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James Dulley
Types of Fireplaces and Fuels

Gelled-Alcohol Fuel

Gelled ethanol fuel is an indoor and outdoor heat source for fireplaces, cooking and keeping warm. It burns clean and free from unpleasant odors and toxic fumes often associated with other gelled and liquid alcohol fuels. It stays gelled while burning and does not separate whether hot or cold. It is gelled and sealed in steel canisters, and is convenient and safe to store and transport. It is easy to use and does not splash, flash or flare. Its principal combustion emission is harmless carbon dioxide which is similar to human breath. The fuel is often available in 16-oz. and 8-oz. steel cans in various case sizes. One 16-oz can produces approximately 10,000 BTU's of clean dependable heat and burns up to four hours depending on the oxygen supply, altitude and damper. Extinguish the flame by replacing the lid on the can. Re-light the fuel at any time for continued burning.

There are special, convenient-to-use gelled alcohol fuel fireplaces. They are completely portable. They require no chimney, vent or flue. They burn gelled ethanol fuel with 100% heat efficiency and do not create an "after fire" drain of heat up a chimney. They produce no smoke, soot or ash. The gelled ethanol fuel emits harmless carbon dioxide. The fireplace creates atmosphere without polluting it. Most fireplaces consist of a log insert assembly in a special zero clearance firebox built into very attractive cabinetry. Fine furniture-quality cabinetry is crafted in several heat resistant finishes and designs including consoles and majestic mantel models.

One to two custom realistic logs nest in a special grate. Each fireplace includes lava rock, screen and a damper tool. These fireplaces are ideal for use in any room in a home including the den, bedroom or bathroom. The fireplaces can be a functional and decorative part of a condo, apartment, office or mobile home. They add atmosphere and warmth wherever they are included. Use of a gelled-alcohol fuel fireplace must always be in accordance with prevailing building and safety requirements. Go to column 787 for more information.


Coal is an excellent fuel and readily available particularly in the Midwest. Much of the Midwestern coal has a higher sulfur content, so it does add to some air pollution, but it also has a high heat content per pound weight.

The maintenance required for a coal stove is similar to other wood-burning appliances. Clean out the ash regularly and keep the glass and gasket surfaces clean. As I mentioned above, much of the coal commonly burnt has a higher sulfur content, so it may become somewhat corrosive if it gets damp. The natural alkali nature of ash will counter this somewhat, but still remove it and do not store the ash on a damp area. since coal burns so much hotter than firewood, you might need to replace some of the firebox items, like the grates, more often of its life. Go to my column 435 for more information.


Various Types of Wood-Burning Heaters

Masonry Fireplace— There are many types of masonry wood-burning appliances and many of these massive fireplace, like the Swedish and Russian fireplaces can be used to heat an entire house. The efficiencies of some of them can reach 85%. They work by burning a very hot fire for a short period. Since the fire burns so hot, it burns with little pollution and very efficiently. This intense heat is absorbed by the huge masonry thermal mass and it slow radiates out into your house for all-day heat. You can choose from do-it-yourself kits, kits assembled by a professional at your home or unique designs. Go to my column 961 for more information.

Central Furnaces — There are now many types of whole-house wood-burning central furnaces available. Many of the designs are multifuel so that they automatically switch to anther heating source (often gas or oil) when the firewood burns down. These can be installed in your basement or utility room, just like an ordinary furnace, or outdoors. The outdoor models are weatherproof and are convenient to use because the firewood never needs to be carried indoors. This is an ideal fit with hydronic heating. Instead of having to move large amounts of heated air, the outdoor furnace heats water which is pumped to the indoors. Go to my column 435 for more information.

Standard Fireplaces — This is the type of fireplace most commonly used by builders and homeowners. Zero-clearance fireplaces are designed so that they can be placed against combustible materials like wall studs. The walls of some fireplaces create an insulation cavity and others use insulation for safety. You can select either a radiant or a heat-circulating design. I use a heat circulating design in my own home. A small fan draws in cool room air and circulates it around the firebox to heat it and then blows it back out into the room. A radiant type of fireplace transfers heat by radiation out into the room. You can improve the heat transfer by placing a cast iron fireback in the back of the firebox. Go to my column 687 for more information.

Fireplace Inserts — These are basically the same as the wood-burning fireplaces listed above. They slip into your existing fireplace opening and use your existing chimney. The only drawback is that the size of the firebox is often smaller so that the entire unit can fit into your existing fireplace opening. The advantage is that they are very easy to install.

