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Dear Jim: To cut costs, I plan to add a fireplace to my living room myself, so I am looking at vent-free gas models for simplicity. What design and comfort features should I consider? -- Mark G.

Dear Mark: Vent-free gas fireplaces are very easy to install yourself. It's wise to have a plumber attach the gas line or propane tank though. Since no chimney or vent is needed, it can be located anywhere in your living room. They are 99.9 percent efficient, making one an inexpensive source of heat.

Depending on your level of do-it-yourself skills, there are many options. For the most technically challenged, purchase the complete package with gas logs, firebox and decorative real wood or contemporary mantel/surround. If you are handy with tools, build a custom surround and mantel yourself.

Two-sided see-through models, often mounted beneath a bar, and corner models take up little floor space, yet provide plenty of heat. A three-sided cove model provides a focal point for people to relax around. You can completely install one of these models in two hours.

In addition to style, the features to consider are the controls and whether you need an optional blower. Hand-held remote controls, for on/off and temperature control from your easy chair, are most convenient.

If you need one for supplemental heat for the entire room, an electric blower option makes sense. If you are going to install a see-through or cove model, more for the ambiance of the flames, a blower is probably not needed.

By far the majority of states and localities allow vent-free fireplaces to be used in homes. Always check your local codes before installing one in your house. Many homes already have a vent-free gas heater -- the kitchen range. When cooking a large holiday dinner, it probably burns more gas than a fireplace.

Around 1980, all vent-free gas logs, fireplaces, heaters, etc. included an oxygen depletion (detection) sensor -- ODS. If the oxygen level in the room drops to 18 percent, ODS shuts off the gas automatically. Some of the newer models also include optional built-in carbon monoxide (CO) detectors, too, for extra safety.

Built-in, super-hot catalysts are becoming more common in gas fireplaces. These work like a catalytic converter in your car to reduce pollution. By using a catalyst hidden up inside the firebox, the dancing gas flames can be made to look more like real wood flames while emitting very little CO.

The key to safe operation is to follow the manufacturer's usage guidelines. A vent-free fireplace should be used for supplemental heat only. Install the proper size (gas usage) log set for your climate and airtightness of your house. Do not use it continuously or while you are sleeping.

Write for (instantly download -- Update Bulletin No. 629 -- buyer's guide of vent-free gas fireplaces. Please include $3 and a business-size, self-addressed stamped envelope.

James Dulley, The Buffalo News, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244.

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