A number of alternative fireplaces have cropped up in recent years, giving consumers a variety of options when it comes to choosing one for their home or patio. There are three primary types of fireplace to focus on that are giving traditional wood-fueled fireplaces a run for their money: propane, gel fuel, and bio-ethanol. Each type has advantages and disadvantages that will impact purchasing decisions. Some of the most common aspects we cover below, include initial cost, ongoing cost, maintenance, safety, aesthetics, ease of ignition, and ease of extinction.
First, we will briefly recap the advantages and disadvantages of traditional wood and propane fireplaces. This will give context to compare to bio-ethanol and gel fuel fireplace pros and cons. It is worth noting that gel fuel and bio-ethanol are a bit different from each other, and we will go over those differences next, comparing the pros and cons of both gel fuel and bio-ethanol.
Wood Burning Fireplaces
The oldest type of fireplace, and one we will touch on briefly, is the wood burning fireplace. These are most common indoors but are occasionally seen outside as well. Inside, these usually supported by a cast iron wood stove, or a masonry chimney with a mantle, etc.
Outside, wood fireplaces can take on a wide range of looks and designs. These include chimineas, fire pits, and professionally installed outdoor fireplaces. Choosing a chiminea like the Blue Rooster Dragonfly can be the least expensive option of outdoor wood-burning fireplaces because the latter options usually involve a masonry installation.
Compared to gel, propane, or bio-ethanol, wood-burning fireplaces can contribute the most natural feel to your preferred setting. However, they also contribute the most amount of toxins from burning wood smoke and soot.
These can creep into your house when you add more wood to your wood stove or if it’s not properly shut. The aroma of the wood can be pleasant depending on the type of wood used (we love pinon wood!), and if it was seasoned. Also determined by these factors is how long your fire will burn.
Wood burning fireplaces tend to be great if you have access to a lot of wood, understand the proper procedures regarding seasoning it, and don’t mind a bit of work that might be involved in chopping, stacking, and storing logs.
The downside is if you don’t have access to a steady supply of wood, be prepared to pay. Wood is sold in cords, which can run up to a few hundred dollars, costing more as it gets closer to winter. Wood has a significant environmental impact and requires the most cleaning.
Annual inspections are necessary for indoor wood burning stoves, and often times can affect home insurance premium and coverage availability. Heavy cleaning and maintenance are needed and occasionally this can prove to be quite an ineffective way to generate heat.
Additionally, you may want to check with your local fire department or fire authority before setting up an outdoor fireplace, to ensure that there are no permits or other requirements in your local area.
Outdoor propane fireplaces are fueled by tanks that directly attach to the burner, similar to a gas grill tank. They offer some flexibility as you are typically able to move the fireplace at will, depending on the circumstance. Compared to wood-fueled fireplaces, these will burn much cleaner.
Cost depends on your location and time of year; it’s safe to say that wood and propane are generally in the same ballpark, however, you’ll never need to chop or split propane!
Propane will burn cleaner than wood, emitting less soot and other air pollution, though it is a fossil fuel. And compared to gel fuel or bio-ethanol, it will have a much higher BTU output (the amount of heat needed to raise a pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit).
The last two fireplace types we will look at function a bit differently from your typical wood-fueled fireplace, but also differently from each other.
They are gel-fuel and bio-ethanol.
Gel Fuel Fireplaces
Gel fueled fireplaces are powered by tin cans filled with alcohol gel. The mixture usually contains isopropyl alcohol, water, and some thickening substances. Occasionally you will see salt mixed in, which can provide the sizzle and snapping sounds that accompany a real fireplace.
In order to ignite these canisters, first, you must remove the lid and the wrapper. Make sure the tin can is fully intact before every use, as cracks or major dents can present a fire hazard.
Simply light the alcohol gel at the top, and it will continue to burn for a few hours, usually three or four hours per can.
Gel fueled fireplaces usually have unique fireplaces that go with them, and it takes 3 or 4 of these cans lined up in order to produce a natural fire look. A great example of a cost-effective gel fueled fireplace is the Anywhere Fireplace Oasis, a gel fuel tabletop indoor/outdoor fireplace that has an attractive look and compelling design.
