Fireplaces 101— Pros and Cons of Wood burning, Gas, Electric and Alcohol/Ethanol Fireplaces— BYHYU 086
You’ve probably dreamed about having a fireplace in your living room, master bedroom, your outdoor living space, or even your master bathroom. Fireplaces these days are far more than a practical source of heat. That’s why people not only in Vermont and Michigan want them, but people building homes in California, Texas, and even Las Vegas plan to have fireplaces installed in their dream homes. Fireplaces add beauty, character, coziness and drama to almost any space and they also add to the perceived value of a house.
This week, we'll go over the pros and cons of the different types of fireplaces, including wood burning, gas, electric and alcohol burning/ethanol fireplaces.
Let’s start with wood burning fireplaces.
WOOD BURNING FIREPLACES
They are the oldest and most traditional fireplace option. People choose wood burning fireplaces because they like the authentic look and smell of burning wood and the relaxing crackling sounds that come from a wood burning fireplace. That is the main advantage of wood burning fireplaces— that charming atmosphere created by real wood fires.
But wood burning fireplaces have some cons.
Wood burning fireplaces require that you regularly chop or buy wood, and find somewhere to store it. And you’ll only want to burn seasoned wood, not green wood.
Green wood is wood that has been cut relatively recently. Seasoned wood is wood that has been cut, dried and stored under cover for at least 6-12 months. Seasoned wood is low in moisture and burns cleaner and more thoroughly than green wood. Green wood doesn’t burn as well, so it creates more soot than seasoned wood when burned.
Another con of wood burning fireplaces is that they require more maintenance than other options. Not only do homeowners need to regularly clean ashes out of wood burning fireplaces, but the chimney should be swept or cleaned of soot at least once a year. Although homeowners can do this themselves, it’s best to have an experienced professional sweep the chimney so he or she can also check for cracks or other damage that may have developed.
Soot and other by products of fire will naturally build up on the chimney walls of a wood burning fireplace. If that soot gets too thick because the chimney is not cleaned regularly enough, it can potentially catch fire, causing a “chimney fire.”
Finally, heat loss is another disadvantage of wood burning fireplaces. Not only do fumes and smoke exit through the chimney of a wood burning fireplace, but so does heat. Some sources say up to 80-90% of heat produced in a wood burning fireplace escapes through the chimney.
Significantly more efficient than wood burning fireplaces, are gas fireplaces.
Gas fireplaces offer much of the charm of wood burning fireplaces with less maintenance and less heat loss. Gas fireplaces burn natural gas or propane instead of wood. Natural gas is less expensive than propane and produces about 5% more heat. Choose propane only where natural gas isn't available. Most gas units are easy to use, requiring only the push of a button to turn or flip of a switch to turn them on and off.
Gas fireplaces come in 3 main varieties: B vent, direct vent and ventless.
B VENT GAS FIREPLACES
B vent gas fireplaces are vented similarly to traditional wood burning fireplaces. The B vent is a pipe that runs from the fireplace unit up to the roof, where it vents outside. The B vent system uses a small amount of inside air to create combustion.
Since they are only moderately efficient in producing heat, B vent units are a better choice for fireplaces that you want for beauty instead of for heat.
The B vent system might be simple or challenging to install, depending on your house design. You’re limited to where you can put this type of gas fireplace since the vent pipe has to run to an appropriate section of the roof.
Those are some disadvantages of B vent gas fireplaces. One of the main advantages of B vent fireplaces is that they do exhaust to the outside, keeping the inside air cleaner.
DIRECT VENT GAS FIREPLACES
Most gas fireplaces sold today are direct vent fireplaces. Direct-vent gas fireplaces efficiently produce heat. About 70% of the heat produced remains in the house. Fixed glass panels cover direct-vent fireboxes (the firebox is the main box opening of a fireplace where the fire burns). Those fixed glass panels ensure that the heated air doesn't escape up the flue, as it does with a wood burning fireplace.
Direct-vent units are easier and less expensive to install than traditional wood-burning or most B vent gas fireplaces.
