Who doesn't like the idea of snuggling up to a cozy fire when winter gives us the inevitable cold shoulder?

After all, fireplaces rank No. 2 in the top features sought by new homebuyers, right after decks/patios/porches, according to the National Association of Home Builders. And more than half of U.S. households have at least one fireplace or freestanding stove. But beyond the ambience of dancing flames and temporary toe-toasting heat lurk the cost of inefficient fireplaces and heat lost up the chimney when the fire dies down.

What's a homeowner to do to maximize the warm-and-cozy and minimize the lost energy?

The array of fireplace and stove alternatives available today is almost dizzying, but the one thing they have in common is an emphasis on efficiency, says Leslie Wheeler of the Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association, an association of manufacturers, retailers and professionals.

They include three-sided and four-sided fireplaces, fireplaces that don't need chimneys and new fuel alternatives beyond wood, natural gas and propane. There are even fireplaces that use glass stones and what looks like "melted glass" instead of faux-wood logs to add a sense of modern style to a gas fire. And traditional mantels are being cast in new materials including crushed limestone and concrete that "lets homeowners add a material to a room that's typically not found there, greatly improving the appearance," says Jeffrey McClorey of Bromwell's in downtown Cincinnati.

The first question to ask yourself is what kind of fuel you'll use. Gas is king, making up the majority of the market today with wood taking about a 20-30 percent share, says Don Stuhlreyer of Fireside Hearth & Home in Springdale and Florence. "Wood gives you the most amount of heat but it requires more effort ... and some folks just don't want the fuss."

Gas fireplaces can be turned on with a touch of a button, and today's gas logs are more realistic than ever.

Natural draft fireplaces and inserts vent products of combustion outside using a pipe similar to that used on water heaters, going vertically through the roof.

Direct-vent fireplaces and inserts do not need a full chimney through the roof, so installation costs are lower. They pull air for the fire from outside and exhaust the burned gases through the same vent system, eliminating the need for a standard chimney. A glass panel in direct vent units is critical to keeping the combustion system sealed from the home. Because they can vent directly through the wall, this technology is great for apartments or condominiums or unusual applications such as under a window.

Unvented or Vent-Free Appliances draw combustion air from inside the home. The appliance is designed to burn so hotly and efficiently that it eliminates the need for venting and a chimney.

Most firewood comes from harvesting dead trees, so it's environmentally sound and has become less polluting and more efficient in the past several years with new stove designs. All wood-burning inserts sold today are certified as clean-burning by the EPA according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, and less smoke means less creosote build-up in chimneys.

Regardless of your fuel choice, there are improvements you can make to an existing gas or wood-burning fireplace to increase the efficiency, according to both experts:

Fireplace insert: "The most popular thing we sell to increase efficiency is a fireplace insert," McClorey says. Think of it as a box with a glass door inserted into an existing wood or natural gas fireplace with a venting system that you purchase with the insert. It prevents air loss and produces a hotter fire, and the heat is recaptured and dispersed into the room with a blower. "It's designed to burn efficiently and cleanly, and its does that by re-burning the exhaust of the fire multiple times. By doing that you are putting more heat into the space," Stuhlreyer says. Inserts change the look of the fireplace, though, taking the open style look and closing it off. It's a totally different cosmetic look and can cost $3,000-$6,000.

Grate heater: A grate heater added to a gas or wood-burning fireplace increases efficiency by sucking air through a hollow tube below the fire and blowing the heated air into the room. "It's basically a heat exchange effect," Stuhlreyer says. It looks utilitarian because you can see the tubes and blower, so it's less aesthetically attractive to many, costing about $600-$700.

Door heat exchanger: The operation is similar to the grate heater, but the blower is located at the top of a set of glass doors. Air is sucked into one side, around a plenum where it gets warmed and recirculated. They cost about $1,500-$1,800.

Glass doors: Adding a set of doors restricts air loss and prevents cold air from coming in through the chimney once the fire burns out. They also reduce the heat loss up the chimney (from the home heater) when there is no fire burning in the fireplace and you don't want to close the damper. Glass doors are usually included in gas direct vent and gas insert fireplaces.

Gas log update: The new gas logs are far more efficient than those sold 20 years ago and include multiburner systems with two flames that put out more heat.

Electric fireplaces: "We've had customers no longer interested in burning wood or converting to gas who have installed simulated fireplaces," McClorey says. "There are wonderful, convincing products out there now, so you can seal off the chimney and enjoy the look of a fire. They have small heaters that can take the chill off a room, and they are very convincing, especially with a screen in front of them."

Joy Kraft, author and features/lifestyle journalist, is editor of Cincy Home magazine.

Tax Credit Facts
A federal consumer tax credit is available to homeowners who buy and install a new wood or pellet stove or fireplace insert by the end of this year.

The credit, designed to encourage energy-conscious purchases, covers 30 percent of the cost of clean, fuel-efficient stoves and fireplace inserts up to a maximum credit of $1,500. It's good on stoves or fireplace inserts purchased before Dec. 31, 2010, that: burn a biomass fuel source like wood or renewable pellets, will be installed in an existing principal residence (not a newly constructed house or vacation home) and meet a minimum 75 percent efficiency rating as certified by the manufacturer.

Consumers should save a receipt and the manufacturer's certification that states the appliance purchased is eligible. Installation and venting costs are included in calculating the credit's total value, as long as professional installation is required for the proper and safe operation of the stove. Purchasers should use IRS Form 5695: Residential Energy Credits.