All Fireplaces are Not Created Equal

For the average homeowner, the process of selecting a gas fireplace may be a complete mystery.  Basically, it all begins with two fundamental questions.  One, how much heat does the space need to provide a comfortable environment?  And two, what do you want it to look like?  Casual observation will reveal a myriad of similar-looking units that all claim to be of high quality.  But when you start digging into the details, some interesting facts emerge.

First of all, gas fireplaces are rated by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as either a ‘certified room heater’ or ‘decorative gas appliance’.   Since Tahoe is subject to rather chilly weather, most folks opt for a room heater.  This goes along with the logic that, if you’re paying for the gas, you might as well get the heat.  An additional benefit to these fireplaces is they will continue to operate when the power goes out.  As you may have guessed, this can keep things mighty pleasant in the house during winter.  On the other hand, a decorative appliance might be fine if you’ve got a lot of money to burn and aren’t worried about heating your home. 

But the distinction does not end there.  When we look at fireplace design, the heat exchange system in particular, we find even greater inconsistencies.  The heat exchanger determines how the burning of gas will be transmitted into heat for your living area.  If you fire up two different 30,000 Btu ‘certified’ units, one of good quality and the other a ‘bargain’ brand, you will notice completely different amounts of heat being generated from each.  Both fireplaces are burning 30K Btu’s worth of gas, but the one with the better quality exchanger will heat the room much more efficiently.  There are several lesser Btu models on the market today that, due to their superior design, clearly outperform ones with higher Btu ratings.  That equals less money paid for heat received.  So it pays to do some research.  Better yet, visit a showroom that has the fireplace burning to actually feel how much heat it kicks out.

Now, how much heat do you actually need?  A qualified Heating Technician can help you decide what range of heat will work best by factoring in room size, and age and insulation value of the home.  30,000 Btu’s is usually sufficient for most living rooms unless the room is large or has vaulted ceilings.  At today’s natural gas prices, a 30K fireplace costs only about $0.42/hr (2007) to run.  Not bad at all really.  But it sure would be nice to have most of that money coming into the house as heat rather than going up the flue, right?  That bargain brand model might not look so good when the winter bills start rolling in…

It is also important to know how the manufacturer’s product is going to stand up to use over time?  What does the warranty cover?  Like anything, to get the most out of your fireplace, it needs to be set up properly.  In Tahoe, gas-heating appliances need to be de-rated for altitude.  De-rating is an adjustment (lowering) of the amount of gas allowed to enter the burn chamber in the unit.  If you take a unit that was designed to operate at sea level and burn it up in Tahoe’s thinner oxygen environment, it will be operating at temperatures hotter than it was designed for (think ‘burnt toast’).  This often leads to failure of the heat exchanger, which in most cases means the whole stove is ruined and will need replacing (think ‘more money’).  Scenarios like this are a lot more common than you would think and provide good reason to have a professional installation done.  On top of that, the Lifetime Warranty offered by quality manufacturers will only be honored if someone authorized to do so installs the unit.  Some of those authorized few even offer Extended Warranties on the fireplaces they install, demonstrating a lot of faith in their product lines.  They probably deal in quality merchandise.

And finally, what kind of look do you envision in your home?  There are hundreds of styles to look at ranging from ultra modern to classic antique cast iron.  It all depends on your personal tastes and what works best with your décor.  Take your time deciding on a style, because if it’s a quality unit, you’ll be looking at it for a long time.  And that’s a good thing.