The direct-vent fireplace involves a two part venting system— one part for combustion and one part for exhaust. The combustion part of the system brings outside air in so it can fuel the flame. The exhaust part of the direct vent system takes combustion gases created by the fire to the outside.
A pro of a direct vent gas fireplace is that the vent system can go through either walls or the roof, so there are fewer limitations as to where these fireplaces can be installed.
Something else that people like about a direct vent gas fireplace is that the flame has an authentic yellowish color, like the flame you see in wood burning fires. That yellowish flame is in contrast to the blue flame that you see with ventless units, which we’ll talk about in just a second.
Another pro of direct vent fireplaces is that they are completely sealed and they use no air from within the home.
Many people see that sealed glass front of direct vent fireplaces as a con. Direct vent fireplaces also produce a smaller than usual flame. And finally, the position and look of the ceramic logs in a direct vent fireplace cannot be changed, or incomplete combustion will occur.
VENTLESS/VENT-FREE GAS FIREPLACES
A vent-free fireplace does not required a chimney or venting pipe. Because the burner of the fireplace is reportedly 99% efficient, makers of ventless gas fireplaces say there’s no need for a vent.
Ventless fireplaces use inside air for combustion and they also off gas into inside air. (sounds a little scary). Flames are said to burn very cleanly without creating significant carbon monoxide. Hard to believe, but that’s what manufacturers say. All the heat from ventless units remains inside the house.
The pros of ventless fireplaces are that they are typically less expensive that other options since they don’t have a vent system, and they are easy of install. Vent-free fireplaces are typically the most efficient of all fireplaces since all the heat generated stays in the room. Another advantage of ventless fireplaces is that they can be installed almost anywhere.
Since fumes from a vent-free fireplace stay inside the house (although they are supposed to be minimal) , some people may be sensitive to combustion by products. In addition, vent-free fireplaces produce quite a bit of moisture and can sometimes produce condensation on windows. Ventless fireplaces produce a low, blue flame which some people find less attractive than the larger, yellow flames of other options. Finally, Logs are set by the manufacturer and cannot be moved.
Electric fireplaces use light technology to create the look of a fire. Electric fireplaces come in a variety of styles and sizes. They can be added to almost any room that has an electric outlet.
This type of fireplace is primarily used for decorative purposes and can be floor standing or wall mounted. All you have to do is follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding placement and plug it in.
The main pros of electric fireplaces are their low cost and their ability to be placed in numerous locations. Because they don’t have a real flame, they don’t require venting.
That brings me to the main disadvantage of electric fireplaces: since they don’t produce real flames, the “fire” can look pretty fake.
ALCOHOL BURNING FIREPLACES
Alcohol burning fireplaces are also a vent free option. They burn either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, and are fairly new on the market.
A pro of using alcohol as a fuel is that it is one of the cleanest burning fuels available. It produces only water vapor, carbon dioxide and trace amounts of carbon monoxide that are well below accepted limits. However, a room with a alcohol burning fireplace needs adequate mechanical or natural ventilation, such as central air conditioning or windows.
Because alcohol burning fireplaces require no venting, they are low in maintenance, but they have to be refilled when the alcohol runs out. Pure ethanol tends to create a bluer flame as compared to the more golden flame produced by isopropyl alcohol.
The cons of alcohol burning fireplaces are that alcohol is more expensive to burn per hour compared to natural gas, the flame tends to be on the smaller side, and experts disagree as to how “green” and energy-efficient burning alcohol is.
So, in summary, although gas fireplaces don’t produce nearly the smoke or odors that wood burning fireplaces can, the flames created by gas fireplaces emit low levels of pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulfur oxides. Wood burning fireplaces and B vent and direct vent gas fireplaces take their pollutants outside. Vent-free fireplaces release some pollutants into your living spaces, but manufacturers say that in a properly ventilated space, those pollutants only rarely cause problems.
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Thanks for joining me. I hope you learned as much as I did and I hope you’ll join me next week for the another episode of Build Your House Yourself University--BYHYU.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete, it’s subject to change and it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.