Vent-Free Gas Fireplaces, Consumer Responses, Pro & Con.
Feb 1, 2007
The Bottom Line This is an issue that is not going away soon and neither am I, (I hope) until national standards are improved or people stop buying these appliances.
I have already provided dozens of reasons for my ongoing rants against vent-free gas fireplaces. However, as I read through another email the other day, thanking me for my advice and I was filing it away, (I keep them all, good or bad) I began to read some of the past less complimentary emails from people who continue to support them.
On a side note, the one thing I have found interesting about writing my opinions on this site, is every now and then someone will join Epinions for the sole purpose of giving me a NH rating and to leave a negative comment. I once resented such incidents, but I have come to appreciate that my articles inspired such an intense reaction that they went to all that trouble just to make their comments known to me. So in a sense, it is a compliment to my review.
Let me say from the outset, I have never had any hidden agenda, I don't sell vented fireplaces or promote specific brands and I don't sell my advice to people who write to me. I believe this comes across to many consumers who read my reviews and understand that they are an unbiased viewpoint and are intended to inform and hopefully steer them towards products that are healthier choices for them and their families. I am pleased to report that more than 95% of those who write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org are very positive and appreciative.
I have had literally hundreds of emails over the past few years and people have shared their experiences with me. I have heard about soot damages, unaccountable headaches, and funny odors. They have told me they were pulling the product from their home, or changed their minds about buying a vent-free fireplace, and some have told their friends and family about my reviews. That is the upside of writing these reviews.
There are those (of the less than 5%) who write to say they have had a vent-free fireplace for years and love it, never had a problem with it and intend to keep it. To them I generally write back to thank them for their email and to wish them well. I also usually add a little cautionary note about remaining vigilant to service requirements, keeping a CO detector charged and active and maintaining a healthy level of fresh air to the room or rooms in which they have the appliance. After all, I've never tried to say that all of these products are going to harm or kill people, I've only pointed out the dangers of potential manufacturing defects, not maintaining regular service, product failure and most important, long term health concerns from emissions that have been documented by much more credible people than I. (EPA, ALA, The Mayo Clinic, CDC, and the U.S. CPSC)
I have added to the views of these respected U.S. institutions, my personal experiences testing them, coupled with a lifetime of gas combustion research and product development.
When you sum it all up, those organizations would not have so many warnings on their websites, I would certainly not be wasting my time to wage war on the Vent Free Gas Product Alliance and I question, if they are so safe, why they felt there was ever a need to create such an organization? The VFGPA continues to promote vent-free products in a careless, and deceptive manner. They use selective outdated data in large brush strokes across an entire industry. It's more what they don't say on their website that infuriates me, than what they say. Their most unholy claims of meeting national safety requirements are based largely upon a study that was conducted over a decade ago by the American Gas Research Institute.
The AGAR in report in 1996 (which I have on my desk)dealt with very low input vent-free appliances, at 20,000 Btu's or less, in controlled test cases, with specific volumes of fresh air allowed into the test spaces being monitored and discussed 8 hour test times. That is, unfortunately, what laboratories do, test products under pristine conditions, using pre-determined test methodologies to arrive at a conclusion as to safe levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and water vapor. Their report had a heavy emphasis on carefully following the sizing guidelines they had established, based upon five typical climate regions of the U.S.A.
A few years after their report was published, bureaucratic types must have skimmed the report and accepted the basic safety of vent-free appliances. Again, unfortunately, non-technical types have missed the need to enforce regional differences and the absolute need for sizing the gas appliance to meet the supplementary heating needs of the square footage involved and as outlined in the AGAR report.
In other words, what may be installed safely in Fort Lauderdale, may not be so good for a family with the same size room in Chicago or Minnesota. In other words, if a dealer in Chicago carries the same brand and model as the dealer in Fort Lauderdale, they are going to sell it to the first person who asks for it, that's what they do for a living. Are they going to stop, review the charts prepared by AGAR and tell the consumer they can't sell it to them? The obvious answer is no. Are they going to tell the family from Minnesota that their house is constructed too tightly and won't permit the required fresh air to infiltrate into their home to allow the appliance operate safely? Not likely.
After once more reviewing the report prepared by AGAR I have no doubts that the results of tests they conducted in 1995/96, under the conditions, with blue flame burners and product sizes they selected, were good. I would now like them to take a vent-free fireplace, with artificial logs and a burner with the primary air choked to produce a yellow flame, double the input rate of the appliance over what they tested in 1996, reduce the fresh air allowed into the space to what is typical for northern states. How many people leave a window open in January?
I have absolutely no doubts that these tests would tell a different story about the adverse indoor environmental health hazards generating from the vent-free fireplaces on the market today.
Research facilities and test agencies do not typically think about "real-life" applications. They don't want the added stress of the "what if this happens?" situations. They don't usually consider multiple failure factors that can and does result in tragedy. Like what would happen if an over-sized fireplace was installed in a tightly sealed home? Trust me, it happens every day.
In the "real world", people don't use these products as supplementary heaters. They are used as primary sources of heat in the coldest months. The installing contractors are not scientists and many are not even aware of sizing guidelines laid out by AGAR in 1996. If they do install permanent ventilation to a room, the home owners plug it up as soon as they leave the house. CO detectors are often installed, only to run dead within a year. All of the warnings and service requirements, inside the installation and operating instructions, have long gone into the recycling bin with the newspapers.
Why do I bother? Sales of these products are still high, over a million units a year, according to the VFGPA. Glossy brochures with promises of 99% efficiency still seem to sway the uninformed.
Some consumers are listening, some have been swayed away from these products. However, since this isn't a very glamorous subject, many simple accept what the brochures say and assume that the government is protecting them. Builders continue to install many of these units in housing projects to save on construction costs, and the new home owners are not even aware of the product until they move into the house.
There will continue to be a plethora of reasons why many of these devices are not acceptable products to sell to the consuming public.
My only hope is that anyone reading this or one of my other reviews on the subject will take the time to visit some of the many government websites, read their warnings and think about some of the issues I have raised here.
The following are few links to some of them. The American Lung Association is actually the most vocal about this issue, they just come out and say, "Choose vented appliances whenever possible".
Be safe and feel free to join Epinions to express your views.