Advice To Vent Free Fireplace Owners, Determined To Use ThemNov 22, 2007 (Updated Nov 30, 2007) Write an essay on this topic.
Popular Products in HeatersThe Bottom Line If you have a vent free fireplace/heater, read the instructions, follow recommended maintenance programs, ensure the room has adequate ventilation, be aware of these things and wary of emerging dangers.
Let me be clear, I have not abandoned my life-long mission of convincing people to stay away from vent free fireplaces and room heaters. If you don't already own one, my advice remains the same, don't buy one. You will not regret buying a vented fireplace or room heater, but you may grievously regret buying an unvented gas burning fireplace/heater. (Ventfree, ventless, flueless all mean the same thing.)
Why I Chose To Write This
It has become painfully clear to me that millions of people continue to use vent-free fireplaces and room heaters. Some can not afford to remove and replace them with vented models, some simply refuse to believe the many reasons I have provided in previous reviews and some will read everything I have written, then promptly go out and purchase one.
Surprisingly, I receive a number of emails from people who want to know how they can continue to use their vent free fireplace and still be safe. Of course, the short answer is, in my opinion,... you can't be as "safe", living with an appliance that is using your house as the chimney.
It will only take one of many things to go wrong and the inside of your home will receive the results, whether it is soot or poisonous carbon monoxide fumes. Then the only way you will be totally safe is if you are not at home.
To Everyone Who Has and Is Determined to Use One
I write this review for you, in the hope that if you read it, and follow some of the advice, you will have a better than average chance of avoiding a disastrous incident in your homes. You will also avoid joining the nameless ranks of the statistics, kept by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. (Over 10,000 people treated for accidental carbon monoxide poisoning each year in the United States, with 300 to 600 people never going home again. U.S. CPSC Unintentional average annual CO poisoning statistics, related to fuel burning equipment and space heaters. Excluding vehicles and intentional cases.)
Carbon Monoxide Alarms
While I agree with the universal suggestion that everyone with a gas appliance in their home should also have a CO alarm, those with vent free fireplaces should invest in a good one. Preferably, one that has received a high performance rating from Consumers Report. You are at a much higher risk of death or serious illness, from CO poisoning, than those of us who use vented gas appliances. However, you should also understand that CO alarms are far from infallible and are not failsafe. Their short life expectancy and a general tendency to fail, after a few short years of service, is a growing topic of concern.
It is ironic that so many municipalities, cities, and entire states have moved very quickly to pass laws that mandate the installation of CO alarms, while independent studies continue to show they have an unacceptably high failure rate. Many of the dozens of models on the market (over 70%) have shown, under independent laboratory testing, that they will fail to respond at all, in the presence of dangerous levels of CO. While others have been known to respond to high humidity levels in the home and produce false alarms. Almost all of them, including the best, have been found to have deteriorated over time, with regards to their calibrated reaction time and accuracy to reading various CO levels.
Do invest in a good CO alarm and test it frequently. Do not place too much faith in it's ability to alert your family to danger in time to save them. These products are far from the historic reliability of smoke alarms. However, it just might save your life.
Try to get an alarm that operates off of a metal oxide, semi-conductor sensor or electrochemical cell, that generates an electrical current when CO is present.
The biomimetic gel packs types are cheaper, with a chemical that reacts to the presence of CO and causes the gel to darken which sets off the alarm. They have a higher tendency to fail and react to other gases that may be in the air. They also have a shorter shelf and overall life expectancy. Some have been reported to die while still sitting on the store shelf, waiting to be sold.
Locate the CO detector in the same room, but not too close to the fireplace or too close to an open window. You want the detector exposed to the average air content of the room and not to fresh air streaming through an open window. I prefer the alarms that are hard-wired and attached to a high point on a wall or on the ceiling. I don't like the alarms that plug into wall sockets.
CO rises fast when it leaves the fireplace and it will fill the upper spaces of the room fast. By the time sufficient CO reaches a wall socket, down low, by the floor, you may have already been overcome and comatose. This is not a theory of mine, I have tested them in enclosed rooms and monitored the stratifying CO levels as they filled the room from the ceiling down to the floor. This is another reason why the much promoted ODS safety pilots on vent-free fireplaces will do nothing to protect you from deadly CO.
