Fireplace Features to Safeguard Your Family Fireplace Features to Safeguard Your Family

When humans built their first fire in a cave, they didn't worry about carbon monoxide or ventilation. They pushed a few sticks together near the cave's entrance, lit them up and hoped the prevailing winds would blow the smoke away. They concerned themselves first with ridding the area of wild animals, not maintaining a healthy and safe cooking fire.

Photo by Mark Englund/HomeStyles

Times have changed. Most of us no longer live in caves, nor are we apprehensive about saber-toothed tigers. And we no longer need fires for cooking. What we do need are quiet, clean-burning flames that kindle our romantic spirits and heat our rooms, without cramping our style or filling our home with dangerous gases.

Major fireplace manufacturers like Superior, Heat-N-Glo, Majestic and Temco just to name a few-are sensitive to these concerns, and cater to them with a bumper crop of gas-burning fireplaces that don't sacrifice appearance or convenience. We spoke with Don Kaufman, training manager for Superior, who answered some of your most pressing questions.

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Photo by Mark Englund/HomeStyles

Will the fireplace leak gas?
For decades there have been stringent rules governing gas-burning fireplaces. Most manufacturers' factory-built fireplaces are rigorously safety tested and listed by Underwriters Laboratory. They are also tested by the American Gas Association, an independent organization that regulates and certifies fireplace products. Today's fireplaces have the same types of controls and safety features as do furnaces. One such standard is that all gas fireplaces have a safety pilot system and a safety combination valve, making it impossible for gas to flow to a burner until a pilot light is lit.

What will happen during a power outage?
If you choose a millivolt ignition system, nothing will happen. The millivolt system uses a pilot light that stays lit at all times and is not dependent on electricity for power. Because of its virtually foolproof nature, millivolt ignition is popular in most of the country. It uses a small electromagnet built into the gas valve. When you light the pilot, that electromagnet allows gas to flow to the pilot only. The pilot's flame heats a thermocouple (a small electrical generator). That generated power holds the gas valve open. Then, when you flip your wall or unit switch, the gas flows and voila! Instant ambience!

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Photo by Mark Englund/HomeStyles

If the pilot flame is extinguished for any reason, everything stops: the thermocouple cools and stops generating electricity, the electromagnet loses its power, a spring in the gas valve snaps the valve shut and the burner goes out.

The other type of ignition is electronic ignition, where you flip a wall or unit mounted switch, or press a button on a remote control to "fire up" the fireplace. California and New York have actually mandated electronic ignition. Stories of carbon monoxide poisonings are all over the news. What about the quality of room air?

Since 1980, about 45 states have allowed the use of vent-free fireplaces, which are designed so that the by-products of combustion-as well as the heat-are sent into the home. The burners in these fireplaces are designed for low carbon monoxide (CO) output: somewhere around four to six parts per million, which is far lower than the CO output from an average kitchen range.

Consider Superior Fireplace's Pure Heater. It's a ceramic catalyst that cleans the products of combustion, removing hydrocarbons and allowing the fireplace to emit absolutely no carbon monoxide.

Vent-free fireplaces also employ an Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS). This device measures the amount of oxygen in a room-20.9 percent being normal. If the oxygen level drops too far, the ODS shuts off the unit. Many units shut off around 18.5 percent or 19 percent, making them even safer.

Conventionally vented gas fireplaces have spill switches, which measure the temperature on the top of the fireplace. If the fireplace is not venting correctly, the spill switch shuts the fireplace down. Fireplace surfaces get hot. Are my children safe around a natural gas fireplace? As today's fireplaces become increasingly efficient, more heat is conducted to the room and surfaces get hotter. Don't worry, though; common sense will serve you in good stead. You can use a fixed screen on the front of the fireplace to keep curious fingers away from the hot spots; or, for an extra measure of safety, visit your local hearth shop and try a standing fixed screen to keep kids beyond arm's reach.

Remember, it's not just the little ones who can get burned. You could also be at risk while working with the gas valve and controls. Check out several different brands to see which offer roomy servicing compartments. Larger compartments keep your hands away from hot surfaces.

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Photo provided by Heatilator

It's time to consider a natural gas fireplace, not only for the safety features, but for the sake of the environment. Emission requirements for fireplaces are appearing in many states, including Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. Utah and California are considering strengthening their current laws, and in 1997 Washington state began regulating fireplace emissions.

Why not try a natural gas fireplace in your home today? Once it's in place, all you'll have to do is kick back with the Sunday paper and flip a switch.

And take off your socks. It's getting warmer.

Sources: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; Don Kaufman, Superior Fireplaces; Heat-N-Glo Fireplaces; Temco Fireplaces; Majestic Fireplaces.

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