Are those flames real or fake?

In gathering around the fireplace this winter, families may raise the burning question "Where'd the clicker go?" instead of "Who's stoking the fire?"

The remote control, in this case, is for turning the "fire" on or off and maybe for speeding up the fake flames or adding realistic sound effects.

For those still hauling wood, cleaning out ashes, and searching for chimney sweeps, this may seem strangely futuristic. Actually, it reflects the current state of the fireplace industry, which is increasingly moving toward gas and electric products, which offer more convenience and flexibility.

Many can be installed in any room of the house - some with no need of a vent, much less a chimney. Operation is twist-a-dial or push-button simple, eliminating the need to adjust the flue or wait for the fire to go out before you leave the house or head for bed. And depending on your model, you can unplug your fireplace and take it with you whenever you move.

The flames of electric fireplaces have usually had an artificial appearance. Now, however, the race to make them more realistic is heating up.

Lennox's Reflections' electric fireplace, for example, uses the latest TV and DVD technology to achieve a new level of realism. Rather than relying on light bulbs, spinning wheels, or waving silk to produce impressionistic effects, the unit projects a 3-D image of a burning fire onto manufactured logs.

Heat-N-Glo and Heatilator fireplaces from Hearth & Home Technologies use a flame rod lit by two light bulbs. A motor underneath the firebox creates a sense of flame movement as the light is filtered off the back of the fireplace.

Brian Herzfeld, a Hearth & Home spokesman, says that even industry insiders may not easily distinguish between electric and gas fires, especially if the glass fireplace doors are closed and mesh fireplace screening drawn. From a distance of eight feet, the two look much the same.

Gas fireplaces now dominate the new-home market. Gas not only offers a cleaner-burning, less messy alternative to wood fires, it produces real flames.

When gas fireplaces first hit the market, the flames had a bluish cast. Now improved technology that mixes gas with air has resulted in a more natural-looking yellow fire.

The logs, too, have improved. Made of molded or extruded cement or ceramic material, they resemble a variety of tree species - oak, pine, birch, walnut, and more. An artificial bed of glowing coals and embers often completes the look.

Electric fireplaces offer the ultimate in flexibility, since many models can be plugged into any standard household outlet, whether in a basement, a high-rise condominium, or even a mobile home or RV. Some do not provide any heat, although many come with a low-powered, resistance-type heater that will take the chill off a room.

Still, heat is a secondary consideration in many cases. A study by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association indicates that 58 percent of North Americans look to fireplaces as a source of ambience, instead of warmth.

Gas and electric fireplaces offer real-fire aesthetics in an urban environment - and from the comfort of an easy chair, says Bob Dischner, a Lennox spokesman. He acknowledges that they aren't for purists who enjoy the snap, crackle, and pop of burning logs, their fragrant bouquet, and the opportunity to split wood. "But that's more of a rural experience, and the novelty of it wears off if you're carrying wood upstairs to the fourth floor," he says.

Wood fireplaces have a couple of key advantages over their electric cousins, though. They work even during a power outage, and they're perfect for roasting marshmallows, which isn't an option with a DVD-generated flame.

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