Dear PoP – Fireplaces, Gas or Wood?

“Dear PoP,

There is something about fireplaces and old, turn-of-the-century homes. We have recently opened the one that was bricked in the dining room of our house and received an estimate from ‘Priddy Clean’ on what it would cost to fix up the chimney to make this one work and also to fix up the second chimney to put an additional fireplace in our master bedroom. We need help with some choices and deciding on whether estimates are reasonable:

1) we were quoted $3.5k and $3k so $6.5k total for two chimneys. is that inline with market pricing (you have to pay between $50 and $100 for each estimate so getting several isn’t as appealing as in case with other contractors)

2) now the exciting part due to necessary chimney work- we can apparently have either wood or gas. So we are thinking wood in dining room and gas in the bedroom (cause its so nice to wake up and turn on the fire!)”

It’s funny you mention ‘Priddy Clean’ as they came up a few times when another reader asked about a chimney sweep. I remember when I had to have my chimney fixed years ago (nearly totally rebuilt from the roof line up) it cost around $4,000 (sadly I can’t remember who did the work). Anyone else have major chimney work done – do the prices above seem reasonable?

And I’m also very curious what you’d recommend with the wood for one and gas for the other. Personally, I’d vote wood for both. I just love the way the wood smells and crackles, that’s part of the joy for me. What do you guys think?

36 Comment

  • From a listing agent’s perspective, I would always say to go with wood burning if it is an option.

    With regard to a gas fireplace in the bedroom, I am assuming that this is a vented fireplace? I would never recommend having an un-vented gas fireplace in a bedroom.

    The estimates actually sound low to me, so it made me wonder if they are actually lining the chimneys or just repointing?

    • After reading some of the comments, I concede that it would make sense to go with gas upstairs, at least. I still would not go with ventless, but it doesn’t make sense to be hauling ashes from an upstairs bedroom.

  • Don’t they make gas inserts that you can just stick into an existing fireplace? Vented and unvented. This may be an option if your chimney realignment cost is too much. As I understand the unvented ones have a automatic shutoff if the oxygen ratios get out of “wack.” I’m thinking of doing this in our livingroom? has anyone else done a fireplace gas insert that does not need to be vented?

    also 50/100 dollars a quote..that is bogus. I may start a part time job doing chimney realignment quotes…

    • if you were a contractor that works in private residences you would know what a good idea is it to charge for estimates. free estimates are a truly great service that people have taken for granted.

  • We were quoted about $1k apiece to reline two chimneys by Suburban Chimney (Tony Serrano is the guy to talk to there). That was a few years ago, but maybe puts the estimate into context?

    Re wood vs gas… definitely wood, at least downstairs. However, you might find that your firebox is very shallow once you open it up. Ours is, though it’s also very tall and wide. The tiled area is about the same as in your photo, but overall it makes me feel like we would need to have a very, very, very small fire.

  • were your fireplaces originally coal or wood? ours were coal and i think that limits our options. we had a company come out and they said they would charge $100 for a estimate – after the guy shone his torch up the only chimney that is open he charged us an extra $100 because it was an “inspection” – i was so taken aback i didn’t question it at the time. after all of that he never sent us the estimate. i decided not to follow up because i figured i already felt so ripped off i wouldn’t want them doing the work anyway. now i’m reluctant to call anyone else without a recommendation.

  • We just restored our fire place as wood burning. Whenever we lit a fire the house filled with smoke (yes the flue was open) – the fire box is just so tiny in many of these old houses that it can’t really accommodate a fire well. As a result, the painted mantel has gotten stained with smoke and now we need to repaint and I’m really reluctant to use the fireplace.

    I think that fireplaces in a lot of old houses were meant to be used with a surround like this that helps manage the smoke (the curved top directs smoke back in to the fireplace) and the metal door would be off when you are burning a fire

    Some of the old houses in Petworth actually originally had gas fireplaces and never had wood burning ones. You can also find antique gas inserts that I think could be retrofitted with a modern gas system.

    Anyway, my experience so far is that wood burning fireplaces are great if you have a big enough fireplace. If you have a small one think about a way to manage the smoke…we are thinking about making ours a gas fireplace now and getting an antique surround.

