With pressure growing to ban natural gas in the home, experts explain what it takes to change a gas fireplace to wood-burning or electric
January 24, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST
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For homeowners who enjoy the simplicity of pushing a button to create instant, cozy ambiance, gas fireplaces have long been the obvious choice. But amid growing pressure to ban natural gas in homes, preferences are changing.
For the past several years, an increasing number of places, concerned about carbon emissions, have begun passing or exploring natural gas bans, moving in the direction of making newly constructed and renovated homes fully electric.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission revealed this month that it’s weighing restrictions on gas stoves, while California is on track to become the first state to ban the sale of new gas furnaces and appliances. At the end of 2022, Montgomery County, Md., passed the first countywide ban on the East Coast, slated to take effect at the end of 2026. While these measures exclude gas fireplaces, the momentum against natural gas in the home is clear.
“What’s the big picture? We have to get to carbon neutrality by mid-century,” says Laurie Kerr, principal climate adviser at the U.S. Green Building Council. “What does that mean for homeowners? … We are going to have to gradually transition away from using natural gas in our houses in the next 15 to 25 years.”
Even if the bans continue to leave out fireplaces, homeowners who cap off their natural gas supply entirely won’t have any choice but to find a new option. “Eventually, that gas fireplace is going to have to go,” Kerr says.
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Switching from gas to wood-burning
The complexity of converting a gas fireplace to wood-burning varies depending on the home. But whatever the case, this is not a DIY project. “You want a confident professional to ensure that the work is quality,” says architect Elizabeth Emerson, co-founder of the D.C. firm EL Studio.
Although Emerson says some of her clients are drawn to the crackle of a wood fire, their interest in moving away from gas is driven mostly by changing building codes (or the anticipation that they may change): “It’s a general awareness that we all need to cut our dependence on fossil fuels.”
With that in mind, choosing the right wood-burning option is critical, since a standard, open wood fireplace (like what you find in most older homes) is much worse for the environment than a natural gas one. Wood-burning stoves, stove inserts and prefabricated fireplaces certified by the Environmental Protection Agency burn more efficiently and cleanly.
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There is debate as to whether wood is a carbon-neutral energy source, Kerr says.
Advocates of wood contend that it’s zero carbon — a tree soaks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is then released when burned, so it’s net zero, according to their argument. The other side contends that wood releases more carbon dioxide than gas — plus, it gives off carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides.
“What’s not controversial is that wood is a much dirtier fuel than gas with respect to air quality, even with an EPA-approved wood stove,” Kerr says. Nonetheless, she says emissions from a typical household stove or prefab fireplace are negligible.
During the switch from an open gas fireplace, a technician will remove the faux logs and cap off the gas line — a relatively easy, inexpensive process. Joshua Kelley, owner of Tri County Hearth and Patio Center in Waldorf, Md., recommends then installing a wood-burning stove insert, which costs between $5,500 and $8,000 for the equipment and labor. The insert functions like a free-standing wood stove but is smaller and easily slides into the fireplace opening.
If you have a prefab gas fireplace — which, unlike an open fireplace, is tightly enclosed — the process is considerably more labor intensive and expensive. Because a prefab fireplace is prebuilt as one cohesive unit, the whole box and venting system must be removed. “It’s not easy,” says Mike Taylor, co-owner of Acme Stove in Rockville, Md., and Fairfax, Va. “It requires quite a bit of remodeling.”
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A prefab gas fireplace that vents through an exterior wall, rather than up through an existing chimney, is the most difficult to replace. It requires building an exterior chase (a structure that encloses a chimney) to allow smoke from the wood fire to escape.
“You are pretty much starting over from scratch at that point,” Kelley says, adding that the work entails getting permits and drawings, along with building a foundation for the chase structure. “It’s like putting an addition onto the house, adding 10 square feet.” (In many cases, interior renovation is also required to repair damage from taking out the prefab gas system.)
And then there’s the expense of the new, wood-burning prefab unit: A builder-grade version costs about $2,500, while a high-efficiency, high-end wood fireplace can cost as much as $15,000, Kelley says.
From start to finish, he estimates the entire job of switching from a prefab gas to a prefab wood-burning fireplace costs as much as $25,000. In other words, it’s a major undertaking.
Switching from gas to electric
There is a simpler alternative — but with some downsides for fireplace purists. Electric fireplaces, while generally easier and less expensive to swap in, do not give off as much heat as their wood or gas counterparts. “The most you can hope for is 5,000 BTUs,” Kelley says. By comparison, he says a gas fireplace typically gives off at least 20,000 BTUs (British thermal units) and a wood-burning one upward of 100,000.
Also, electric fireplaces don’t actually contain fire. Instead, LED bulbs produce light that mimics flames. Some manufacturers add an ionizer and water to create a smoke effect.
Still, if clean energy is a priority and you care more about ambiance than warmth, electric is worth considering.
Converting an open fireplace to electric costs about $2,500 and takes about two hours, Kelley says. The gas line gets capped, the gas logs removed, and then an electrical junction box is added to the existing wiring in the fireplace’s recess so that you can slide in the new electric unit and plug it in.
Converting a prefab gas fireplace to electric is more complicated and costs around $3,600 for the labor and unit, along with an additional $500 to $1,500 if you need new facade materials such as slate or marble, Kelley says. Even so, he says the job typically finishes in one day.
Besides capping the gas line and adding an electrical junction box, the work involves removing the mantel and fireplace facade on the interior of the house; on the exterior, the hole where the gas fireplace was vented gets patched and new siding added. A vapor barrier is installed to insulate the new electric fireplace box.
Marissa Hermanson is a writer in Richmond.
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