Free-standing Stoves— These are more efficient as radiant heaters because of all the exposed surfaces. Many use soapstone which absorbs heat and transfers it slowly like a mini-masonry fireplace. The soapstone is also very beautiful.

Maintenance for Wood-Burning Stoves and Fireplaces — Cleaning out of the ash and keeping the glass and gaskets clean is about all that is needed. Have a professional chimney sweep check your chimney periodically. Some so-called experts say that a handy person can do it himself, but it is really not advisable. Chimney fires are a major cause of house fires.


Natural gas fired logs are the most convenient to use and many of the new designs of logs create realistic-looking flames. Propane logs burn in a similar fashion, but propane is a much more expensive source of heat than natural gas. Vented models can be used as a significant source of heat for your home. Unvented gas logs will create heat, but because they are not vented outdoors, their usage should be limited per the manufacturers' recommendations.

Direct-vent gas fireplaces, that do not need a chimney, are the most efficient and safe of all vented fireplaces. They are usually vented outdoors through a pipe through the outdoor wall. In sealed combustion models, the combustion air is also brought indoors into the firebox through the same hole. The entire combustion process is isolated from the indoor air for safety and efficiency. Go to my column 816 for more information.

Vent-free gas fireplaces are like your gas range ranges. All of the products of combustion (primarily CO2 and water vapor) stay indoors. This makes them nearly 100% efficient. You must have adequate ventilation in your home to provide enough oxygen for the fire. If the amount of oxygen drops, incomplete combustion can result in the formation of CO gas. All vent-free fireplaces and heaters made are equipped with an oxygen depletion sensor for safety. This shuts off the gas is the oxygen level in the room drops below 18%. Check your local codes to make sure that they are approved for your area. These are the easiest models to install. Most of the states in the U.S. now approve their use. Go to my column 725 for more information.

Standard vented fireplaces draw their combustion air from the home and exhausts all the flue gases outdoors. Since they are not sealed, they draw their combustion air from inside your house. This may create some drafts and reduces the overall efficiency of the unit. They are less expensive to buy and easier to install than direct vent model. Go to my column 816 for more information.

Pellets and Corn

I have used a wood pellet stove in my own home for over eight years and it works great. Wood pellets are made of sawdust that is compressed under heat and pressure to form the pellets. Although not exactly pellets, the same technology can be used to burn cherry pits or corn. Pellet fuel is available in 40 or 50 pound plastic bags that I stack inside my garage. Many home centers and some supermarkets now sell pellets in addition to fireplace stores.

Dump a 40-pound bag of pellets, cherry pits, corn, etc. into the storage hopper and set the heat output. Depending on the size of the hopper and the burn rate, it will burn for more than a full day. A small auger, that run intermittently, feeds the pellets into the firepot. For more heat, the auger runs more often. The two basic designs of augers are bottom-feed and top-feed. Top-feed designs use a very simple auger mechanism and are very quiet. A bottom-feed design uses a more complicated mechanism to push the pellets into the fire at the bottom. A bottom-feed model requires less cleaning of the ash. With a special firepot, a bottom-feed model can burn corn too.

Free-standing pellet stoves typically vent through the wall with an insulated pipe or they can be vented up through the roof. Although it looks like B-vent, it is a not. B-vent will not hold up. Check with your fireplace store or the manufacturer about the proper vent material to use. Most pellet stoves have a hopper which holds from 40 to 80 pounds of pellet fuel and have glass windows so you can see the flames. There are pellet inserts which can convert your existing fireplace. These units are approved for installation in masonry or factory-built fireplaces. Go to my column 880 for more information.


Adding tight-sealing glass fireplace doors are the best ways to improve the efficiency and beauty of a fireplace. They keep sparks and embers inside. These glass doors block huge amounts of heated room air from being drawn up the chimney when the fire is burning. Select ones with screens if you like to sit by the open fire. Remember that the efficiency drops to below zero with the glass doors opened.

Fireplace tools are available in many styles using solid brass or wrought iron. Most good fireplace shops have many custom finishes such as antique brass, chrome and bronze. Grates are attractive and hold the real logs or gas logs. My own fireplace seems to burn logs better without a grate, but other people swear by them. You can buy special grates that circulate room air through them.

Decorative cast firebacks increase the radiant heat output and the comfort in front of the fire. Andirons are one of the most decorative pieces of the fireplace, but are used as often today. An inflatable chimney pillow, to block and seal the flue when the fire is not burning, it a real energy saver. Go to my column 553 for more information.

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