Most gas fireplaces can burn either natural gas or propane, but at the time of publication, propane is a more expensive fuel alternative than natural gas. Depending on where you're installing your fireplace, natural gas may not be an option at all, leaving you no choice but a propane-fueled unit. As you're deciding which propane fireplace to buy, operating efficiency and overall cost will be important points of comparison between models.
If you want your fireplace to actually contribute to heating your home instead of just looking great, consider how much heat output you'll need from the unit. The output of a fireplace is measured in British thermal units, and individual propane fireplaces can produce anywhere from 7,000 Btu to well over 50,000 Btu. Your heating needs will vary depending on the size of the room you want to heat, its ceiling height, and where you live; heating a 400-square-foot room with an 8-foot ceiling in northern California, for example, will require a fireplace that puts out 3,200 Btu, while heating the same room in Minnesota will take a 16,000-Btu unit.
Propane fireplaces are available as insert units that fit inside the firebox of an existing wood-burning fireplace, as built-in units that can be installed nearly anywhere, or as free-standing units that may not require any construction at all. An insert is a good choice when you're happy with the look and location of your existing fireplace and simply want to upgrade it. A built-in propane fireplace gives you more installation options; it doesn't require an existing chimney, and it can be installed on almost any exterior wall. Built-in fireplaces are costlier to install overall, though, because you'll need to build a mantle or enclosure to blend the fireplace into your room design. Free-standing units are convenient and cost-effective, but depending on their venting system, they may be prohibited in some states.
Propane fireplaces produce harmful exhaust gases, and those gases have to go somewhere. A direct-vent fireplace has a sealed combustion chamber, and its combustion gases pass via a vent through an exterior wall; oxygen for combustion comes in through a separate pipe. A B-vent fireplace vents exhaust gases through a single pipe, in contrast to the two-pipe direct-vent configuration, and it draws oxygen from inside the room; B-vent units lose a relatively large proportion of their heat through the vent and are typically less efficient than direct-vent fireplaces. Ventless fireplaces don't vent to the outside; instead, they exhaust a small amount of combustion gases into the room in which they're installed. They're equipped with carbon monoxide and oxygen sensors that shut down the unit if the air quality in the room becomes hazardous. The safety of these units is a matter of debate, and ventless fireplaces are banned in some states, including California.
One of the biggest advantages of a propane fireplace is the control that it offers, and some units offer more control than others. Many fireplaces are equipped with controls that let you adjust the height of the flames according to how much heat you need or how you want the fire to look. Some units include wall-mounted thermostats that will automatically adjust the flame to maintain a consistent temperature in the room. Fireplaces with electronic ignition light at the touch of a button, and those with remote controls light at the touch of a button from across the room.
You don't want your fireplace to look like a gas range in your living room, so you'll want to install some kind of decorative element to spruce up the firebox. Ceramic logs are a traditional choice that mimics the look of a wood-burning fireplace. Alternatives to logs include ceramic stones or glass chips. Some fireplaces also incorporate ceramic firebox linings that imitate the look of traditional firebrick.
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