    • Many of these old houses would have originally had iron door fireplaces or stove-like cast iron hooded inserts, or relatively high cast iron firebaskets. These were removed, and the chimneys closed off. If you just re-open the Chimney, then yes, the remaining firebox is too small, or tall, or shallow.

      And I hope I’m not being too patronizing, but even in cases where the the shape of the fireplace is amenable, their are plenty of people out there who don’t know how to get a draft going before lighting the fire proper. Just opening the flue often isn’t enough.

  • PoP – while I agree with you on the charm of the wood-burning fire … having a gas fireplace is really practical. There is no way I could have gone through the trouble of setting up a wood-burning fire, and then putting it out, just to enjoy my morning coffee in front of before work – gas lets you do exactly that.

    How lucky this homeowner can have both. I would agree with their proposed plan – although can’t speak to the practical questions raised, having no experience with doing the actual conversions.

    • I grew up with wood burning and I think it made sense for that scenario. We had four people enjoying the fire and everyone got home rather early so we could start it around 5pm and let it burn throughout the night. My dad’s in construction and my parents still read newspapers, so we always had plenty of kindling on hand.

      For my current situation I could never imagine using a wood burning fireplace. I usually don’t get home until 8, 9, or 10, and after feeding and walking the dogs the last thing I want to do is build a fire. I briefly lived in an apartment that had a gas fireplace, and it was really nice to switch it on whenever I wanted.

  • A lot of the houses in DC that were built around 1900 were built to burn coal, not wood. As such, the fireplaces are around 14″ deep. Because they are roughly 30″ wide by 30″ high, they look big enough – but not only are they not deep enough to burn wood, they were not designed to burn wood and the handle smoke – so the smoke, instead of going up the chimney, billows out into the house. Nothing much can be done about this unless you want to do some extensive modifications to the fireplace.

    As for a gas insert, most of those are also made for deeper fireplaces, around 24″ deep. And most are butt ugly.

    For mine, after way too much time shopping around, I went with a cast iron surround and gas coal set from the Victorian Fireplace Shop in Richmond. (I also bought mantles from them, but you obviously don’t need one).
    In my dining room fp, I fixed up (added a regulator as well as cleaned) an old Humphrey RadiantFire, put an old iron surround into a mantle, put the Humphrey in the fireplace, and it looks great. And warms the entire first floor in the winter.

    If you want to see some fotos, I can send some to PoP for posting or we can swap emails (also via PoP).

    I also set up a mantle and a surround in my bedroom, forgoing gas for nice and mostly safe candles.

    I had a flue lined and the chimney top rebuilt back in 2002 and it cost about $3500 I believe.

    Once you open it up, know that you probably don’t have a damper – most likely, you’ll have a open shaft directly to the sky. Nice drafts in the winter, birds in the summer. Good times, especially if you have cats. The easiest way to close it up is to put a damper on top – check out Seal Tight Dampers – the Victorian Fireplace Shop site has some good info and illustrations.

    (RadiantFire, not mine:

    Victorian Fireplace Shop:

  • hi, we submitted the question and thanks for all your comments! this is making me very wary of getting wood. I am also unclear as to whether the chimney people know much about fireplaces. wish we could speak with a fireplace expert!

    • Hey ViB – I actually replied to your post on your blog. I have been trying to get Sergio from a place called Olde Londontown out for a while. He’s a bit disorganized but some of the people who have been in real estate, inspections, building for generations in this city recommend him strongly. My inspector told me the same thign about the depths and recommended that I call him because he’s an expert in DC townhomes.

      Sergio, Olde Londontowne Chimney Sweeps, 202-246-2461 or 301-718-2875

      • Does he also charge a quote fee? because while I’m very interested in this, I’m not quite reade for this project but would like to know the cost of it for future?


        • Its been tough to get him to focus – I must say he seems very scattered, but apparently he’s the best. I dont believe he charges a quote fee, but you should touch base with him and ask.

          • ah

            I’ve used him. No quote fee. Did good work. But, yes, scattered is one way to put it. On the other hand it meant he didn’t come by for payment until 6 weeks later.

  • your quote sounds cheap!

  • Is there an issue with the city at all about the number of “particulates” that are let into the air? This might be a bit off topic, but we are planning on installing an outdoor fireplace in our backyard. From what I have read in some of the residential code for DC, is that there can only be so many particulates released by your fire into the air. Does this affect indoor fire places though?

