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Faux fires: cleaner, safer way to warm up on winter nights

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There's nothing like the warmth and crackle of a real log fire.

Or is there?From an electric glow with an aluminum foil crinkle to the real flame that comes from gas jets, all kinds of fires or pseudo-fires can warm you - at least mentally - on a cold winter's night.

Faux fireplaces aren't new - a friend in New York has original gas logs in a 1904 brownstone apartment. But they really took off about 1970, according to Joe Forshaw, whose family has been selling stoves and such for four generations.

"I think there are a lot of people who have built real log fires for 10 years who now just don't want to go to the trouble any more," Forshaw says. "You get home late, finish dinner at maybe 8:30 and think: `Do I want to go to all that trouble for an hour or so and then leave the damper open all night?' "

For homeowners used to real flames, gas logs are a close second. They come in just about any configuration, from small stacks to large, split logs and whole oak and birch. The flame is real, more glowing embers have been added to new models, and for crackle, you can pop in a pine cone full of powder that crackles when it gets hot. The logs alone range from $500 to $600.

Gas logs require the same venting as a real wood-burning fireplace. "Don't try to solve a problem fireplace with gas logs," Forshaw says. "If it's not working with wood, it won't work with gas logs, either."

But if your fireplace is in working order, gas logs will save you the trouble of cutting, buying, storing and carrying wood.

And for the ultimate in ease, choose gas logs with a remote off/on switch. It's especially nice for a bedroom, where you'd rather not climb out from under those warm blankets to turn off the fire.

The new ventless gas logs are another story. They can be installed to look like a real fireplace - or they can be offbeat, such as a fire burning under your kitchen counter.

Manufacturers say the flame burns so cleanly that no venting is necessary. But some people are leery of the small percentage of gas fumes that escapes.

"It's a good idea to leave a window cracked," Forshaw says. The units have an oxygen sensor designed to automatically turn off the flame if the amount of oxygen in a room falls below a certain level. Nevertheless, OSHA standards do not allow ventless gas fireplaces to be installed in bedrooms. Ventless gas logs are priced about the same as gas logs.

If you don't want to bother with installing a gas line, consider the Anyplace Fireplace, a self-contained unit that burns canned gelled alcohol fuel similar to Sterno. Stefanie McKay, who lives in a high-rise apartment, moves her Anyplace, well, anyplace she wants to.

"I live in a condo, so it's a godsend for me because I can't run a gas line. It burns for three hours for less than $2," says McKay, the local representative for the Anyplace Fireplace.

"It snaps, crackles and pops, and you can even roast marshmallows over it if you want to. It will take the chill off a room, but it's strictly for ambience and mood. I move my living room one around. I can put it right up in front of sheer curtains at the French doors."

The Anyplace Fireplace sells through dealers for about $249. It has an automatic shut-off sensor that smothers the fire in case someone knocks it over.

If real flames make you nervous but you like the idea of a fireplace, an electric fire is the easiest of all to install. Just plug it in and turn on the switch. First made in England by the Berrylog Co., new models come in an assortment of styles, priced between $87 to about $350.

Some come with a fringe of aluminum foil that turns and crackles (it sounds fairly real, at least for the first few minutes), and others have undulating ribbons behind an orange screen to represent flames.

And if all else fails, you can order a video for your TV screen - 800-485-0944; $12.95 for one hour, $19.95 for six hours. It crackles, too. But you can't hang your Christmas stockings on the television set. Or can you?