Electric Fireplaces — Safe, Cozy, Clean Flames
January 11th, 2021 by Joe Wachunas
In past articles, we’ve profiled some of the key technologies that are essential to the all-electric modern home of the future: heat pumps for space heating; induction stoves for incredibly precise and fast cooking; electric cars for pollution-free transportation; and heat pump water heaters for hot water.
To this list we now add the electric fireplace. The electric fireplace is a radically improved, often overlooked, technology that has a ton going for it. Not only does it kick one of the last bastions of natural gas out of the house, but it brings an electric coziness that people usually associate with burning things.
My family just purchased an electric fireplace, which we will install later this month, and Electrify Now is delivering a webinar on this topic next week, so I thought it would be good timing to explore this technology that rarely grabs headlines but is an important piece of our clean energy future all the same.
The Current Fireplace Landscape
Let’s begin with a brief tour of current hearths in American homes. 35% of all homes have a fireplace and another 29% have wood or pellet stoves, fireplace inserts, or gas fireplaces.
Yet the traditional wood burning fireplace is disappearing. New homes with fireplaces declined by almost two thirds, from 1978 to 2017, possibly because fireplaces are plagued with problems from loss of heat out the chimney, to indoor air pollution, to risk of fire spreading. There are some advantages to burning biomass (I have a pellet stove in my den and love it), and in a future article I’ll explore the pluses and minuses of wood in an otherwise all-electric home.
Natural gas, however, is a fireplace fuel that should be promptly replaced as we rid our homes of fossil fuels and Electrify Everything in the transition to a decarbonized society. When the City of Oakland banned methane (natural gas) in December 2020, it declared, “substituting natural gas with electricity is one of the quickest, safest, and least expensive pathways to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.” Even though gas fireplaces don’t use much energy, eliminating them creates one less use case for this fossil fuel. Unfortunately, the trends in fireplace demand are heading in the wrong direction, with increasing numbers of homebuyers reportedly seeking gas fireplaces when shopping for homes.
Enter the Electric Fireplace
Until recently, fireplaces were synonymous with combustion, and the words “electricity” and “fire” were rarely paired together in a positive way. Many of us imagine the old, electric technology of resistance heating when we think of electric heat, and those glowing red, inefficient coils are hardly associated with a comforting fireplace. But like many of the new, clean electric home technologies mentioned above, the electric fireplace has undergone rapid, and appealing, changes over the last ten years. Let’s discuss the many benefits.
The Flame Experience
Let’s start with what most people don’t associate with electric fireplaces — a great looking flame. Thanks to LEDs and a mirror element that rolls and reflects light, the electric flame is amazingly realistic. You can also change the color of the flames (which my daughter is very excited about) to match the decor of your house or your mood, creating a fun, unique, modern feature different from any other fireplace technology.
Electric Fireplaces are cool to the touch, which is great for kids and pets. They also have all the benefits of fire, without the risk of open flames, sparks, and combustion. This means there’s no worry about fires. You can also put electric fireplaces near other appliances, including TVs.
Flame with No Heat
Another unique feature of electric fireplaces is that you can watch the flames and experience the ambiance at any time of the day or year. All models come with an electric space heater to heat the room, but most have the option of turning the heater off to simply enjoy the flames.
Electric fireplaces are, by far, the most inexpensive type of fireplace to buy and install. They typically cost from $300 to $1000 compared to $1,000 to $3,000 for a gas fireplace. My family spent just over $700 on a modern fireplace two weeks ago.
Installation is another key area for savings. Unlike gas or wood stoves, which typically cost $2,000 to $10,000 and require a permit and a professional to vent and install, electric fireplaces are a cinch to mount or recess, and most people do it themselves. They require no outdoor venting, which means no costly pipes or chimney bricks to be run outside.
Better for the Environment
Electric fireplaces are better both for indoor and outdoor air quality and pollution. Burning wood and gas results in significant amounts of indoor air pollution with carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter released (with wood as the biggest culprit). Electric fireplaces’ homes are free from all this pollution, and families can enjoy both beautiful flames and clean air. They are also energy efficient — not in the heating elements (which are electric resistance heat and not terribly efficient) but because people can use them for zonal heating to warm the room they’re in, as opposed to a central furnace which heats many empty rooms unnecessarily.
Because wood fuel comes from plants that pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, some argue it has zero carbon emissions. Yet older wood stoves put out lots of air contamination for our neighbors and community to breathe. Natural gas has major problems with fracking, leakage and carbon emissions, which is why cities across the US are moving to ban it. Electricity, on the other hand, is getting dramatically cleaner every year with the rise of renewables and the demise of coal.
Ease of Use
Electric fireplaces start with the push of a button and require no chopping, stacking or loading wood or ash clean up.
Bells and Whistles
Like other modern electric appliances, electric fireplaces can come equipped with lots of new features, like remote controls, bluetooth audio speakers, wifi connections, and touchscreen panels. These things don’t really matter much to me but I’m sure some people think they’re cool!
For all of these reasons, I can’t wait to install my electric fireplace and continue to spread the word about this 21st century hearth and its clean, non-polluting, easy, inexpensive, multi-colored flames.
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