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Choosing Your Fireplace: Electric, Gas or Wood

Home Efficiency Fireplace InsertNothing says home comfort quite like a fire on the hearth. Dancing flames offer light and warmth, creating a cozy environment for entertaining or quiet evenings alone. If you don't have a fireplace already, you might want to think about adding one to your home. Adding a fireplace can be a major expense, but its well worth the investment. Did you know that having a fireplace can raise value of your home as much as 12%?

There are numerous options when it comes to fireplace installation, but the biggest distinction between them is what fuel they use. Will you burn wood, gas or electricity to fuel your fire? Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, and there is no single "best choice" for everyone. In this article, we'll weigh the various options and help you discover the best choice for you.

Cost

There are two cost areas to consider when comparing types of fireplaces for the home: purchase price and operation.

Purchase prices can vary widely, and can be inflated by installation costs if construction work is required. Both wood-burning and gas-burning fireplaces require venting to the outdoors, which means a chimney or other flue system built into your home if they don't already exist. In addition, gas lines must be installed by licensed professionals, with additional holes drilled into the wall to provide access. The materials alone can cost thousands of dollars, with contractor fees added on.

Electric fireplaces, however, cost only a few hundred dollars, and require no more installation than putting up a bookcase. Just plug it in and enjoy.

Fireplace cost

Operating costs for each type of fireplace will depend largely on where you live, as rates for electricity, gas and wood vary from region to region. In order to get a precise figure for your own use, you will have to consult your utility bills and local gas and wood suppliers to determine fuel costs, and then multiply that by how much you plan on using the fireplace.

But rough estimates based on average costs tell us that an electric fireplace will cost you about 10 cents an hour to run, resulting in annual expenditures of $33 a year. Gas, at a rate of about $0.17 an hour, will cost you $60 per year. Buying wood, though, can cost as much as $190 per year; unless you're lucky enough to live somewhere you can source your wood for free!

Heating Efficiency

Alongside cost, you will want to consider how efficient each type of fireplace is in providing heat. Heat values are typically measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs). A BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1°F, but for heating purposes it is easier to understand if we approximate the value of a BTU as the heat produced by a single burning match.

The BTUs a fireplace can produce tells you how large a space it is capable of warming up. Electric fireplaces are limited in this capacity by the standard electric current available. The maximum power available for a 120v outlet is 1500 watts, which converts to 5115 BTUs, which is enough to heat about 500 square feet. Most electric fireplaces on the market fall somewhat short of that goal, with BTU values between 4000 and 4500 BTUs. (Click here to read more about calculating BTUs for electric heaters.)

Gas and wood-burning fireplaces allow much greater heat outputs, depending on how much fuel you put into them. A well-stocked, high-efficiency, wood-burning stove is capable of putting out as much as 80,000 BTUs, which makes them popular choices for whole-home heating. A traditional living room mantle firebox, however, will produce more in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 BTUs (depending on the size).

Gas-fueled fireplaces also have a similar range of output, between 8,500 to 60,000 BTUs, depending on the size of the unit and how high you turn on the gas. Gas has the additional advantage of heating up very quickly; you'll start to feel the effects of the heat almost as soon as you turn it on.

Fireplace heating efficiency

While we're discussing heating efficiency, we must also consider the wider issue of energy efficiency, or how much energy is lost during the production of heat. Gas and wood fireplaces must have vents of some sort (chimneys and flues) to exhaust dangerous fumes and smoke outside. A substantial amount of heat will be lost through these openings, as much as 70% in the standard fireplace found in most homes. In fact, a fireplace can actually draw heat from the home and send it up the chimney, which means you'll actually lose heat instead of gaining it. (Glass fireplace screens are a great way to prevent this heat loss.)

In comparison, electric fireplaces convert 100% of the electricity used into heat that is sent directly to your room. There are no vents or chimneys to pull heat out, so there's no fuel being "wasted" in the process.

Environment

These days, most people want to do what they can to help the environment even in small ways, so environmental concerns may have an impact on what type of fireplace you choose. Which is greener - wood, gas or electric fireplaces?

As stated above, electric fireplaces are 100% efficient, meaning they convert all the electricity used directly to heat your room. However, the production of electricity from oil, gas or coal is only about 30% efficient, so a lot of potential energy is lost before the current ever reaches your house. In addition, the process emits harmful levels of CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change, and further exhausts non-renewable resources. Fortunately, more and more electricity is being produced by alternative means. If your electricity is sourced from solar, wind, tidal or biomass energy, then an electric fireplace is the greenest choice you can make.

Fireplace environnment

Compared to other fossil fuels, natural gas is much less harmful to the environment, so burning it for heat is a big improvement over the coal or oil-fired heaters of the past. But it is still a fossil fuel that creates greenhouse gases, and it is still a non-renewable resource, therefore not a very green alternative.

