Q — I want to add
a fireplace to my living room, but my house is all-electric and I don’t want to
hassle with wood. Will the new electric and the ones that use canned gelled fuel
provide efficient heating?-John F.
A — Those two types of complete fireplace kits are your best options
for someone in your situation. You can be sitting in front of a fire, with either
an electric or a gelled-fuel fireplace, 15 minutes after taking it out of the
box and plugging it in. Installing a wood-burning fireplace takes days or weeks
because you will have to add a chimney or flue, and it’s expensive.
The real flames from a gelled-fuel (renewable natural
grape-alcohol base) model or the simulated flames from the new electric fireplaces
are difficult to distinguish from a real wood fire. The mechanism in some of
the electric fireplaces also creates a realistic log-crackling sound. For people
who already have an existing fireplace, an electric log kit can be purchased
separately and installed.
Since electric fireplaces plug into a standard wall
outlet, they are limited to 1,500 watts of heat, as are most electric heaters.
No heated air is drawn out of your house as with a standard fireplace, so no
heat is wasted. The gelled-fuel fireplaces produce about 2,500 Btu of heat per
hour and burn about four hours with a single 16-ounce can. A log set can burn
just one or several cans simultaneously to vary the heat output and the appearance
of the flames. If you choose to buy an entire fireplace kit, you will find the
hand-finished real wood, marble, stone, etc., fireplace surrounds and mantels
rival the best gas log fireplaces. Since high heat is not a factor, attractive
bookcases and shelves can be built close to the opening.
What makes the electric fireplaces ideal is that
you can use them year-round for the ambiance of a fire. The electronic controls
and tiny motors used to create the realistic flames and sounds consume less
than 200 watts. Using your electric fireplace with the heat turned off will
barely increase the cooling load on your central air conditioner.
Gelled-fuel fireplaces should only be used during
the winter: burning the fuel during the summer adds both heat and humidity to
the indoor air. Although the fumes from burning grape-based gelled alcohol with
ample combustion air are not harmful, they do add greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide)
to the environment.
As an engineer and former Star Wars toy designer
for Kenner, I marvel at the simplicity of the methods used to produce the realistic-looking
flames with electric logs. Many models allow you to adjust the appearance from
relaxing, lazy, flickering flames to a raging fire. The heat output, when switched
on, can be controlled independently of the flames’ appearance.
One of the neatest designs is the Visiflame electric
log. This design uses a smoked acrylic plastic movie-type screen located in
the back of the fireplace behind the logs. Red and gold lights inside the logs
create the appearance of embers and also reflect off foil ribbons onto the smoked
The logs used in a gelled-fuel fireplace also look
realistic. There is a special grate and burning chamber that holds the cans
of fuel. This fuel chamber has an adjustable grate to control the rate of burn,
size of the flames, and the heat output. The 24-inch-wide logs can hold up to
six cans of gelled fuel for a maximum of 15,000 Btu of heat per hour.
Unlike vent-free natural gas fireplaces, there are
no local codes banning gelled-fuel fireplaces. Pop the top off of the cans and
place them into the burning chamber in the logs. The fuel lights easily with
a match. To put the fire out, a special hook is used to slide a cover over the
cans to extinguish them.