Bio ethanol fireplaces are a relatively new, and welcome, addition to the array of fireplaces available on the market. With a wide variety of new designs and setups, these fireplaces are beautiful, creative, relatively inexpensive, and environmentally friendly. Their popularity has exploded since coming to market in roughly 2005. They provide a number of benefits over their traditional fireplace counterpart, although there are always nuances to keep in mind before diving right into them. We’ll cover ethanol fireplaces pros and cons in this article, and note how they are different from their common competitor, the gel fuel fireplace.
Ethanol Fireplaces Pros and Cons
In this section, we will look at the general advantages and disadvantages to choosing an ethanol fireplace over a wood burning, propane, or gel-fuel fireplace.
In this section, we will look at the myriad advantages to ethanol fireplaces.
Ethanol fireplaces do not require a chimney and burn very cleanly. They are typically safe to burn in enclosed spaces, whereas a normal wood burning fireplace or stove may emit toxins and chemicals which can be harmful or fatal.
These fireplaces do consume oxygen, however, so be sure to allow fresh air in and out of the room, typically by opening a window, or door to another area of the house. Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for setup and safety.
Since these fireplaces burn so cleanly, they don’t any ashes or mess like you might have with a wood burning fireplace, where you have to clean the chimney, the fireplace, and keep it properly maintained and inspected on a regular basis.
Easy Fuel Storage
The fuel usually comes in quarts, which are easy to store, and aren’t prone to attracting animals or bugs as like wood is. Bio-ethanol fuel is sold at many hardware and home stores, as well as at Amazon.
See our article on the best ethanol fuels for more information.
Portability, Indoor/Outdoor Use
Ethanol Fireplaces are typically portable and can be used both inside and outside. You can set up your fireplace in multiple spots in the home, whether it’s outside on the patio, your porch, or inside on a wall mount. Bioethanol is quite flexible in its use, which is a huge advantage over fixed units like masonry fireplaces.
Bio-ethanol fires do give off heat, but not a ton. It can be used as supplemental heat, depending on the unit chosen, but it is not typically a primary heat source. See this article for more information.
Bioethanol is extremely environmentally friendly, so it cuts down on fossil fuel emissions and saves the trees.
No Embers, Low Fire Risk
Easy to Fill and Ignite. Get a funnel, and pour your ethanol fuel into the unit. Using a long lighter, ignite the fireplace. There may be a sudden woosh sound or pop at the immediate ignition, but only at the first moment.
Note: be sure to completely clean up any drips of ethanol fuel before igniting the fireplace!
Easy to Extinguish
Typically these fireplaces will have a snuffer that will easily extinguish any flame. Be sure not to leave significant additional fuel in the fireplace, as it can evaporate rapidly.
Ethanol fireplaces are often quite modern looking, and can easily be the focal point of a room.
Perfect as a set piece part of a larger design, great for ambient use on special occasions or family/friend gatherings
Most of those who purchase ethanol fireplaces will incur no installation costs whatsoever. Tabletop ethanol fireplaces have no installation costs, and wall mounted ethanol units cost no more than hanging a piece of art on the wall.
Ethanol fireplace inserts can cost quite a bit, however, many use inserts to replace pre-existing old inoperable gas fireplaces or standard masonry fireplaces.
These inserts can be much cheaper to install than other fireplaces.
The Bottom Line
The benefits of ethanol certainly outweigh the cons. The detriments to bioethanol are less related to functionality and more about cost and feasibility in your home. Let’s take a look.
In this section, we consider the disadvantages ethanol fireplaces suffer from, compared to other types of fireplaces.
Low Heat Output
Ethanol is typically not a primary heat source. The most significant issue with ethanol fireplaces is that they only put out between 3,000-20,000 BTU of heat, plus or minus.
These units can’t really be considered as a primary heat source, both because of the fuel cost and low radiation of heat.
However, they are great options for supplemental heat, when they are needed on top of an existing heating system. See here for more information.