Try to ensure there is plenty of room air available to the fireplace or heater, by opening doors to other portions of the home and perhaps even crack a window. The rule of thumb and national code requires a minimum of 50 cubic feet of air per 1,000 Btu's per hour of the appliance. However, don't live under minimum conditions. More fresh air is always better and healthier than less. Try to ensure your home is receiving at least one half complete air changes per hour, while the vent free unit is running. (.5 ACH)
If in doubt, ask a licensed gas fitter to check the input rate of the fireplace or heater and ensure it is sized correctly for the room in which it is installed. They can calculate the air requirements for the appliance and determine if it is over-sized. An over-sized unit can use excessive amounts of oxygen and degrade the air quality in the room. Bigger is not better in this case. A good licensed HVAC contractor should also be able to determine how many air changes per hour your existing ventilation allows.
Regular Service & Maintenance Still The Best Defense
I like to recommend that you arrange for a licensed gas fitter come in once a year to clean the burner and air intake areas of dust bunnies, carpet lint and pet hair. Ensure the logs are in their proper position and run a combustion test. Remember, as I have said in earlier reviews, a licensed gas fitter is not necessarily a competent service technician. Ask the company if they have competent combustion technicians who carry combustion analyzers. If they don't, forget them. They can't "look" at the fire and tell if it's burning clean, it needs to be sampled and analyzed.
Once you find a "competent", licensed, fully equipped gas technician, hold onto them, they are worth their weight in, dollars per hour. Unless they are over 200 pounds.
An Inexpensive Test That Can Save You Thousands
Every now and then, take a white tissue or paper towel and run it around the mantle above the fireplace, if you find black or grey residue you will know that something is not right and should shut down the fireplace until a licensed gasfitter has checked it out. It might save you from sustaining major soot damage to your walls, ceiling, drapes, carpets and furnishings, which apparently some insurance companies will not cover.
It may also save you and your family from inhaling fine particles of soot over a long period of time.
Be Aware And Be Wary
Don't operate this unit for more than a few hours at a time. Many recommend a maximum of 4 hours a day.
Be alert to changes in your own health, be wary if you start developing front lobe headaches, dizziness, a tightness in your chest, reddening (flushing) face, flu-like symptoms including nausea, or extreme unnatural drowsiness, when you are in the room with the fireplace or it has been on for awhile in the house.
If you experience the above symptoms, even if the CO alarm doesn't sound, shut down the fireplace, open some windows, and leave the home for awhile. If the flu-like symptoms disappear when you've been out in fresh air for a few hours, you may very likely have just experienced CO poisoning. Don't operate the fireplace or heater again until a licensed gas appliance technician has inspected it and tested the combustion by-products with an analyzer.
Watch the fire, and look for signs of changes in performance. If the flame is ghosting or flames that are turning transparent or very light blue from time to time, it is a sign of flame starvation and likely carbon monoxide is being generated, turn it off.
If the flame is getting more yellow than it normally does, it may have a blockage in the primary air opening to the burner assembly. Turn it off and have the burner assembly cleaned and tuned.
If your appliance has an optional fan and if the flames change dramatically when the circulation fan comes on, turn the gas off. The flames should never be affected by a circulation fan. It is a sign that the firebox has a hole or a crack in it.
If you see soot forming in the fireplace on logs, turn it off. Even if there are no signs of soot in the room, the flames are impinging on the logs or there is some other problem, there should never be soot formations inside the fireplace.
If the fire is pulsing, growing tall then short, there may be a problem with the regulator. Turn it off, a pulsing flame will generally cause CO.
If you have read any of my previous reviews on vent free fireplaces, you will know that, as a gas appliance technician, with over 30 years of experience, I do not approve of them in any form. At best, you are exposing yourself and your family members (including unborn babies and pets) daily to unhealthy low levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, excessive water vapor (that promotes mold growth inside the home), high levels of carbon dioxide, fine particles of unburnt fuel or particulate matter (PM), volatile organic compounds (VOC's, some of which are known carcinogens) and soot. Each of these by themselves are not healthy for you, but combined? They represent a cocktail of chemicals and matter being absorbed into your bloodstream or trapped in your lungs, with enough science to suggest long term health implications.
Remember, even the very cleanest burning units (and that includes the ones with catalysts in the discharge grill) will produce some levels of unburnt fuel particles, carbon monoxide and soot whenever it lights up, until the logs have heated up and whenever it shuts down, as residual gas from the valve, manifold and burner assembly continue to flow slowly into the room momentarily, after the flame goes out.
However, if you are determined to use this type of product, use it wisely, only as a supplementary source of heat, ensure it is sized-right for the room, set-up, ventilated and installed correctly. Keep it maintained. Monitor the flame and your general health. Have a good quality, working, back up CO alarm.
Best wishes for a long and healthy life,
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