Jerry Prokes of Lakeville didn't hold back when he described an electric fireplace as looking like "a piece of junk." The plastic nodules meant to convey white landscape rocks or white-hot coals looked kitschy at best.

But Prokes is no purist who insists on a wood-burning fireplace. He recently bought a different electric model for $400 at Sam's Club with a cherry mantel that he's satisfied with. "From a distance, the flames look real," he said.

Fireplaces feed the need Minnesotans have to take the chill off, but adding a gas or wood-burning chimney in a home can easily cost $3,000 or more. Electric models with built-in space heaters supply some of the ambience and as much heat as the real thing -- for a fraction of the cost. In these turbulent economic times, "plug and play" fireplaces have become a hot commodity for people who want a looky, lower-cost option to the real thing.

Menards, which added several models this year because of an increase in demand, now sells about nine electric fireplaces. Sales at have risen 30 percent each year since 2008, said sales manager Lori Stockset. "The low initial price and the zone heating add up to cost savings, but a lot of people just want the ambience," she said.

Electrics solve several issues. Venting is never a problem because a glorified space heater doesn't require venting. And calling an electrician isn't necessary. With the illusion of a flame created by a simple incandescent or LED lightbulb and the warmth coming from a 1,500-watt heater, only a three-prong plug-in is needed.

Plus placement is flexible because all models are portable and fairly shallow in depth (about 12 to 15 inches), whether it's a small stove heater or a 72-inch-long fireplace media center.

While most people buy the electric models for the coziness factor, Stockset said that some customers claim they've saved money by turning down the house thermostat and warming only the room they're in. However, Consumer Reports magazine said that turning the thermostat to below 60 degrees and heating only one room isn't practical for most homeowners because they move from room to room frequently. In addition, electricity costs twice as much as natural gas, said Tom Hoen, an Xcel Energy spokesman.

To their credit, electric fireplaces are safer and greener than most space heaters. A large electric fireplace is much less likely to be overturned than a space heater. And wood-burning fireplaces can be environmentally and physically harmful. The American Lung Association cites wood stoves and fireplaces as major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States. Wood smoke can be as irritating as cigarette smoke for people with asthma, pulmonary disease or recurring lung infections, said Dr. Brenda Guyer, an asthma and allergic diseases physician at Park Nicollet.

For Prokes, the decision was more economical than environmental. "I could spend $400 for an electric or $20,000 for a real fireplace that required a major remodel," he said. "For several hundred bucks, I love it."

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or If you spot a deal, share it at