// one of Australia's best-known Science Communicators and Futurists

So you want a fireplace in your lounge room. What should you install - wood, gas or electric? Well, I'm glad you asked! There are pros and cons for each type. Since I've lived with all three types of fireplace, let me share my experiences with you.


I've always liked the idea of a crackling wood fire with flickering flames on a cold winter night. Perhaps the thought reminds me of my childhood. Some years ago, we installed a slow combustion wood fire. Much safer than an open fire. No chance of burning embers falling out on the carpet. And the safety glass door showed those flickering flames beautifully. But I had to visit the local wood merchant regularly to buy kindling, mallee roots and red gum logs. And I had to store the wood in a dry place in the back yard. With a bit of practice, I could get home from work and within ten minutes have the wood fire set and lit. During the evening my wood fire would need to be poked or added to only two or three times. Those flickering flames looked wonderful. Was it effective? Yes - the lounge and adjacent dining room and kitchen were warmed quickly. Was it energy efficient? Not really. Much of the heat energy from the burning wood went straight up the chimney. Cleaning out the ashes was time-consuming. And the price of wood seemed to escalate steadily every year. Also, it polluted the atmosphere, but we thoroughly enjoyed our slow combustion wood fire.


In one house in which we lived, we had a gas fireplace for more than 20 years. It was very easy to start. Just push a button and switch on the fan. What did the fire look like? A row of small uniform bluish gas flames Boring! But the gas heater was very effective - heating the lounge and adjacent rooms quickly. It was cheap to run, but the fan developed an annoying rattle after 15 years. We couldn't complain; it had served us well.


One of the first houses we lived in had a very cold lounge room with an electric fireplace set into the wall under the mantelpiece. It had two electric bar radiator heaters at the top and a row of fake plastic 'glowing coals' with a flickering light behind them. It was quite warm and comfortable for people sitting in line with the electric fireplace and reasonably close to it. But it did not seem to warm the air in the room very much. Electric fireplaces are easy to install, but expensive to run and notoriously inefficient.

What do we use now? None of the above! We now have ducted reverse cycle air conditioning. So it is a heat pump which now warms us in the winter. Heat pumps are as cheap to run as gas fires.