There's nothing quite as soothing as a fireplace on a cold winter's night. Flames dance about the logs, emanating warmth and a mesmerizing light.

As delightful as a fireplace can be, few people enjoy the routine of lighting and stoking a fire.Homeowners know the routine all too well: Sweep the chimney. Chop the wood. Chop the kindling. Carry the wood into the house. Open the damper. Light the kindling. Place the wood on the fireplace grate. Stoke the fire. Add more logs. Wait for the fire to die down. Close the damper. Clean out the fireplace.

And then there are the mounting environmental concerns. As in other Western states, Utah clean-air advocates have proposed legislation to curb the burning of wood stoves and fireplaces, particularly during inversions.

Do you still want a fireplace? Natural gas fireplaces, inserts and logs allow homeowners to have their fire and care for the environment, too.

"We see that natural gas fireplaces are a good alternative to consider because they can still enjoy the ambience and warmth of a fireplace and not contribute to the particulate and carbon monoxide emissions," said Susan Glasmann, spokesperson for Mountain Fuel Supply, a Questar Co.

Gas burns cleaner, which eliminates the creosote buildup in chimneys. Burning natural gas produces no ashes or sparks, which curbs fire danger, Glasmann said.

Natural gas fireplaces and fireplace inserts are up to 80 percent efficient, which make them a better source of supplemental heat than wood-burning fireplaces.

Three types of natural gas fireplace systems are available at local fireplace and stove dealers: free-standing fireplaces, fireplace inserts and natural gas logs.

The self-contained fireplace is the most efficient of the three varieties. The fireplace can be installed against a wall or as a free-standing unit and operates for as little as 7 cents an hour, according to Mountain Fuel Supply literature. The fireplaces may be vented directly through an outside wall.

The inserts are designed to fit inside an existing fireplace and can be equipped with glass doors, screens or other decorative accessories.

The ceramic logs are crafted to resemble natural wood, from the bark-textured knots to the saw-cut ends. The logs can be arranged on the grate to make the fireplace look more lifelike.

While aesthetically pleasing, the logs also are made of a special refractory material designed to capture and radiate heat.

"With the gas logs, you have the advantage of having a controlled fire. It's even heat and you can close the damper after you've enjoyed an evening with the fireplace, which you can't do with a wood fire," said Jerry Wanke of Artistic Lighting.

Quite literally, the flames can be turned on and off at the flick of a switch. Convenience, of course, comes at a price. Log sets, for example, cost $400 to $700 installed and last an average of about 10 years.

Complete fireplace systems start at $700 installed. Prices vary according to size, decor and added accessories.

Homeowners should ascertain whether they need special permits for the installation of a gas appliance. Salespeople and utility officials say the devices should be installed by a licensed contractor.

"I wouldn't suggest making it a do-it-yourself project," Wanke said.

Although gas fireplaces offer many advantages, Wanke said homeowners should be aware of hidden costs. For instance, if the interior gas line is not readily accessible to the fireplace, a connection must be established. Installation requires three to four hours.

A fireplace that does not properly vent a wood-burning fire likely is not suitable for a gas-burning insert or logs, either. A good rule of thumb, Wanke said, is "the requirement for gas is the fireplace has to be approved for burning wood."

But for homeowners who can afford the start-up costs, gas-burning fireplaces, inserts and logs are a small investment for a warmer home and cleaner air.

"The younger and older generations who are environmentally aware are turning to gas logs at a fantastic degree and it has paid off greatly," Wanke said.