The Pros & Cons of Wood, Gas, Electric, and Alcohol Fireplaces
Every year when the leaves start to fall and the temperature drops, we start looking for ways to add a touch of heat and delight to our homes and enhance social gatherings. Nothing achieves this quite as well as a fireplace. Fireplaces are central to the history of homes and the perfect way to create a relaxing and comforting atmosphere.
There are more fireplace options available now than ever before and HearthCabinet President, Arthur Lasky, an architect for over 30 years, has come across all of them, each with their own unique advantages and disadvantages.
He is frequently asked questions like “What are the advantages of ventless fireplaces?”, “How do wood-burning and gas fireplace alternatives compare?”, and “Why are wood-burning fireplaces being banned in some places?”. To aid those trying to determine what fireplace is best for their application we’ve put together a short list to help navigate the current state of fireplace options.
Wood-burning fireplaces have been used for centuries. Conventional wood fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are typically comprised of a brick or metal firebox, and a chimney, flue or vent.
Advantages: Wood-burning fireplaces can be kept burning for long periods of time as long as the solid fuel is replenished. There are several different wood materials that can be burned including wood pellets, chips, logs and even grass clippings. Solid fuel wood products tend to be more universally available than natural gas and propane options. Burning wood crackles and offers a full sensory experience that many people are familiar with and enjoy.
Disadvantages: About 80% of the heat produced from a typical wood-burning fireplace will be lost up the chimney due to the draft that must be created to vent the smoke from the home. Most wood-burning fireplaces create a net-loss of heat and are not energy efficient. However, newer pellet stoves can be more efficient than their traditional counterparts. Wood-burning fireplaces require regular maintenance and upkeep. Solid wood fuel quality varies and can be more expensive per hour than other fuels. Creosote from dirty fires can build up in chimneys and present serious fire hazards if not regularly cleaned by a professional. Wood-burning fireplaces require a lot of time, labor and materials to build and install which makes them expensive to incorporate into a home or apartment. Wood-burning fireplaces can produce popping embers, rolling logs and other hazards that can cause fires if not properly protected against.
The most important disadvantage of wood-burning fireplaces is the harmful smoke and emissions they produce, indoors and out. It can be thought of like second-hand smoke. Studies have shown that burning wood is a major contributor to particulate pollution in urban areas and poses serious health risks to people living there. For this reason many cities across the country and around the world are placing restrictions and bans on wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. This can make wood-burning fireplaces a risky investment for someone looking to incorporate a new fireplace. There are so many great alternatives to wood-burning fireplaces on the market that the number of serious disadvantages and implications of using wood-burning often outweighs the advantages.
Wood-Burning Fireplace Alternatives
As restrictions and bans on wood-burning fireplaces become more prevalent there is a growing need for alternatives to wood-burning fireplaces. The most common are Gas, Electric, and Alcohol Fireplaces.
Electric fireplaces are not true fireplaces in the traditional sense in that they don’t actually produce a real flame. They are essentially an electric heater or radiator that is dressed to look like a fireplace. Many offer electric lights to simulate the appearance and color of a flame. An electrical connection is required.
Advantages: Electric fireplaces do not burn any type of combustible materials and do not create any waste such as ashes. They require little to no maintenance and some can be installed by the homeowner. Some models can serve as a source of heat.
Disadvantages: Since the fireplaces use electricity for the heater unit, they can significantly raise the electrical bill for people who already pay high utility rates. They cannot be used if the electricity goes out. Also, many people don't like the fake look of electric fireplaces because there are no real flames generated. People wanting a real flame should consider other alternatives.
Vented/Ventless Gas Fireplaces
Gas fireplaces burn natural gas or propane fuels. They consist of a firebox, a chimney or vent, a gas line run to the unit and an electrical connection for some models.
NOTE: While ventless (or vent-free) gas fireplace options do exist they are not approved in many places including New York City. People looking for ventless options should consider alcohol fireplaces.
Advantages: Direct vent gas fireplaces are 75-80% efficient and can be used as a heating source. There are many traditional and contemporary models available. Some are able to be controlled via a remote control. Long continuous flame designs are available. Cost per hour for fuel is relatively cheap compared to solid fuels.
