Gas units are also tried-and-true alternatives to wood-burning models. Consisting of factory-built fireboxes with glass doors, gas units are typically speced for their aesthetic value. HPBA says “heater-rated” units will provide efficiency and heat output similar to a central furnace. Other models feature ducting to circulate heat throughout a particular zone of a house. “Heated units have air exchangers and a thermostat so a homeowner can control the heat,” HPBA's Crouch explains. “It burns cleanly and gives off only a tiny amount of emissions.”

Purists might cringe at the thought, but electric fireplaces—which use light and reflective material to simulate flames—can deliver the cheery appeal of fire without the concerns associated with gas or wood. “You are not piercing the building envelope, so there is no opportunity for outside air or moisture to penetrate the interior,” explains Martyn Champ, president, Dimplex North America, Cambridge, Ontario. An electric unit can, therefore, be installed anywhere in the house. A built-in electric unit on a 220-volt circuit will give off about 10,000 BTUs per hour, which is comparable to a traditional fireplace, Champ says. The company even offers a unit that has a built-in hypoaller-genic air-purification system.

intelligent design

EcoSmart is another relatively new hearth product. The flueless, environmentally friendly, open fireplace burns denatured alcohol, which comes from sugar cane, wheat, bananas, and other biodegradable items.

“The byproduct of the burning process is carbon dioxide and heat,” explains Paul Fiermonte, president of Chicago-based Casamonte, one of the product's distributors. Manufactured by The Fire Co. in Sydney, Australia, EcoSmart fireplaces don't require any installation or utility connection for the fuel supply. They're available in builtin renovator models or as burner kits for greater design versatility. Fiermonte says the fireplace gives off about 13,000 BTUs per hour and holds a 5-liter can that will burn for eight, 12, or 24 hours, depending on the setting.

match point

Specing an eco-friendly hearth is a fairly straightforward and inexpensive process. At $1,000 to $4,000 a pop, most of the units discussed here fit most budgets. (Tulikivi fireplaces can exceed $20,000, however.) Of course, you'll still need to consider jurisdictional limitations, which vary from state to state, and adhere to appropriate chimney placement requirements.

Once these determinations are made, it's simply a matter of selecting the right unit—a task Crouch says is easier than ever and will grow even more important in the years to come. “As energy prices have demonstrated over the last year, it makes more and more sense to design a home with more than one way to keep warm,” he says.

Warmth, energy efficiency, and clean-burning good looks—with eco-friendly fireplaces, you can conjure all the comforts of grandma's house, and safeguard the earth for her great-grandchildren.