To fuel this fireplace, for example, you would use a 13 oz tin can of gel fuel, placed inside. The RealFlame Gel Fuel shown above is one of the many options available for gel fuels.
Most gel fuel burns at about 3,000 BTU, which isn’t exactly enough to keep the house warm during a cold winter night, but it would provide a cozy warmth if you were out on the porch reading during a cool autumn night or had some company over for dinner.
The heat it provides is supplemental, and will definitely be felt by those sitting near the fireplace, but is not designed to be used as a sole heat source.
Gel Fuel Fireplace Pros and Cons
- Simple and easy to use. You just have to remove the wrapper, open up the can, place it in the fireplace, and light it. Just like that, you have a burning flame for a few hours.
- Great for contemporary looks. If you simply don’t have a fireplace at home, these can be great (and safe) in a variety of situations, contributing to the ambiance of the environment.
- Functions in a variety of fireplaces, whether it’s a wall mount, single piece, or even a normal fireplace
- Ventless and safe in your home
- Relatively cost-effective
- Portable, often usable both indoors and outdoors, depending on the design
- Heat output is lacking. These don’t really give off enough heat to stay warm and should be used only as supplemental heat sources. At a meager 3,000 BTU, they are better used for set pieces for ambiance rather than for warmth
- Each can only lasts for a few hours, which can be good or bad depending on the occasion
- Need to make sure the tin cans are fully intact otherwise it may best to avoid using it to prevent a hazard from breaking out
Bio-ethanol fuel comes from the fermentation of plant by-products, so it is extremely clean to use. Unlike gel fuel, there’s a warm-up period of roughly 15 minutes before the flames become visible and at their brightest. It is possible for these fireplaces to give off up to well over twice as much heat as gel fuel.
While these are still significantly less potent than wood and propane fireplaces, it’s something to take into consideration depending on your use. It’s definitely possible to warm up a small room over the course of a few hours. Compared to gel fuel, ethanol can be more costly in terms of fuel costs, and potentially in installation, depending on the system chosen.
Bio Ethanol typically uses liquid fuels made from silage (corn husks, switch grass, etc.) and converts agricultural waste into energy, which is very environmentally friendly.
Designers have really gotten creative with these fireplaces over the last several years, and there are large numbers of different designs available, from tabletop ethanol fireplaces to ethanol inserts to wall mounted units.
- Burns the cleanest out of all the possible fuels
- Largely odorless
- Typically safe in areas with a lack of ventilation, though always read manufacturers instructions on ventilation
- Wide variety of designs to choose from
- You have to wait for a “cool down” period before adding more bio-ethanol, otherwise, you could trigger a chain reaction which results in serious injury. It’s usually recommended to wait at least 45 minutes, although an hour would probably be best.
- It does consume oxygen in the air, so although there are no negative byproducts, you do want some ventilation if you are using it indoors for long periods of time or in small rooms
- Although it burns warmer than gel fuel, it’s neither economical nor effective enough to be a primary heat source. Bioethanol is almost always a supplemental heat source
- Sometimes more costly installation than gel fuel
- Fuel is typically more expensive than Gel Fuel
Gel fuel and bio-ethanol are great alternatives to wood and propane that have much less negative side effects for smell or toxins inside of your home. Gel fuel and bio-ethanol fuel are great for contemporary or small fireplaces that serve to create ambiance in the environment in which they are placed.
The major difference is that gel fuel comes in pre-filled containers which you can light and extinguish at will, while bio-ethanol is a liquid that you pour in and must take caution when re-igniting.
As with all fireplaces, proper care and maintenance should be maintained year round, especially when lighting and extinguishing the fire.
In general, we prefer the wide variety of creative designs coming out of the ethanol fireplace market than the gel fuel fireplace market, though as we mentioned, there are some advantages to gel fuel over ethanol. If you’re going back and forth between the two, we would suggest leaning toward ethanol fireplaces.