Considering a Vent-Free Fireplace? Here’s What You Should Know

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Is there anything cozier than enjoying a warm, crackling fire on a cold winter day? If you’ve been considering installing a new fireplace or updating an existing one, you’ll find that most fireplaces these days are fueled by gas, which is great news for those who dread cleaning up messy soot and ashes. You’ll also discover that you have an option between a traditional vented fireplace or a “ventless” or vent-free gas fireplace. Although these fireplaces come with many benefits, there are also some downsides. To help you decide whether a vent-free fireplace is right for you, here are the most important things you should know. 

What is a Vent-Free Fireplace?

A vent-free fireplace is essentially what it sounds like: a fireplace that’s designed to burn without the need for a chimney or other types of ventilation. Traditional gas fireplaces, like wood-burning models, use an exhaust flue to remove harmful fumes from the home and bring combustion air into the sealed firebox. In contrast, a vent-free fireplace doesn’t use a flue—instead, it relies on the available oxygen in the room to provide combustion. 

Vent-free gas fireplaces have been around for about 40 years, but as their popularity has grown, they’ve seen more criticism in terms of their impact on indoor air quality. This has led to the state of California banning them completely and numerous municipalities putting restrictions on them. Although they’re permitted in the majority of the US, every county has different codes, so what’s permitted in one city may not apply to the next city over.

The Pros of Vent-Free Fireplaces

One of the biggest benefits of a vent-free fireplace is that they offer better efficiency compared to a vented fireplace. Without the need for a vent, 99% of the heat generated by a ventless fireplace stays inside the room, essentially allowing you to achieve complete combustion and optimal heat retention in your home. Complete combustion refers to achieving the perfect ratio of oxygen to fuel, which produces relatively harmless byproducts like heat, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and nitrogen. And since a venting system isn’t needed, all the heat created from combustion stays inside the home, rather than being directed outdoors. 

Another benefit of vent-free fireplaces is that they’re low-cost and easy to install. Since they don’t require ventilation, you also have more flexibility in where they can be installed. This is particularly convenient for homes with a layout that would make a traditional gas or wood-burning fireplace challenging. Without the need to install or modify venting, there are also fewer materials needed—and of course, you’ll enjoy less mess than a traditional wood-burning fireplace! With their improved energy efficiency and lower installation costs, the savings on overall costs can be substantial over time. Not to mention, ventless fireplaces have a very modern, attractive appearance that adds a touch of sophistication to any room.

Both vent and ventless fireplaces can have an optional blower motor added.  This blower motor circulates the air through concealed chamber and blows it out into the room.  This adds additional heat to your space and when you couple it with a wireless thermostat/remote control this will keep the blower on until the temperature is reached where the remote is located.   This is a great way to control the fireplace flames as well from the comfort of your favorite couch.

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The Cons of Vent-Free Fireplaces

Now, let’s take a look at some of the cons. 

One of the benefits of a vent-free fireplace is complete combustion, but what if there’s an issue with the fireplace that causes incomplete combustion? Incomplete combustion occurs when there’s either too little or too much oxygen in the room’s air. When there’s not enough oxygen, the normal byproduct of combustion (carbon dioxide or CO2) becomes carbon monoxide (CO). If there’s too much oxygen, the byproduct becomes nitrogen oxide (NOx) instead of nitrogen (N).

Carbon monoxide is a very dangerous and highly toxic combustible gas. It’s odorless, colorless, and tasteless, making it undetectable without the use of a carbon monoxide detector. Often, people don’t realize they’ve been exposed until they become ill—and even then, they may mistake the symptoms (like severe headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea) for the flu. Although the effects of carbon monoxide can vary based on the amount of CO, an individual is exposed to and the duration of exposure, it can lead to cell suffocation and death. 

Nitrogen oxide has a similar effect, but it’s not necessarily as dangerous as CO. NOx is an irritant gas that increases inflammation in the respiratory system. Small doses or being exposed for short periods of time can cause mild, temporary problems like coughing, while prolonged or high exposure can cause significant lung damage. Over time, it may lead to decreased lung function, increased risk of respiratory conditions, and increased allergen response. In extreme cases, NOx can also cause death. 

Why Choose an ANSI-Certified Ventless Fireplace?

Both CO and NOx byproducts carry valid and serious concerns, which is why vent-free fireplaces have seen bans and restrictions. However, if you’re considering a ventless fireplace for your home, choosing an ANSI-certified system will reduce the risks. 

An ANSI-certified vent-free fireplace includes an important safety feature: the oxygen depletion sensor (ODS). This sensor acts as a safeguard if the oxygen levels drop below a safe level. It’s designed to shut off the fuel if the oxygen level in the room drops from 20% (normal for room air) to below 18% or less. The reduction in oxygen triggers a thermocouple to close the gas valve, which will starve the the fireplace of gas and make it shut off automatically.  

In addition, all ANSI-certified fireplaces are rigorously tested to ensure they produce exceptionally low levels of these harmful byproducts. While the arguments against vent-free fireplaces are valid, ANSI-certified fireplaces are a safe way to enjoy the many benefits of a ventless system. To keep your system safe and functioning properly, you should also make sure to keep up with the manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations. 

Making the Choice for Your Home

When making the choice for your home, take some time to weigh the pros and cons of a vent-free fireplace. Although ventless systems do have some additional risks associated with them, choosing an ANSI-certified fireplace (and following the manufacturer’s installation and maintenance instructions) will significantly reduce these risks. Keep in mind, also, that even vented systems aren’t entirely without risk! Having a high-quality carbon monoxide detector in your home will also provide additional peace of mind. If you’d like more information on vent-free fireplaces or you’d like to discuss an installation, PECO is happy to help! We want you to feel completely confident you’ve made the right choice for your home. Contact us today at (864) 639-2424 or send us a message through our online form.