Wood, on the other hand, is considered a "carbon neutral" fuel, which means burning it adds no more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than a tree would naturally emit during its natural lifespan. And since wood is a renewable resource, this makes wood fireplaces an environmentally-friendly choice, particularly when used in specialty pellet stoves and high-efficiency wood stoves.

Health & Safety

Though wood fires cause no significant damage to the global environment, they can have a negative impact on your local environment and to the health of your family in general. The smoke from burning wood can contain carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, volatile organic compounds (the major components of acid rain), ozone, and particulate matter that can impede breathing. And depending on where the wood comes from, it might contain toxic and cancer-causing fumes such as benzene and formaldehyde.

When these fumes circulate through your home, your family is forced to inhale them, which can aggravate chronic respiratory conditions like asthma or emphysema. When fumes escape through the chimney, they contribute to local air pollution. In fact, in some areas wood fires are not permitted at all due to the potential damages to crops, property and the overall the health of the local population.Check your local emission standards before installing a wood-burning fireplace in your home.

In addition, the chance of a fire or personal injury is much greater with a wood fire than with the other options. Creosote buildup on the interior of the chimney, obstructions in the flue, sparks that "hop" from the hearth onto flammable materials, burns from accidental contact with the flame or from fireplace equipment - these are all risks that must be considered when using a wood-burning fireplace.

Fireplace health

For gas fireplaces, the risk of accidental burns is reduced, since you don't have to put your hands near the flame to maintain the fire, and there are no random sparks. The biggest risk for gas fireplaces comes from potential gas leaks and from improperly vented exhausts that result in carbon monoxide being released indoors. As long as these units are installed correctly and given regular maintenance, there should be minimal risk.

Electric fireplaces have no more safety risks associated with them than any electric appliance. There are no real flames, and the risk of contact burns are reduced by design features like cool-touch glass. Most come equipped with shut-off features that turn off the electricity in case of overheating. As far as health and safety is concerned, these are by far the best choice for your home.

Convenience

As you are considering your choice of fireplace, you should take a moment to think about how convenient using it will be. How easy will it be to start (and stop) fires once it's installed? How much maintenance will it require?

Wood fires, by far, are the most inconvenient, beginning with the necessity of having to haul in wood for burning. Building a fire takes some skill, and once lit it takes time to work up to a proper blaze. Once the fire is built, you have to keep adding wood to keep it going. If you want to leave, you'll have to wait until it burns out on its own before you can depart. Finally, it's messy to clean up, with ashes and soot on the hearth, creosote in the chimney and smoke residue throughout your home.

Fireplace convenience

In contrast, electric fires require no preparation or attention - just push the on button and you're good to go. When you're done enjoying the fire, just push the power button to turn it off. There's no mess to clean up, and no maintenance except for occasionally checking the plug and cord for wear or damage (like you should with any electric appliance). However - and this is a pretty big however - when the power goes out, you won't be able to use the fireplace at all. If you are planning on using the fireplace as a primary heat source, then you might not want to choose an electric fireplace, since it could be inoperable during winter storms when you need it the most.

Gas fireplaces have all the on-and-off ease of an electric fireplace, but they are not dependent on electricity (unless you have an electric starter, which is something you should consider when making your choice). If the power goes out the fireplace will still provide heat. Plus, there's no wood to haul and none of the messy clean up associated with wood fires. All in all, this makes gas fires the most convenient choice available.

Ambience

If heat is the primary reason you're installing a fireplace, then you can skip this section. But for most people thinking about fireplaces in their homes, ambience - how it makes you feel - is a major factor in their decision making. There is something primal and ancient about the effect of a natural wood fire on our senses. The way it smells, the way it sounds, the way it looks, all of these can have an impact on how much you enjoy your fireplace.

Neither gas nor electric fires provide the same multisensory affect of a real wood fire, but the flames of a gas fire are at least real flames. If it is the visual appearance of a fire that most appeals to you, then you might not miss the aroma or the popping and crackling of burning wood.

Fireplace ambience

Electric fireplaces lack real flame, but the special effects used to create the appearance of fire have improved radically over the past few years. Digital projections, glowing resin logs, and misting "smoke" combine for a more realistic experience than ever. There are even electric fireplaces that have sound effects that mimic real wood fires. Whether these effects are a suitable substitute for a real fire is purely a matter of personal taste.

For most of us, nothing satisfies the senses like the real thing. If the ambience of a fire on the hearth is the most important thing, then a real wood burning fireplace is the only choice.

Summary

In conclusion, here is a summary of which factors each type of heater rated the most strongly for.

 Wood Gas Electric
Cost   

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Efficiency

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Environment

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Health & Safety checkmark   checkmark      
Convenience  checkmark   checkmark      
Ambience

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* For highly efficient heat output.
** For energy efficiency. 100% of electric energy is converted to heat.
*** When using alternative electrical supplies such as solar or wind power.

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