Winter is just around the corner, and few things signify the coming season better than the warmth of a fireplace. But with today's technology, the means of creating such enjoyment have gone well beyond lighting newspaper and kindling wood. Here are today's best ways to keep the home fires burning.

Home Is Where the Hearth Is

The traditional masonry fireplace and chimney have long been key elements of residential construction. This is a list of brick chimney and firebox components, along with some general maintenance concerns.

* Ash pit-a chamber located below the firebox for the collection and removal of ashes.

* Damper-a pivoting cast-iron plate, positioned in the area where the firebox and smoke chamber meet. This device regulates drafts and, when open, allows smoke to exit.

* Flue-the inner lining of the chimney, composed of an incombustible material such as terra-cotta or brick. This lining protects and helps carry away embers.

* Repointing-the process of removing sandy or deteriorating mortar and replacing the, void with new mortar. The need for this procedure should be checked out at least once a year. Loose or crumbling mortar can allow moisture and dust to damage the flue lining.

To Vent or Not To Vent

Only a few years ago, the prospect of not venting a gas fireplace would have led to disaster. Times-and prefab firebox units-have changed. The following list describes the variety of gas models that are presently on the market.

* Top-vented units-As the name implies, these appliances operate like standard masonry fireplaces by requiring a chimney that vents through the roof.

Note: Most top-vented types require a 4- or 5-inch round exhaust stack; therefore, approved flexible flues must be inserted in existing chimneys to create proper smoke draw. Other means of exhaust consist of metal pipe stacks, which are specifically sold with individual models, or by a special aluminum gas pipe called a "B-Vent." As with all firebox assemblies, be sure to use only those stacks specified by the manufacturer.

Top-vented models are also a good choice for new homes, particularly single-story ones. Other features such as wall switches, thermostats, and remote controls make starting a fire effortless. These options can understandably add to the cost of the units, which range from around $600 to $2,500. Mantels and decorative firebox surrounds affect the price as well.

* Direct-vented units-Unlike top-- vented fireplaces, which require a vertical stack, these appliances exhaust to the exterior through a horizontal pipe directly behind the firebox. Because of this arrangement, direct-vented fireplaces are more versatile in their placement-provided that they back up to an exterior wall.

The price on this type of fireplace can run anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500. As with the top-vented types, upgraded features add to the cost.

* Ventless units-Yes, you read right, ventless. While direct-vent fireboxes provide more location options than top-- vented ones, ventless models can be placed just about anywhere heat is desired. Outfitted with an ODS (oxygen depletion sensor), these prefab appliances will shut off the gas supply if oxygen levels become unsafe.

Despite these benefits, there are some precautions associated with ventless units. A metal hood that attaches to the top of the firebox opening is required if a mantel is too close. Check with your local building officials. Robert Martin