplace go hand-in-hand with the log home ambiance. For others, that same role can be filled with a cast-iron wood-burning stove nestled unobtrusively in a corner.

Whatever your preference, the choices of product and design are seemingly endless, with something available to fit just about any budget. As with all home-building decisions, however, research and planning are vital.

The Case for a Fireplace

“Just about everyone wants a fireplace,” says Mona Winebrenner of Winebrenner Log Homes in Indiana. “When designing their homes, people would rather give up log rafters than the fireplace. They have a mental picture of what a log home should look like and a fireplace is almost always part of that picture.”

Happily, there’s a fireplace to fit just about anyone’s picture-perfect image of a night in front of the fire. Perhaps the most common are wood-burning fireplaces, constructed of either masonry or metal. Many of these are what’s known as open combustion—meaning they don’t require doors for operation.

Without doors, there’s no way to control air flow, so open combustion fireplaces tend to burn wood faster than closed combustion units and lose heat more quickly after the fire dies down. Because of this limitation, open combustion fireplaces are best if your goal is to create atmosphere and you only expect to use the fireplace infrequently.

If you want your fireplace to provide some substantial heat, closed combustion models with either glass or metal doors are a better choice. The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HBPA), mentions two designs: clean-burning and EPA-certified. Each provides energy efficient heating, burning with less intensity but with more even heat distribution than open combustion systems. And, as their names suggest, they burn more cleanly.

Another fireplace option is the masonry heater. This kind of hearth provides several benefits. It creates a quick, hot fire, which produces heat while reducing wood consumption and emissions. It retains heat within the stone itself, so it continues to give off warmth as the fire dies down. And it releases heat radiantly, meaning the heat emanates evenly from the entire stone mass. Some masonry heater companies even provide added features in their units, such as baking ovens or cooking surfaces.

Wood-burning fireplaces can achieve grand proportions, whether they include factory-built fire boxes or ones crafted from real stone masonry. Most often, you need a professional to build and install a masonry fireplace. But don’t let that discourage you from getting your hands dirty. “Almost anybody who can follow directions can build their own fireplace,” says Jim Buckley, owner of Buckley Rumford Fireplaces in Port Townsend, Washington. Just keep in mind that “it just might cost more because it will take longer.”

Because of the extraordinary weight involved, a real stone fireplace requires a reinforced foundation. However, fireplaces faced with fabricated stone might not need the reinforcement. “It’s a lot less weight than real stone,” says Mona, who owns a manufactured stone fireplace. “But to be on the safe side, we usually build up the foundation even with the cultured stone.”

Lightweight Alternatives

If you’re looking for a fireplace that is less expensive and easier to install, zero-clearance units are an option. These are basically metal boxes lined with fire brick and designed to fit snugly and safely into wooden frames.

“It’s a fireplace that many people are going to,” says Greg Diederich of Wisconsin Log Homes in Green Bay. “Nearly every home seems to have a fireplace in it, and about 50 percent of those are zero-clearance. It’s kind of a rarity these days that people will actually put in a full-blown masonry fireplace.”

Zero-clearance units are not only less expensive, they’re lighter, so you don’t need to build up the foundation to support them. Many zero-clearance units also run on gas, so you can have the ambiance of a fireplace without having to cut and handle wood or clean up ashes afterward. Gas-burning fireplaces create the illusion of gentle flames using natural gas or propane and realistic-looking logs. “It’s been a really popular item with our customers,” Mona says. “We sell two wood-burning units for every 10 gas.”

Gas fireplaces are available with three venting options, including one that requires no exterior venting at all. This means you can install a gas fireplace almost anywhere in the home. Often, units that require vents can be exhausted through the back of a wall, rather than up a chimney. “You don’t need an outdoor chimney, but we usually put one up for the look of it,” Mona says.

There are many design options for every type of fireplace, from wood-burning to gas. Some manufacturers provide multi-sided designs, allowing you to cozy up to two, three or even four sides of the fire. Manufacturers of metal and gas fireplaces have created hundreds of product options, each designed to fit just about any decor. One thing to keep in mind is that fireplaces do require upkeep. The HBPA recommends you have your fireplace, and the chimney it connects to, inspected and cleaned annually.

Stoves: A Less Costly Option

If you’re looking for a different heating option on those crisp fall evenings, you might want to turn to a less expensive alternative: the stove. Fireplaces can cost from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, primarily as a result of materials and installation. However a wood-burning stove usually runs between $600 and $2,000, according to Alan Rogalette of Stoves Unlimited. And while many people think wood-burning stoves have a limited lifespan, that’s a myth, according to the HBPA. A properly maintained, well-built stove can last just as long as a masonry fireplace.

The three primary types of stoves available today are wood, gas and pellet (oil and coal-burning stoves are less popular but still available as well). According to the HPBA, today’s wood-burning stoves are far different from the ones sold 20 and 30 years ago. These days, stoves provide significantly better fuel efficiency. In fact, all wood-burning stoves sold after 1992 require Environmental Protection Agency certification, meaning they produce less than 7.5 grams of smoke per hour compared to approximately 42 grams of smoke emitted from older models.

Wood-burning stoves are available in a variety of styles, with the choice coming down to how much heat you want the stove to provide. Smaller models are perfect for ambiance; set back in a corner, they provide soothing, flickering flames and gentle warmth. Larger models can supplement a heating system and provide warmth to several rooms.

“For log homes and cabins, a lot of people are sticking with wood-burning stoves,” Alan says. “Either that or gas stoves that look like the wood-burning stoves.”

When designing a room around a stove, keep in mind how you’ll vent it. To exhaust a wood-burning stove, you need a straight insulated pipe running up and out through the ceiling like a thin chimney. “Wood stoves have to be vented this way because you’re using Mother Nature—or draft—to remove the exhaust,” Alan says.

On the other hand, units that burn gas provide a little more flexibility and freedom. Gas stoves, which are fueled by either natural gas or propane, can be installed in just about any room of the house and are available as either B-vent (through the ceiling or up an existing chimney), direct vent (through a wall) or vent-free. Many models let you control heat via a wall thermostat or even a remote control.<

Practical Pellet Stoves

Pellet stoves are perhaps the most economical of the wood-burning stove options. In fact, the HPBA calls pellet stoves “the lowest emission solid-fuel burning hearth product available.” Fueled with compressed recycled sawdust, they offer several advantages, including an automated feed system that keeps the stove going with little or no tending on your part. When you add power-venting, you can install a pellet stove almost anywhere in your home where there’s an electrical outlet. Vents can go almost anywhere—through the roof, out the wall, even through existing chimneys.

Whatever the choice, fireplaces and stoves add an air of comfort and warmth to any room. And that’s reason enough to keep those home fires burning.