    So I guess they are trying to limit a lot of burning, smog, and such. Not that I am against wood burning fires (as I really like those!). I know for certain you can’t do outdoor wood fires in your yard though, but as I understand it you can do it with a outdoor gas fireplace as long as it is installed correctly. I believe it also has to be so many feet from your house too.

  • Dingo and PoP, we would love to see photos as well!

  • thanks for posting this, and very helpful for our situation (very shallow firebox). I would love to try to repurpose an antique gas set. Is the gas goal set you refer to a gas fire but set up so there are metal coals that look like they are glowing? A friend of mine had something like that but it was full of asbestos but I’d be interested to know if you can get some without it…

  • sorry, that was supposed to be a reply to Dingo!

    • Ya know those fake ceramic logs in gas burning sets? The VFS sells a special small version with ceramic coals. So it looks like you are burning coal. It is new and safe and you can get a remote control for it. It’s deigned to fit into the basket on the front of the surrounds that the VFP sells.

      The Humphrey I have, I believe this is the story:
      Sometime around 1900/1910, it was becoming common for homes to have natural gas lines inside. (Gas lights and all). So people started ditching the coal (no brainer) and started using devices like the Humphrey. The back of it (the off white part) is ceramic. When the gas is on, the ceramic heats up, holds the heat, and radiates it back into the room. They originally had glass tubes that held the flames, but those are incredibly hard to find. So when I run it, it’s got open flames – which is ok, as long as you dont swing a dress into it or anything like that. The model I have (and that I linked to above) dates from about 1920. They were making them much fancier (and heavier) by then. The older ones are a lot cheaper – enameled tin/steel whereas mine is solid brass.

      I saw one of the 1910 models at the brass knob warehouse a while back.

  • How about a wood stove that vents up the chimney? A really pretty old one would put off a lot of radiant heat and you’d be able to work around a shallow firebox.

  • I have a company coming tomorrow to convert my coal burning shallow fireplace into a “small’ wood burning fireplace. After reading the responses I don’t know what to do. They are doing it for about $3000. That was the cheapest. I had a guy rated very highly on Angies List, who charged me $250 for an estimate. He then said it would cost me $9,800. Now I ask you wise people? What to do?

    • I thought about doing that too, but I decided that extending the fireplace out into the room would ruin the symmetry, fung shui, look & feel of the room. And I didn’t want to sacrifice the space or pay two arms for it. I think a mantle with surround and a gas coal set (and seal tight damper) is probably around $1800-$2000. And it was just more of the look I wanted, as my house has all the original trim/casing/doors/hinges/knobs/etc.

  • How about just lining a chimney? We just got estimates for new stainless inserts that were $1800 with their pop top style damper on top. I think the seal tight style damper is much better, much more simple so we would just get the liner from them. This was from Priddy Clean too BTW.

    I be would interested to hear what other people have heard/paid for a new chimney liner because we have 4 chimneys so we are really trying to minimize our costs.

    Just a PSA too we get your chimneys cleaned regularly because we had a bunch of fires in our fireplaces that weren’t in good shape. Lucky we didn’t burn the whole damn place down. While is sucks to have to spend a bunch of $$ its better than a fire..

  • I was told $4k for my chimney. Depends on what needs doing. A lot of old chimneys are in disrepair at the top. Get somebody good who has a lot of experience. Ask in depth questions about air flow and functionality. Last thing you want is to light that first romantic fire only to have your house fill with smoke in the first five minutes.

  • My 2 cents–having had both wood and gas fireplaces. Two difficulties with wood–1) you have to buy and store the wood–sometimes a pain in the city (disreputable sellers, lack of good storage are issues) and 2) once you start a wood fire, you must tend it until it is out. I grew up with wood fires exclusively, and love the smell, ambiance, etc., but about 8 years ago, we invested in a very good quality gas fireplace insert (heat ‘n glow–has very authentic visuals) and love that I can click it on for 1/2 hour in the evening, and then click it off to go to bed. We use it much more than we did when it burned wood, and it provides much better heat.

  • As an aside, does anyone have any experience with vent-less fireplaces in houses that don’t have a fireplace? Interested in installing a fireplace in a house that never had one in the first place.


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