High Fuel Costs
The fuel itself can be considered expensive depending on how often you are using it and for what purpose. It is usually sold in quarts. In a pinch, one could use denatured alcohol, which is frequently cheaper, though be sure to check with the manual of your individual ethanol fireplace before substituting denatured alcohol.
Cool Down Period before Re-Ignition
There is a “cool down” period before you can safely refill your fireplace to keep it going. You should always wait 45 minutes to an hour before refilling a bioethanol fire that went out. This way you don’t risk igniting the whole bottle while you fill it back up.
Dangerous Fuel Spills Possible
Fuel spills are dangerous and must be cleaned up thoroughly before igniting a fireplace. Ethanol doesn’t smell and is a clear liquid, so it’s easy to forget that it is extremely flammable, and if accidentally spilled near the fireplace, can be very dangerous.
It’s best to use a funnel when filling your ethanol fireplace for safety.
Potentially Expensive Installation
Installation is possibly expensive depending on the type of fireplace you get, the grade of material used, and location (wall mount, patio, inside or outside, etc.)
If you want a custom ethanol fireplace, then installation and setup will likely be expensive, as it would be for any fireplace.
Warm up period of up to 15 minutes
The flame has a different quality to that of a wood flame. The smooth ethanol flame is beautiful, but there is no crackling and popping like in a real fire
The fuel itself can be fatal in liquid form and should be stored safely out of reach of children and animals
Ethanol tends to evaporate quickly, so if you have left-over fuel in the fireplace, it will disappear quickly.
Ethanol vs. Gel Fuel – What’s the Difference
Bioethanol is made from fermenting various crops to make alcohol, such as corn or sugar. Gel fuel is typically made from a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water, with salt being occasionally seen to give it a crackling sound.
Bioethanol comes in quarts and is poured in, while gel fuel comes prepackaged in cans. The can’s lid and labeling is removed, then it is ignited, burning on average for 3 to 4 hours. Bioethanol can burn up to 6-8 hours on average for a similar amount.
In terms of heat production, gel fuel gives off a meager 3000 BTU on average, while ethanol can span from 3,000 BTU up into the mid 20,000 BTU area. A larger bioethanol fire may be able to give off some noticeable heat over a few hours in a small room (a few degrees), while a gel fuel fire would struggle to do the same.
Overall, bioethanol can be a bit more pricey than its gel fuel counterparts. Typically, gel fuel fires run 2-4 cans at a time, which range anywhere from $3-$5 per can, give or take. Bioethanol quarts can cost $5-8 but are used at a faster rate. One of the leading retailers in the bioethanol space is Moda Flame, seen here:
With all of this being said, there are three circumstances in which an ethanol fireplace is for you.
If you are environmentally conscious, bioethanol use is the way to go. It’s better for both your home and the environment: no fossil fuels! The emission of toxins is virtually nonexistent.
Of course, as we said before, you certainly want some fresh air as it consumes oxygen!
As ethanol is sourced from waste from crops like sugarcane and corn, this silage takes much less time to grow than trees, and do not produce harmful CO or CO2 when burned.
The bioethanol fireplace is also perfect if you don’t want the hassle and mess of a wood fireplace. Wood can also be expensive, depending on where you live and the time of year, and has to be delivered, stacked, and sometimes even split.
And after the fire goes out, you are left to deal with buckets of ash which you will need to dispose of, along with keeping the chimney clean.
All of a sudden, safely storing quarts of bioethanol doesn’t seem so hard!
The bioethanol fireplace is more versatile and fits quite well in contemporary, modern, or luxury homes. It simply isn’t limited to a large, bulky fireplace with fake ceramic logs, etc. – you can place it anywhere you deem would be a good fit.
These fireplaces are great for special occasions and small events. The look and feel are similar to a real fire, with the only difference being a lack of the crackling sound, which gel fuel can sometimes accomplish if salt is included in the ingredients.
If aesthetics are the main concern, then you can’t go wrong with a bioethanol fireplace.