Both gel fuel and electric fireplaces are simple alternatives to traditional or gas fireplaces. Neither require a vent leading to outside air, and both come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and materials, from wood to stone. The main differences between the two are how the flame looks and how the heat is produced.
Gel fuel fireplaces use canisters of fuel that has been concentrated in gel form. These canisters are inserted in the bottom of the fireplace, and the gel is slowly burned to produce the flame and heat. Because the gel is concentrated, it forms a bright and realistic flame that adds ambiance and improves the fireplace's functionality as a centerpiece of any room. Almost all gel fireplaces are also portable, so homeowners can move them from place to place without spending too much time.
Electric fireplaces use electricity to generate their heat, and most create simulated flames or embers using lighting techniques to give the fireplace a more authentic feel. They do not need fuel canisters and require no replacement items unless they break. While some electric fireplaces can be moved like the gel fuel versions, it is more common to see these taking the place of traditional or gas fireplaces. They can save energy and minimize dangers associated with most types of fireplaces. Most also come with remote controls or switches so they can be turned on automatically.
Gel Fuel Considerations
Gel fuel fireplaces need to be re-energized with more gel fuel at consistent intervals, which increases their cost over time. There are many different types of gel fuel that can be bought, and fireplaces may be intended to work with a certain brand, which can increase the difficulty of buying more fuel. While these fireplaces can be moved, it is important to find one with reliable construction that can withstand movement and heat without losing its integrity. There is also a certain amount of cleaning necessary with a gel fuel fireplace, since the flame will leave buildup that must be cleared.
Electrical fireplaces need a nearby outlet to function, even if they are portable. They also produce far less heat than a gel fuel fireplace--about 4,500 BTUs to the 9,000 BTUs of the gel fuel alternative. If you are interested mostly in heating your home, a gel fuel version is a better bet. Prices of electric fireplaces vary, and local electricity bills should be taken into account.
There is some contention as to which version of the fireplace is the most environmentally friendly. Electric fireplaces produce barely any contaminants and can save energy when compared to a gas fireplace in a well-insulated home, but they are most commonly used for decor effects. The gel in a gel fuel fireplace is designed to burn very cleanly, but even still it releases a small amount of petroleum-based emissions that will slowly leak out of the fireplace--not enough to be harmful to humans, but more than the electrical fireplace. On the other hand, gel fuel fireplaces produce more heat and so have the capability of saving more energy if used correctly.
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