When someone says "fireplace," you're likely to think of a traditional masonry fireplace that comes built into a home. These fireplaces burn wood, which can be a fair amount of work. If you don't want to go to the trouble of buying wood, seasoning it, starting an maintaining a fire, and cleaning up the mess afterwards, a traditional fireplace may not be right for you. But if you love the traditional romantic look and a roaring, "real" fire in the grate, this might just be perfect.
Prefab fireplaces are less sturdy and less bulky than a traditional masonry fireplace. But they can be installed after the fact without having to tear down a wall of your house to retrofit it for a firebox and chimney. The chimney of a prefab fireplace is usually round and metal, but it can be encased in an artificial brick housing. (Real brick would be too heavy.) Prefab fireplaces can burn wood like a traditional fireplace, or you can get one that burns gas for easier use. The prefab fireplace may be the right answer for a home that didn't come with a fireplace already installed.
Wood burning stoves actually use the wood you burn to heat your home. You might think a traditional fireplace does this, but masonry fireplaces generally aren't that effective. Older styles even remove heat from your home while the fire is roaring. A wood burning stove doesn't give you as much of a fire to look at. The firebox is far more enclosed to prevent heat from escaping your home and going up the chimney. A wood burning stove is a good choice if want a fire that actually warms your home.
Wood pellet stoves are environmentally friendly. They burn pellets made of compacted sawdust, which would otherwise be a waste material. They can be very efficient at heating a room inexpensively.
Gas fireplaces aren't for heat as much as for show. Some of them will heat efficiently, but most won't. The "logs" can look genuine and some will even give off a genuine yellow flame (at the expense of a little extra soot). Gas fireplaces are low maintenance. Most will have to be vented though in some states it's possible to get an unvented model.
Gel fireplaces burn a fuel made from grain alcohol for a non-toxic burn. They are small and portable and don't put out a lot of heat. But they can bring the romance of a fire to an apartment or home where other sorts of fireplaces are impossible.
Electric fireplaces produce a realistic "blaze" and can also heat the room. Since there are no real flames, electric fireplaces don't have to be vented and you don't need to worry about toxic emissions.
You can convert your traditional masonry fireplace into a more efficient wood burner, a gas fireplace, or an electric with the purchase of an insert. If you have a traditional fireplace and are tired of the waste or the muss and fuss, an insert may be the answer.