Dear Angie: Are ventless fireplaces safe? — Beverly S., Macomb, Mich.
Dear Beverly: The safety of ventless fireplaces has sparked debate for some time now.
The answer to your question depends largely on who you talk with. Some fireplace experts our team spoke with are against using them for health reasons, while others say there are very few safety concerns and many benefits that come with using ventless systems.
Some municipalities have banned ventless fireplaces because of the alleged dangers (Lexington has not). California is the only state that has banned them completely, but other jurisdictions have limited their use. In North Carolina and Washington D.C., for example, they are prohibited in bedrooms and bathrooms to prevent excess carbon monoxide from building up in small areas.
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Carbon monoxide, which can be deadly, is among the unburned combustion products that are vented into the home from ventless fireplaces, according to the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors.
However, most ventless fireplaces are installed with an oxygen-detection sensor that will turn the fireplace off if oxygen levels in the home become too low. But opponents say there are still no safety nets in the case the detection sensor fails. A reduction in oxygen is more dangerous for people with respiratory illnesses or young children.
Other service providers say ventless fireplaces can release water vapor and produce a burning gas odor. But federal regulations state that the byproducts' emission levels are safe.
Some installers of the ventless systems say there's not much difference between running gas stove burners — which don't have oxygen sensors — for long periods of time and using a ventless fireplace. If they're installed correctly and serviced each year, they should run fine and not be a danger, they say.
Ventless systems are generally designed only to be used as a supplemental heating source and should not be run for long stretches.
Ventless systems, which do not have a chimney, also have a reputation of running more efficiently. They are generally cheaper, too. The systems can range in price from $2,500 to $4,000, while a typical vented unit often goes for $5,000 to $6,000.
Either way, make sure to do plenty of research before deciding what's best for you.