Pros and Cons of Ventless Gas Fireplaces
I wonder how many cavemen (cavepersons?) died from smoke inhalation before the tribe elders banned the practice of in-cave fires without adequate ventilation?
Anyone following the debates raging in the United States regarding ‘vent-free’, ‘ventless’, or ‘unvented’ fireplaces has to wonder how long the people on the pro-side of this debate have been inhaling the fumes from their own unvented fireplace.
Whatever name you choose to call these appliances by, I call them “wit-free”, “witless” and “unwitting”. In fact, I can not believe there are grounds for a reasonable debate on this matter at all.
Here in Canada, we currently sit smug in the knowledge that we prohibit such products. But do not be lulled into a false sense of security. The push is on, in some small but powerful circles to lobby the IGAC/Interprovincial Gas Advisory Council to consider the acceptance of unvented hearth products, as AGA/American Gas Assn and GAMA/Gas Appliance Mfrs Assn have done in the U.S. Hell! The proponents argue, these things are 99.9% efficient, inexpensive to produce and cost next to nothing to install, since there is no venting required!
Proponents of ventless appliances will further point out that these products are equipped with oxygen depletion sensors (ODS). They are designed to extinguish the pilot if the oxygen levels in the room fall from their normal levels of 20.9%, at sea level to 18%, ensuring that a ventless system cannot consume all of the oxygen in a room and suffocate the occupants.
Another argument put forward by this growing segment of the hearth products industry in the U.S. is that there are already other unvented products in homes such as gas ranges. They apparently disregard the fact they are usually under a range hood, operate at much lower inputs and are designed to burn with a non-adjustable, clean, blue flame. The comparison is like comparing the emissions of a 1975 diesel dump truck to a 1996 mini-van.
Remember the kerosene heaters?
How many people have forgotten the disastrous rush for unvented kerosene heaters a few decades ago and the numbers of fire and carbon monoxide-related fatalities or injuries which were attributed to them? How can any thinking human being install an unvented fuel-burning appliance in their homes and not be the least bit concerned about the harmful by-products of combustion which they surely breath each and every time they operate that appliance?
Unfortunately, the so-called definitive study of these systems by AGAR/American Gas Association Research has not as yet been published. However, not surprising, there are countless ‘independent’ reports published by the unvented proponents side, extolling the virtues and safety of unvented appliances.
Carbon monoxide?… What carbon monoxide? Sulfur dioxide?… What sulfur dioxide? Nitrogen oxides…What nitrogen oxides?
These unbiased reports would carry much more water if they were not commissioned and paid for by the newly formed GAMA Vent-Free Gas Products Div., an association of unvented appliance manufacturers boasting 19 member manufacturers.
Even without the benefit of AGAR’s pending report, there are serious and even dangerous misrepresentations being made about these products.
AFUE drops with fresh air
Wide range of activation
Poor installation practices
Fire logs a health concern
It would be an oversight not to include recent health concerns raised regarding the use of ceramic fiber logs. To my knowledge, there have been no studies proving that these products will break down and cause lung fibrosis or lung cancer.
However, the manufacturers of these products have formed an organization in the U.S. called the Refractory Ceramic Fibre Coalition (RCFC). In response to concerns raised, they commissioned an epidemiological study, conducted by the University of Cincinnati.
The results of their own sponsored, but independent study recommended that these logs, when broken should be wetted down, bagged and removed from the home. Their data provided “reason to be cautious” and recommended that these logs should be “treated with respect.”
Since there are little if any references to the handling of logs directed to service technicians, installers or homeowners in the instruction manuals which accompany the appliance, their recommendations may be mute points.
If however, there is a remote chance of aging or somewhat damaged logs producing minuscule airborne fibres, I would personally feel much better about them going up my chimney in a vented appliance than into my living room from an unvented product.
Since hearth products, in general, have become an important industry in under 10 years, ceramic fibre logs have been around even less time. And now unvented hearth products with ceramic fiber logs are only a few years old-isn’t it a bit too soon to apply a ‘safe’ sticker to them?
Push for approval to rise
As more and more major manufacturers leap into this apparently new source of profitability, a few of whom have manufacturing and distribution operations in Canada, the push will get stronger for our acceptance of this non-technology. If they are successful, in convincing the IGAC, my advice to manufacturers, to their distributors and to the retailers is…increase your product liability insurance!
It is difficult, if not impossible, to make all consumers follow routine maintenance programs. We know this from the number of homeowners who do not even think to change the filter on their furnaces every year. How many years will it be before the primary air shutters on these unvented appliances are clogged with dust balls, carpet lint, and cat hair, generating massive amounts of carbon monoxide directly into the living area!
The simple case for vented gas logs and appliances is that even with the kinds of abuse mentioned above, there is the fall-back safety of a chimney constantly drawing away any harmful by-products of combustion. The appliance could therefore be generating deadly levels of carbon monoxide for years without causing any bodily harm.
Dealers in the U.S. admit these products are an easy sell, when they ask the trusting consumer the wrong questions: i.e., “What would you rather buy? This vented gas log set for $500, which is 99.9% efficient, or this direct vent zero clearance fireplace for $2,200, which is only 80% efficient? (Quote partially taken from retailer David Coppinger in the October issue of Hearth & Home.)
If these dealers were being absolutely truthful with their customers, the question should come out: “For $500, you can have this unvented gas log that will throw off heat, water vapour (adding to the humidity levels in the home), traces of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides, and may, if not maintained, operated or installed correctly, kill you and your family in your sleep. Or, you can have this direct vent fireplace that uses outside air in a sealed combustion system, and only delivers heat into your home, allowing you and your family to sleep in safety for $2,200.”
I guess it’s all in how you ask the question.
Perhaps one of the better quotes I have read in this debate came from one of the many opponents to unvented, Jim Hermann of The Earth Stove, who said: “You don’t need a scientist, you need a psychiatrist.”