DEAR DATA DOG: Are fake fireplaces more popular than real ones nowadays?

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That depends on what you mean by "fake." Would that be a gas one or a traditional fireplace burning those sawdust-pulp logs from the supermarket? What about a portable fireplace you can trot from room to room? Or are you restricting "fake" to the ultimate in ersatz combustion: A virtual fireplace consisting of a high-resolution monitor, speaker system, and proprietary display software?

For you purists who insist that the only real fireplace is one built, stone by stone, into the side of a house during construction, the world is getting phonier every day. According to the Hearth Products Association, more than 75 percent of new fireplaces are factory-built and shipped straight to the home site (

Fireplaces aren't just for heat anymore. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that only a little more than one-third of Americans use fireplaces, wood stoves, or other fuel-fired appliances as the primary heating source for their homes. The rest of us are free to use fireplaces as secondary heat sources, decorative items, or homes for swallows.

Gas has made huge inroads into the fireplace business. Whereas 10 years ago it accounted for just 10 percent of the fireplace market, today it accounts for about 50 percent. These days 55 percent of U.S. households are already served by natural gas, according to the American Gas Association (, so a gas fireplace is a natural step. (After all, few homes have cords of wood pumped into the living room for handy fireplace fueling - except, of course, for log cabins, and heating a log cabin by burning the walls is somewhat counterproductive.)

Gas fireplaces aren't just easier to operate, they also reduce indoor pollution. Not that most Americans know anything about indoor pollution. A 1999 American Lung Association poll found that 87 percent of Americans don't know that pollution inside their homes can be worse than outdoors. The ALA also pointed out another reason to choose a gas fireplace: Storing firewood inside the house, where it's more convenient, can lead to nasty mold spores. The Lung Association's survey found that despite the danger, more than 1 in 3 wood burners still store their firewood inside the house - probably because the words "mold spore" aren't as frightening as "Go out and get some more wood, will you?"

The problem with gas fireplaces is their versatility: If direct-vent fireplaces (which direct exhaust straight through a side wall rather than some sort of rooftop aperture) and vent-free fireplaces become more popular, we're going to have to revisit the whole Santa thing. With fewer homes requiring chimneys, Saint Nick will eventually retain all the charm and mystery of a UPS delivery guy - pulling into driveways in his eight-reindeer-powered Santa Utility Vehicle and marching up to the front door looking for a parent's signature and a cookie.

On the bright side, the cleaner flames offered by gas fires as well as eco-improvements in manufactured logs will make for safer homes. In October 1999, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that although 90 percent of American households have smoke detectors, in 20 percent of those households the detectors weren't working. These homeowners should be ripe candidates, if not for a gas fireplace, then for a virtual fireplace. (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a virtual fireplace

So flip a switch and sit comfortably in front of your gas-log fireplace this winter - but keep an eye on those candles! The National Fire Protection Association's analysis of candle fires in U.S. residences revealed that there are twice the number of candle fires in December than in the average month ( That's hardly surprising, given that fully 35 percent of the candle business revolves around the holidays, according to the National Candle Association ( The NCA reports that 7 out of 10 U.S. households use candles. Now that's a surprising figure, given that over 9 out of 10 household occupants have birthdays. What are 3 out of 10 people sticking on top of their birthday cakes - sparklers? Punk?

The highest percentage of candle fires occur in the bedroom, with living room fires a distant second. However in December this gap is not as wide. From January to November bedrooms account for 46.7 percent of candle fires and living rooms 17.4 percent. In December the numbers are 31 percent and 28.5 percent respectively. Similarly, the top material ignited by candles from January to November is bedding; while in December it's some sort of decorative material. (Only 1 percent of candle fires in December involve Christmas trees; most of the time, electrical cords and plugs are responsible for igniting the tree.) My own suggestion for a safe, new-fangled yet old-fashioned holiday: Make the season bright with virtual fireplaces and mini-flashlights designed to look like candles. Hang a plastic wreath on the door, and don't forget to put the chestnuts in the microwave!

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