Dear Jim: On a recent new home tour, I saw a beautiful electric fireplace with flames that looked realistic. It gave off heat and even made a crackling log sound. Are these models very efficient to use? -- Ron R.Dear Ron: Fireplace kits with new electric logs are hard to distinguish from a real fire. Since they just plug into a standard wall outlet, you can have a crackling warm fire in about 10 minutes after you get it home. If you already have a fireplace, just buy the electric log/heater unit.

The hand finished real wood, marble, stone, etc., fireplace surrounds and mantels rival the best gas log fireplaces. Since high heat is not a factor, attractive bookcases and shelves can be built in close to the opening. Some of the electric logs themselves are real wood, not fake ceramic or concrete.

What makes electric fireplaces ideal is that you can use them year-round. The electronics used to create the realistic flames consumes less than 200 watts so it won't increase the cooling load on your central air-conditioner.

In the winter, switch on the built-in electric heaters with blowers and thermostats that are built into most models. These produce heat 100% efficiently just like any small electric room space heater.

As an engineer and former Star Wars toy designer for Kenner, I marvel at the simplicity of the methods used to produce the very realistic looking flames. Some models even allow you to vary the appearance of the flames from that of a raging fire to just relaxing lazy flickering flames.

One of the neatest designs is the Visiflame electric log. This design uses a smoked acrylic plastic movie-type screen in the back of the logs.

Red and gold lights create the embers and also reflect off foil ribbons onto the smoked screen. A tiny adjustable blower makes the ribbons (flames) dance.

Other designs use a combination of various colored lights and rotating disks to vary and project the flickering flame image. Special screening creates a smoky appearance. To simulate the realistic woodburning crackling sound, a spinning foil drum hits against a special plastic sounding material.

Another simple-to-install complete fireplace option is a gelled-alcohol fuel model. These burn cans of natural gel-fuel made from grapes. The cans are placed inside ceramic logs. They burn up to four hours and look real. Each 16-oz. can produces about 2,500 Btu of heat per hour as it burns.

Unlike vent-free gas fireplaces, there are no codes banning gel-fuel units. The cans, up to four in a log, light instantly with a match. To put out the fire, use a special hook to slide a cover over the cans in the logs to extinguish them.

Visit (www.dulley.com) to instantly download art of Update Bulletin No. 680 -- buyer's guide of 11 electric and gel-fuel logs and fireplace kits, heat outputs, flame types and features. Please include $3.00 and a business-size SASE. James Dulley, Newspaper Name, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244

Dear Jim: I have a slab foundation house and a gas water heater at one end. It takes forever for the water to get hot at the bathroom faucet at the other end of the house. Is a hot water loop or a demand pump better? --Toni F.

Dear Toni: A demand pump is the best method, especially when retrofitting an existing house. In an existing house, it is difficult to adequately insulate the water pipe, and it tends to be very long.

There are several demand-type systems available. Some use a true demand button and others use timers. These use a small, low-wattage pump that forces the hot water quickly through the pipe to a distant faucet.

"You can take an online open house tour of James Dulley's own house and see all the money-savings improvements and products that he tests in his own home. There are nearly 100 pictures with links to the various columns that describe the improvements and products. Go to www.dulley.com/house/ on the Internet to visit his home."