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I realize that people in Texas and Arizona still have the central air running full blast, but for those of us in the Middle Atlantic states, colder weather is creeping upon us.

It has already snowed a bit in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in the Rockies. We haven't hit that point yet, although at neighborhood gatherings this time of year, someone always asks if I've turned on my furnace yet.

The answer, of course, is no. I'm usually the last person in the neighborhood to do so. I was in my last neighborhood also, except that in the last one, I had absolutely no reason not to.

We lived in an ancient house with leaky windows. If the temperature outside fell to 40 degrees at night, the thermostat in the dining room would read 56 degrees at 6 a.m. Rather than start the furnace, I'd turn on the oven for a little while, shut it off and open the door. Every room had an oil-filled heater "to take the edge off."

The furnace was never started until the first week of November because I never cleaned it till the last weekend in October. It was an old one, an oil burner converted from coal. It was well past its prime, but it worked just fine and I never replace anything that does its job.

We wanted a fireplace but installing one would have required substantial chimney work -- estimates were typically between $7,000 and $10,000.

One of the selling points of the new house was the fireplace and the well-cared-for chimney. I cannot calculate the value of the fireplace in the sale price, but I can tell you that had the home not included one, we would have bought the house anyway -- for its kitchen and central air conditioning, just to name two assets.

The fireplace was an added benefit. In fact, there are areas of the country -- Southern California immediately comes to mind -- where having a fireplace is essential to the sale, even if the fireplace isn't used more than three days a year. It is a lifestyle issue, meaning that having one says something about the people who live in the house.

We immediately began debating the wood-burning versus gas issue. This was a wood-burning fireplace but a gas log set could be easily installed in the hearth for under $1,000 (including installation).

Because we were installing the log set in a working fireplace, we chose a vent-free model. I've heard the arguments from both sides of the vent-less fireplace debate. I concur with the vent-less unit manufacturers that enough precautions have been taken -- units come with an oxygen depletion sensor and carbon monoxide detector -- that make them safe.

I also agree with opponents because I know that most consumers do not have a clue how to carefully operate and maintain these units once they have been installed, and that in itself can be a danger.

In my case, I am extremely cautious, a stickler for maintenance and won't do anything unless I've memorized the instructions. In addition, we decided that we would leave the fireplace damper open a crack during fireplace season to make sure that anything the unit produced would be vented.

If you are considering adding a fireplace to your house, let me assure you that such an expenditure will add to the value, or at least the salability, of your house, especially if comparable houses in your neighborhood don't generally have fireplaces.

Let me add that although wood-burning fireplaces have a romantic quality, the maintenance issues tend to be higher than gas fireplaces, and the last thing homeowners seem to be buying is something that needs a lot of care.

With my gas logs, I just walk in the front door, bend down in front of the fireplace to turn on the pilot light and then step back with the remote control, and click on the unit. The logs and the flames look as real as a wood-burning one.

I have the added safety feature of the damper. I don't have to buy wood, chop wood, store wood nor bring wood into the house on a freezing winter's night. I don't have to worry about ash disposal, creosote in the chimney nor staying up until the last ember has gone out.

I just click the remote, shut off the pilot light, and head to bed.

The fireplace also provides an alternative source of heat, which served us well when our furnace needed a circuit board replaced last February and we went for a weekend without it.

The unit isn't problem-free. I went to turn it on the other night and the remote didn't work, even with a new battery. Right now, I'm trying to troubleshoot the problem because it does add something to the house besides heat.

For that, there's always the furnace.

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