Disadvantages: B-vented gas fireplaces are not efficient for heating purposes in the same way many wood-burning fireplaces are not. Venting, running of gas lines and electrical connections involve considerable time, labor and planning by trade professionals which can make incorporating one cost-prohibitive and introduce more room for human error. Chimneys and gas lines need to be regularly inspected and maintained for safe usage and to eliminate the risk of fire. Improperly sealed gas fireplaces or chimneys can pose serious health risks. Some people are sensitive to odors or fumes from gas fireplaces. Availability of natural gas and propane can vary greatly even within a city. Price per hour of fuel can also vary from place to place. Gas fireplaces can get extremely hot, and laws have been passed recently requiring specific glass screens or barriers to prevent injury from coming into contact with the units. The high heat of gas fireplaces in some instances may make them less than ideal for public, commercial, and hospitality uses.
Using alcohol as a fuel has been very common for over 100 years for everything from fondue and catering, to use in automobiles. For over a decade now, alcohol fuels have been applied for use in fireplaces as well. The benefit of using alcohol as a fuel is that it is among the cleanest burning fuels available – producing only water vapor and carbon dioxide, much like human breath, with trace amounts of carbon monoxide well below accepted limits. This allows alcohol fireplaces to be free of chimneys and the conventional venting required for wood-burning and gas fireplaces. A room should be appropriately sized and have adequate mechanical or natural ventilation, such as central air or windows.
The two most popular alcohol fuel types are Isopropyl and Ethanol alcohol in either a liquid or gel form. Many ethanol and bio-ethanol fuels sold are actually a combination of ethyl and isopropyl alcohol.
Advantages: Alcohol fireplaces are easy to use and maintain as they do not produce ash or other waste products. They are not a permanent part of construction and can be placed in virtually any room since they do not require a chimney or venting. Ethanol and Isopropyl alcohols can be made from renewable biomass making them a more eco-friendly fuel option than wood or gas. The cost of incorporating an alcohol fireplace is considerably less than conventional vented fireplaces. There is no chimney to build and no gas or electrical lines to run. Alcohol gel is available in single-use, pre-filled containers which are very safe and easy to use. Cost per hour of use can be comparable to wood and solid fuels.
Disadvantages: Alcohol is not a cost-efficient fuel for heating because it burns at a lower temperature than wood and gas. Alcohol is more expensive to burn per hour compared to natural gas. Alcohol fireplaces require physical fuel replacement, like wood-burning fireplaces do, but unlike many gas fireplace systems. Experts disagree as to how “green” and energy-efficient ethanol is to produce compared to fuels derived from fossil fuels despite the fact it is clean-burning.
Ethanol vs. Isopropyl Alcohol
Ethanol (Bio-ethanol) and Isopropyl Alcohol are both extremely clean-burning. The biggest difference is that pure ethanol tends to create a bluer flame when burning compared to the golden flame produced by isopropyl.
Liquid Alcohol vs. Alcohol Gel
Gelled, non-pourable alcohol fuel is a very safe way to use alcohol as a fuel. It is available in single-use, prefilled cans and cartridges. Alcohol gel has the additional benefit of producing a crackling sound as it burns. When the fuel is spent the metal containers are easily recyclable.
Liquid alcohol fuel can cost a little less than gel fuels. Also the fuel reservoir is often larger than gel cartridges or cans, but there are multiple steps required to handle liquid fuel, pour it and refill vessels correctly without incident. Pourable liquid fuel systems can be dangerous if usage directions are not known, clearly understood and strictly adhered to. Since alcohol can burn invisibly extreme care must be taken when refilling the fuel reservoir with liquid alcohol to make sure that the fire is extinguished to prevent any possibility of blow-back.
So What do HearthCabinet Ventless Fireplaces Use?
HearthCabinet Ventless Fireplaces use single-use prefilled alcohol gel fuel cartridges. They are safe and easy to use, requiring no chimney, gas or electricity. They are the only ventless fireplaces approved for use by the New York City Fire Department and Department of Buildings based on the fuel system and unique safety design features.
Learn more about modern fireplace options and designs
Modern fireplace designs make planning for a fireplace as exciting as ever. Alcohol gel and ventless fireplace technology now allow anyone to enjoy the warmth of a fireplace in their home or business. If you want to learn more about modern fireplace design or see our ventless fireplaces models, contact a member of our HearthCabinet Design Team today.