For homeowners who experience cold winters, the warmth and crackle of a fireplace can be a wonderful addition to a home. But when a typical homeowner pictures a fireplace, they will usually imagine a wood-burning or natural gas-burning fireplace. However, there is a third option: an electronic fireplace. Although less common, electric fireplaces are often safer, greener, less expensive to operate and more stylish than other options.
Unlike a wood or natural gas fireplace, an electronic fireplace does not actually produce a flame. The illusory "flames" are simply light refracted in a random, three-dimensional pattern. As for the heat, "think of it like a toaster. It has a coil that heats up. The heat simply radiates out, or it can have a blower attached to it -- like a fan behind a toaster," says Bobby Renner, chief building scientist for America's Best Energy Team. Wilfred Weihe, a contributor to ElectricFireplaceHeater.org, says an electric fireplace doesn't give off enough heat to warm an entire house, but it generates enough heat to warm a 400 square-foot room.
Because nothing burns, electronic fireplaces are considered safer than wood or gas fireplaces. The lack of a flame also means that "there are no flying embers. There are no exposed hot surfaces to cause accidental burns. Materials are usually cool to the touch. There are no chimneys that need to be cleaned or regular maintenance of any kind," Weihe says. And Renner adds, "Without combustion, there's no worry about carbon monoxide or anything like that."
And because there are no gases or toxins released, electronic fireplaces are greener than wood or gas options. Weihe notes, "There is no buildup of sulfur, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde or other toxins that can cause wheezing, asthma or bronchitis." Electronic fireplaces are also the most energy efficient. Weihe continues, "With coils producing heat via electricity, and fans or blowers distributing the warmth, all energy is fully used. None is wasted."
That energy efficiency leads to another benefit: "Electronic fireplaces are inexpensive to buy, install, and use," Renner says. Weihe adds, "You can find an electric fireplace to fit just about any budget. Some cost as little as $200." An electronic model will be the easiest and cheapest to install, because all it requires is a power source. A wood fireplace will require a chimney, and a gas fireplace will require a gas line. Renner compares the operating costs of the various models: "Electronic fireplaces cost about five to ten cents an hour to operate, whereas a natural gas fireplace costs about twenty cents an hour, and a wood fireplace will require wood, time to chop and so on." Regarding maintenance costs, Weihe says, "Replacement parts are also less expensive for an electric fireplace, and repairs are easy."
Finally, electric fireplaces can also meet just about any style. Weihe says, "They come in various sizes, materials, styles, colors and wattage. They are versatile and can fit any area of any room in any style or size home." Renner echoes this sentiment, saying, "I think people will be surprised by the different electric fireplaces available."
However, electric fireplaces do have their drawbacks. For some people, the lack of a real flame is a deal breaker. Others do not like electric fireplaces' smaller size because they tend not to give off as much heat as a wood or gas fireplace. Similarly, unlike a wood or gas fireplace, "electric fireplaces will not work if a winter storm knocks out the power," Weihe notes. Another common complaint Weihe hears is that although an electric fireplace does not get as hot as other types of fireplace, some electric models have a firebox or blower low to the ground, requiring installation away from carpet, drapes or other flammable materials. Renner also notes, "When wood or gas burn, it releases moisture, but straight electrical heat is just heat. It won't create any moisture, so an electric fireplace can dry out a room."
Like most interior design decisions, it often comes down to a balance of cost, style and personal preferences. For homeowners who are looking for a safe, low-cost, energy-efficient alternative to a wood or gas fireplace, odds are they can find an electric model that strikes that right balance.