Monday, October 4, 2010

Should you buy an Electric Fireplace?

Electric fireplaces have improved greatly in terms of realistic appearance.  But are these a good value or an efficient source of heat?  Like a lot of things, "it depends".

I own two electric fireplaces and I am selling them with my house. I plan on buying another one for my home in Georgia.  That alone should be testimonial that these are not bad appliances to own.  But before you buy one, you should consider carefully what it is you are buying.

Years ago, fake electric fireplaces were pretty crude.  I bought one at a garage sale once, and it comprised a 100-watt light bulb and a rotating cylinder with flames printed on it.  It sort of made a fireplace like flicker, but it was pretty cheesy.  It was probably from the 1960's if not before.

Fast-foward a few decades, and everyone is selling electric fireplaces.  You see them in Lowes.  You see them in Home Depot.  You see them in these come-on "Amish" ads in the back pages of the Smithsonian.  Are they a good deal?  Is this a realistic heating appliance?  Like anything else, you have to think about it and your needs.

First of all, let's talk about the modern electric fireplace.  And we can safely talk about them because they are all the same.  The "guts" of any electric fireplace is nearly identical to the "guts" of any other.  I have seen dozens and own two, and they are all alike.  Regardless of cabinetry (wood or fake metal) there is a sheet metal box with fake plastic logs in it that "glow" and a screen in the back where flames are projected.  That sounds cheesy, but you'd be surprised how it gives the effect of a real fire in the back of your mind.  They all have an IR remote control unit, to adjust the flame "height" and turn them on and off.  And most have a heater with a blower, usually only 1000 watts or so.

So right off the bat, we see one thing.  The actual fireplace "box" is the same, no matter what enclosure it comes with.  No doubt these are made in China en masse, and are fairly cheap.  So when shopping for one, the only thing that is different is the nature of the enclosure, and the price.

Some are quite elaborate and have shelves to hold electronic gear and a flat-screen TeeVee as shown above.  I own one of these and it works well for that purpose.  Others are simpler and have a simple enclosure that surrounds the fireplace box.  I have one of these (bought secondhand on Craigslist - more on that later) and it works well, too.

Prices are all over the board on these, from $199 for a simple model, all the way to $699 for the deluxe model shown above.  Again, the only real difference is the cabinetry.

Are these a heating appliance?  Do they "save energy"?  Yes and NO.  Yes, they can generate heat and warm up a chilly room.  No, they really don't save any energy in the usual sense, as they use resistive heating elements, which are the most expensive way to heat.  The ads in the Smithsonian claim they can save you money, but if you read the fine print, that is because they suggest these units could be used to heat only the room you are in, and thus avoid heating the whole house.  You could do the same with your existing furnace by shutting off the dampers to the rooms you are not using.

So yes, on a chilly day, these can send out a little heat and "take the chill off" a room you are in.  As an efficient or realistic heating appliance, they are not suitable.

So why do I have two?  We bought the first one ($699 a Lowes) for our Media Room, which included space for a home theater system, storage for DVDs, and a platform for one of those "big screen" TeeVees.  We can now watch Netflix in style!

We agonized over whether to install a gas fireplace there or a "real wood" fireplace.  The gas kind are nice, but expensive ($1000 and up) and hard to install (the best kind need a vent).  And it is a fake fire, albeit with a real flame.  The wood kind will void your homeowner's insurance, require that you cut, stack, and store wood, and are a messy pain in the ass to use.  They are real, though, and smell real.

But when push came to shove, the idea of uncrating and installing the electric job in a matter of 30 minutes sealed the deal.  And since we don't use the house in the dead of winter, well, having a "real" fireplace was a "real" waste of money. 

The electric fireplace provides that warm ambiance that people feed off of - in an indirect background way.  And on chilly days, the small heater/blower takes the chill off.  All in all, it worked out well.

So well, in fact, we thought about getting a second one.  And we found a simpler model for sale on Craigslist for $200.  We bought it and took it home.  The previous owner told us it had no remote control, but when we loaded it in the truck, the remote fell out of the fake fire log, so we did OK with that.

If you want to add warmth (in terms of atmosphere, as well as in a literal sense) to a room, these are not a bad deal.  They look fairly "real", blow out a little heat on occasion to take off the chill, and are portable and CHEAP to buy, and require no installation.  And they don't create a fire hazard, that I know of.

I would not pay a lot for one, though.  The come-on ads in the back of the Smithsonian claim these "save energy" and are "made by Amish".  I am skeptical of both claims, as well as their pricing.  The basic "box" is $100.  Anything above that is for the wood enclosure.