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Imagine a winter evening in front of your safe, smokeless electric fireplace. You relax with your favorite beverage in clean, comfortable clothes, because you didn’t haul wood in from out back or get down on your knees to start the fire. You’ll never have to adjust the damper or get more fuel. You can change the temperature at the touch of a switch.

If you’ve hoped for an evening like this, you may have a lot of questions about electric fireplaces and how well they work. Should you buy one? If so, which is the best electric fireplace? Here are some common questions and answers about this flexible home heating option.

How does an electric fireplace work?

An electric fireplace imitates a live, burning fire. Instead of flaming wood there’s a heating element. forced air fan mechanism draws in the cool air from the room, heats it up and blows it back out as the warm air you enjoy. The system works by heating up the air that surrounds you.

There’s a second type as well. It’s based on infrared technology. These fireplaces send out light rather than heat. The light is just beyond the range that people can see. This infrared light doesn’t change the temperature of the air, but instead it directly heats objects, such as you and the chair you’re sitting in.

What are the pros and cons of electric fireplaces?

Pros

  • They are safer than gas or wood fireplaces. They don’t start fires, they don’t produce smoke and pollutants and they don’t get dangerously hot.

  • Electric fireplaces are clean and odorless. You don’t have to worry about smoke getting into your clothes or your upholstery.

  • They don’t have to be permanent. They can be used by renters. Even if you’re the homeowner, you can unplug it and take it with you when you move. You can even carry one along in your camper or RV.

  • Most require little in the way of installation. You can decide you want one this morning and have electric fireplace heat tonight. They don’t require any venting.

  • They’re available in a number of attractive and versatile design options. Fireplace insert log sets provide an ambiance similar to a wood fire. You can choose whatever kind of flame or glow suits your fancy. Room units can be modernistic aluminum or stainless steel. Some have a wood appearance that matches the decor. Others double as actual pieces of furniture such as cabinets and media centers. Whatever your design style, you can find aelectric fireplace that will fit into the theme of your room or even enhance it.

  • There don’t take up space the way a wood fireplace does. There’s no fire screen, fire barrier or fireplace clearance. You don’t need shovels, pokers and brooms.

  • They last a long time and require little maintenance and upkeep. They’re economical. You’ll never have to buy and carry wood or shovel ashes. There’s no sooty chimney to be cleaned or ducts to be blown out.

  • Operation is a breeze. You don’t need paper or kindling to get your electric fireplace started. You don’t have to open a window to get the draft moving in the right direction. If you want more heat from your wood fireplace, you have to guess how many logs to add. With electric, you adjust the level with the push of a button or the turn of a dial. Many electric fireplaces even have timers so they can turn on or shut off when you’re not in the room.

  • There’s no heat loss. Nothing goes up the chimney. Every penny you spend on electricity stays right in the room and keeps you warm.

  • In pleasant weather you can enjoy the play of the flame, and you can have it without the heat.

Cons

  • They’re best for heating one room at a time. If you’re looking to heat an entire level, a wood burning fireplace will do a better job.

  • They will not work during a power outage.

  • For some people, there’s nothing quite like the sounds and the smells of a genuine wood fire. If you’re in love with the sizzle of a wood flame and the homey aroma of burning wood, the ambiance of a wood fire may be worth the hassle.

  • You can’t cook on your electric fireplaceIf you want to gather the family around and enjoy charred hot dogs, foil-wrapped potatoes and s’mores, you’ll need old-fashioned burning wood.

Which types are the best electric fireplaces?

An infrared fireplace heats up faster and some people find the heat more comfortable because it doesn’t take humidity out of the room. On the other hand, the infrared stops working the second you turn it off. The forced air heated room continues to stay warm even after the switch is no longer turned on. You get an hour or so of “free heating” at zero cost for electricity. Either is adequate for an average room, though the infrared can heat a larger space.

For many people, a more important distinction is whether the fireplace is plug-in or built-in.

Plug-ins are just what the name suggests. Plug them into any wall outlet, turn them on and let them start doing their thingThey come in a variety of styles. Some resemble standalone stoves, but many look just like wood furniture. Often they are built into cabinets or media centers and serve double duty in your room’s design.

Some plug-ins are electric fireplace inserts. They replace your wood fire with clean electric heat. A common type of insert is the log set, which looks just like a stack of firewood. Run the electric cord to a room outlet, or have an electrician install an outlet inside the fireplace, and you get your own simulated fire. You can seal up the flue and rid yourself of the muss and fuss of wood, smoke and ashes forever.

