The sounds of crackling wood and the smell of smoldering bark are being overtaken by technology.

Sales of gas fireplaces have grown 500 percent since 1992 and now outpace their wood-burning cousins.

Technology has made the gas units the fireplace option of choice in most new homes, say builders. The remote-controlled flames, the efficient heat and the affordability help gas easily overrule the allure of the traditional fireplace.

Industry figures show that today almost six of every 10 new fireplaces are fueled by gas. But experts said the business is volatile since the popularity of each type of fireplace tends to move with economic forces.

For example, when natural gas prices soared last year, sales of wood-burning units increased. And wood suppliers said they have seen no drop in demand for firewood deliveries - especially with this year's cold snap.

"It's a seesaw business," said Don Johnson, director of market research for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an industry group in Arlington, Va. "But both of them are here to stay."

Choosing between the two is a little like debating the benefits of an artificial Christmas tree over a natural one: Traditionalists hate to budge and the progressives insist that technology has made it difficult to tell the difference.

"At my old house we had two wood-burning fireplaces and we never used them," said John Invernizzi, who in March moved into a new Sparks home that has two gas fireplaces. "I didn't feel like fooling with the wood. These are just nice and a whole lot more convenient. We have a switch on the wall. We use them all the time."

But wood lovers said there's no replacing the real thing.

"There is a feel and ambiance that wood provides that gas never will," said Jay Endre, president of Firesafe Industries, a Northern Virginia company that makes and restores chimney liners.

Fireplaces have become standard on the checklist of today's homebuyer.

The National Association of Home Builders' recent study on buying habits showed that six of 10 new homes were built with fireplaces.

Experts said the average homebuyer is not interested in the heat a fireplace provides. Most of them consider the feature a detail in a room and an opportunity to decorate or arrange the setting around the fireplace.

"The reason they have a fireplace is the atmosphere it provides," Johnson said.

Almost 1.6 million fireplace products were shipped in the United States during 2001 - 112 percent more than in 1992. Of those shipments, 57 percent were gas-fueled appliances; 40 percent were for wood and 3 percent used pellets. The figures include fireplace inserts, boxes, stoves and other items used to warm or decorate a home.

Many builders of new homes say that, for the most part, gas fireplaces are what consumers want. Also, some builders said they often face stricter building codes when constructing wood-burning fireplaces.

Prices vary, but gas fireplaces are likely to be cheaper depending on the type chosen, experts said, primarily because they can be built without chimneys. Gas fireplaces can be sealed, have vents that release the exhaust outside the home or through chimneys. Professional installation and maintenance is recommended for safety concerns.

"It's the demographics that we see today," said Steve Watson, a manager and owner of Watson's Fireplace and Patio in Lutherville. "People who are younger probably don't have time to do the wood. They just aren't fire-building people."

Gas fireplaces in most new homes cost $3,000 to $5,000, some builders said, though gas logs can cost a few hundred dollars at a hardware store. Wood-burning fireplaces can cost between $5,000 and $7,000, depending on the masonry work, some builders said.

Some chimney sweepers and masons said brick fireplaces can reach beyond $10,000 to install in existing homes, depending on the placement of the chimney.

The hearth organization conducted a recent survey of homeowners who had fireplaces and stoves installed: Average costs for both gas and wood were $2,000 for a fireplace and $1,400 for a stove.

The efficiency of gas or wood depends on the home, though most experts said gas has an edge.

For example, fireplaces with chimneys often need to produce more heat to warm the home and heated air escapes through the flue.

Wood stoves for heat

Wood and pellet stoves that are inserted into fireplaces can produce radiant heat that can help warm a home faster and more efficiently.

Gas fireplaces can include inserts that can better heat the home. Experts said homeowners should decide if they want the fireplace for decor - meaning they'll use it just a few times a year - or for heat when making a decision on what product to choose.

"There are a lot more options than most people realize," said John Crouch, director of public affairs for the hearth organization.

Austin Sisk has been building traditional fireplaces for almost 40 years as the owner of Perry Hall Masonry Contractors Inc. He said the wood-burning fireplace business has slowed during the past five years as technology has improved the gas-powered devices.

And Sisk, who has two wood-burning fireplaces in his home, said that if given the chance to do it over again, he'd build the house with gas fire logs.

"We used it once this year - on Christmas Eve," Sisk said. "We have one in the bedroom, and we used it a few times when we moved in but you have to carry the wood up the steps, so we just don't even bother. You're better off using the paper logs that you can buy at the store."

Some fireplace experts said the strong housing market has convinced owners of older houses to better appreciate traditional fireplaces. Older homes in Federal Hill and Canton are getting brick fireplace improvements, some contractors said, as young urban professionals invest in the history of the city.

Joe Sweeney, owner of Champion Chimneys Inc. in Parkville, said he converted three gas-powered fireplaces to wood this past year. He estimates that about half his business deals with sweeping the chimneys of wood-burning fireplaces, while the other half focuses on gas.

"Gas is nice and convenient," he said. "But there is nothing like the smell of wood burning."

One of his customers, Chuck Brooks of Sparks, said he has used his wood-burning fireplace several times a week this season given the cold weather. He keeps the gas furnace in his home at 60 degrees and uses the fireplace to help warm the house. With 10 acres of land, Brooks has plenty of wood around and he enjoys chopping and gathering it.

Good exercise

"I've always liked the wood. It's good physical exercise. It's good therapy," he said.

Despite the popularity of gas, wood suppliers said they have seen no decline in demand for their product.

At Baroody Tree Service in Kingsville, firewood has sold out by Christmas for each of the past four years. And crews are chopping wood now so it is aged for the fall when customers come calling.

"I've never had a problem selling wood," said owner Sam Baroody. "But gas has its advantages for some people. There's no mess involved."

That convenience factor has chimney sweepers like Rick High, owner of Town and Country Chimney Service in Columbia, worried about the future.

High, who has been in the business for 21 years, said he loses chimney sweeping business each year to new homes that are being built with gas fireplaces. This year, he plans to start advertising his conversion business - converting wood-burning fireplaces to gas. It's the only way High believes he can stay in business.

"We're concerned about the market share that we're losing and what is the next 10 to 20 years for our industry," High said.

"There is a percentage of customers we're losing every year. That's why we've gone to gas installs. We think in the long run, we're just going to be losing too much of the market as time goes on."

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