Firing Up The Imagination

Ever since we moved into this house some ten years ago, my wife has irregularly reminded me that she hates the rather cheap and nasty, imitation coal effect, fan driven, generates hardly any warmth, gas fire that the builders installed. Besides which, since we put a flat screen TV above it, we can't actually use it anyway. I took out all the unrealistic imitation coals years ago and replaced them with a nice contemporary array of pebbles, but - I have to agree - it's not exactly an attractive focal point. Especially since we're art deco in terms of the rest of the furnishings.

So, as it's finally got round to time for redecorating, the executive decision is that we'll junk the fire altogether and go for something different. I suggested we just fill in the hole and get a "roaring log fire" screensaver for the Media Center, which drives the TV. Easy. Quick splash of emulsion on the walls and ceiling, new carpet, and I'm done. However, I was persuaded that we should take a trip to one of those fireplace warehouses to have a look at the different kinds of fires that are available these days. And, as it's a topic I don't generally tend to keep abreast of, I have to say I was stunned by some of the new fangled devices.

It seems that the "in thing" these days is a wall-hung electric fire that is basically just a big sheet of black glass. Except, when you turn it in, there's imitation flames. And not just some half-hearted flicker from an orange light bulb with a spinning disk on top like the old one I remember my Mother had in her lounge. Oh no, now there is a war going on between manufacturers to provide the most realistic imitation fire effects.

The salesman patiently explained that one we were looking at contained an array of powerful LED lamps that are filtered electronically, and the light passes through a set of randomly pulsating ribbons driven by a computer-controlled fan, bounces off two mirrors, and is focused onto a back projection screen. In conjunction with the random glowing ember effect generated by more electronics, it actually did look, in a strange kind of way, quite realistic.

That is, until we went to another showroom where they have one that goes all the way in terms of technology. It uses a large LCD display panel (probably a computer monitor) to display a continually cycling video of a real fire. I guess you couldn't expect anything more realistic than that (unless you take the low-tech route of actually having a real fire). And then the sales lady helpfully intervened by picking up the remote control (!), and demonstrating the three different types of imitation fire video it includes: a roaring log fire, a gently glowing log fire, and a coal fire.

And there's more. Press some other button and you can adjust the display brightness "to match the ambient room lighting" she explained, or adjust the speed of the flames to suit your current state of mind. And then she pressed another button and a gentle blue "mood lighting" started to emanate from the sides making it seem like the fire was floating on the wall. And you can change the color of the mood lighting to amber or white as well. And don't forget the built-in sleep timer, or the "on-screen" thermostat. Yes, as you press the remote control buttons, a series of menus appear in the middle of the flames!

And then, just as I was wondering if the world had gone completely mad, she said "Oh, and you'll like this", pressed another button, and the fire started playing burning wood crackling noises. And, as you probably guessed by now, you can adjust the volume to suit your "auditory requirements". Wow. It seems like we could throw away the TV altogether, and pleasantly while away our evenings reprogramming the fire instead.

OK, so I can see that this is one way to get the ambience of a real fire with no more effort than two screws in the wall and putting a plug on the end of the wire. So how do you explain the electric fire that one of the major manufacturers has just released? It's another LCD monitor type, but it has eight built-in videos. There's the expected log and coal fires, plus six "scenic options" that include a mountain stream, countryside views, a forest glade, and other similar videos. No doubt with the appropriate quantity of birds and animals passing through the scene. And, of course, matching sound for each one. Though they don't, somewhat surprisingly, seem to include an aquarium scene. But they do stress in the adverts that it has a multi-format media card slot, so you can play your own videos and photos. I had to keep reminding myself that we were looking at electric fires.

But here's the thing. We haven't actually used the existing gas fire at all for more than nine years. We live in a modern centrally-heated house, and we don't need extra warmth. So, if we bought one of these fancy new ones, the only thing it would ever do is play videos of an imitation fire - complete with sound that would rapidly become extremely annoying. And for the price they charge for these wonderful new heating appliances, I could buy a cheap DVD player and a large computer monitor, and still have change left to buy a new sofa and chairs.

In fact, as there is already a big TV on the wall, it seems like a roaring log fire screensaver is the obvious answer. And it only took a whole day trekking round fireplace showrooms to discover that. "Ah, but", said 'er indoors, "wouldn't it be nice to be able to have some extra heat to warm our toes on those cold winter evenings?" OK, so here's an idea. I'll just buy one of those slim-line fan heaters, spray paint it black, and nail it to the wall behind the TV. Job done.

And maybe, while I've got the paint brushes out, paint a big black rectangle on the wall below the TV so it looks like we actually have got a posh modern fire. I wonder what the executive decision will be on that...

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