How realistic looking is a log set’s “flame?” Well, the inserts come with a variety of glow styles, so you can check out several and pick the one you like best.

Built-ins, on the other hand, are permanently installed, usually into a wall or an existing fireplace. They can be plugged into a regular outlet, but to take advantage of what they can do, it’s best to hard wire them into 220 volts. This way they generate twice as much heat.

There are people who think the best electric fireplace is the one that looks best. If you’re one of these folks, there’a lot to choose from. Fireplace inserts are only one option.

Some of the plug-in electric fireplaces are built to look like the old wood stove you might find in a country store. On the other hand, many electric fireplaces look like furniture. That’s because many are furniture. Electronic fireplaces can be integrated into cabinets and entertainment centers.

Just about all fireplace cabinets have glass fronts, often with bifold doors, and a heating element set into a log set or glass ember beads. Some will hold your TV, your decor and your audio system. These can be the focal point of a room whether they’re operating or turned off.

Do the electric fireplaces really heat a room?

Heating an individual room is what these fireplaces are made for. A forced fan unit can heat up to 400 square feet. Some infrared fireplaces can cover up to 1000 square feet. In other words, an electric fireplace has no problem delivering warmth to the average living room or den.

However, an electric fireplace does a poor job of heating more than one room or heating an entire level or entire home. That simply isn’t what it’s made for.

In that individual room, though, the heat is more efficient than a wood fire. There’s no chimney for the heat to escape from. As much a half the warmth produced by firewood can vanish right out into the air. Not only that, but fires sometimes draw in the warm air from a room and send it up the chimney as well. With an electric fireplace, every bit of warmth stays right in the room where you want it.

Electric fireplaces work well in conjunction with zone heating. You can lower the heat directed to your family room and warm it with your electric fireplace instead.

Is an electric fireplace safe?

Safety is where the electric fireplace excels. Think of all the hazards associated with wood fireplaces. The risk of a house fire isn’t the only one. Children and pets can get burned simply by touching the glass. Unhealthy smoke can work its way into the house and bring along all the problems it carries. Problems such as pollution and particulates, substances that aggravate asthma and are dangerous for people with lung or heart conditions. Even regular old gas heating carries the risk of carbon monoxide.

With an electric fireplace there’s none of that. No smoke, no irritants. The heating coil inside the unit gets hot, but the exterior is always cool to the touch. You won’t have to jump up and grab the tyke who’s getting too close.

Do you need to vent an electric fireplace?

Whenever you’re heating with wood or gas, you always have to be aware of venting. You need to have a pathway to make sure anything dangerous winds up outside of your home. With electric fireplaces that simply isn’t a concern. Electric fires are safe and clean. There is no gas, carbon monoxide or other toxic byproduct to deal with. You don’t need a vent. And no venting means no lost heat going up a chimney or vent.

How do you install an electric fireplace?

If you buy the plug-in variety, there really isn’t any installation. All you have to do it take it out of the box, put it where you want it and stick the plug into an outlet. If your plug-in is an electric fireplace insert, you may want to have a new outlet installed so you can hide the cord.

Installing a built-in is a bigger project. It’s often done as part of a total room remodel. Still, it’s just a matter of carpentry or masonry and some electrical work. There isn’t any duct work or venting involved. Some units are designed to be built into an existing fireplace while others can be recessed into a wall or nook or under an overhang. It’s not a huge extra effort if you’re doing a remodel already.

How much will an electric fireplace raise my electric bill?

Depending on your local cost of electricity and how high a setting you run, electric costs can run between three and 20 cents an hour. It would require a lot of use to spend more than about $100 a year. Typically, an electric fireplace has about half the operating cost of a gas fireplace.

Additionally, your electric fireplace is free from maintenance. You’ll never have to buy firewood or have your chimney cleaned. There are no ducts to be blown out. Your electric fireplace will serve you for a long, long time and ask you for nothing more than a little electricity.

Are electric fireplaces expensive?

A simple insert can be had for as little as $200 or $300. More elaborate units like the Dimplex IgniteXL® 100" Linear Electric Fireplace can run into the thousands. Many of these double as pieces of furniture and add much more than just heating to your room. In that case you’re getting more for your money than just a heat source.

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