When we last checked in with indoor-fireplace manufacturers, they warned us that the then-imminent safety-barrier requirement for gas fireplaces would result in fewer choices for consumers, because manufacturers would winnow out models that would cost too much to bring into compliance.
That didn’t happen.
We found that today’s gas fireplaces typically are $50–$200 more expensive than they were before because of the cost to include the safety barriers. However, more models are in the market than previously. Almost every major manufacturer now sells clean-face and linear fireplaces. No one could provide sales numbers for clean-face and linear fireplaces, but the 14 industry experts and retailers whom we interviewed agree that the expansion of those models represents the hottest trend in the market.
Clean-face fireplaces, which have minimal framing that’s around the edge of the fireplace opening, now start at $590, compared with $675 before. Linear fireplaces, which are wider than they are high, typically are between 36–60 inches wide. However, 11 manufacturers now make custom linear fireplaces that are as wide as you want. At the extreme end, we found linear fireplaces that are as wide as 21 feet—and cost at least $150,000, not including venting!
Consolidation also changed the industry. The two largest indoor-fireplace manufacturers in terms of sales, Hearth & Home Technologies (HHT) and Innovative Hearth Products (IHP), expanded in the past 3 years and reintroduced their fireplace lineups.
HHT acquired Vermont Castings Group in fall 2014 and now includes six fireplace brands: Heat & Glo, Heatilator, Majestic, Monessen, Quadra-Fire and Vermont Castings. IHP, which formed in September 2012 when FMI Products and Lennox Hearth Products combined, now has four new brands: Astria, Comfort Flame, Iron Strike and Superior. These brands sell redesigned FMI and Lennox models as well as new models.
PUTTING UP BARRIERS. As of Jan. 1, 2015, American National Standards Institute (ANSI) requires all vented gas fireplaces to include a safety barrier as standard equipment to prevent anyone from touching the fireplace’s hot glass front, which can reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Getting Closer: New Gas-Furnace Standards
Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) developed the standard to limit injuries. According to Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2,000 children age 5 and younger received severe burns from 1999–2008 as a result of touching glass fronts.
All safety barriers now must be certified by an independent third-party laboratory, which tests a barrier by pressing a probe to its surface. The barrier must withstand the pressure and prevent the probe from contacting the glass front, says Tom Stroud of HPBA, who helped to develop the standard.
No data exist on whether fireplace burns decreased as a result of the safety barriers, but all 14 experts whom we interviewed say the barriers made gas fireplaces safer.
The barriers typically are made from fine wire mesh that’s engineered to be firm. They’re designed to be invisible or at least not to obscure the view of the fireplace’s flame. We visited two indoor-fireplace stores, and we had to get within 2 feet of most of the models to see the barrier.
We found that the type of mesh that’s used in barriers varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, as do the coatings of the mesh. The type of mesh doesn’t affect the price of the barrier, but the width of the fireplace does. Every manufacturer with which we spoke has a slightly different proprietary approach to building its barriers.
The standard doesn’t require manufacturers to account for a minimum distance between the safety barrier and the fireplace’s glass front. We found that the distance typically varies from one-half inch to 5 inches, depending on the design of the fireplace and how far that the fireplace frame protrudes from the front of the firebox.
If a manufacturer wants to do 1 inch, that’s fine, and if it wants to do 4 inches, that’s fine, Stroud says. “You just can’t be able to push the barrier in and contact the glass.”
The safety-barrier standard doesn’t apply to wood-burning fireplaces that have glass doors. We wondered why. Stroud tells us that wood-burning fireplaces cool more quickly than do gas fireplaces, and experts have scant reports of injuries that resulted from wood fireplaces.
“Wood-burning fireplaces warm up only when there’s a full fire going, and then they cool down,” Stroud says. “The gas fireplace is instant-on, instantly very hot and takes a long time to cool down. Even when the gas fireplace is turned off, it ends up being this reflective area that a child will see and want to come up and touch.”
All manufacturers tell us that they were able to update most of their models by modifying the front of the fireplace slightly and adding a mesh-wire screen. However, two manufacturers say the safety-barrier requirement forced them to redesign their more decorative fireplaces, which start at $3,000.
“We tried to maintain the aesthetics of the units as best as we could and introduce a barrier into the front of it,” says Ron Newman of IHP. “In so many cases, it wasn’t an issue, but there were a few units where you really had to go back and redesign the way the unit was built and the way that the air flows through it.”
For example, IHP’s Astria Altair was designed so the glass front was flush with the unit’s frame. That meant that if you were to put a mesh screen in front of the glass, no air flow would exist to keep the screen cool, and the screen wouldn’t meet the barrier requirements. IHP redesigned the Altair so the glass front is recessed from the frame. Now, air flows between the screen and the glass front, and the unit meets the requirement.
Gas fireplaces that were made before Jan. 1, 2015, still may be sold, and we found that such models exist online and in stores. However, if you buy one of these older models, it must be installed with an ANSI-compliant retrofit safety barrier that’s certified to work with the older model that you buy. Most major manufacturers provide a compatible retrofit safety barrier for the cost of shipping. Others charge at least $99.
The safety-barrier regulation also forbids dealers from installing gas fireplaces without factory-approved safety barriers. In other words, a fireplace installation isn’t complete unless the dealer installs a fireplace barrier according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If you consider installing a fireplace yourself, you should reconsider, Stroud says, because of all the facets that go into installing an indoor fireplace. It isn’t like installing a sink, he says.
“People always say, ‘I can do that,’” Stroud says. “You get a call 6 months later that they burned the house down.”
We wondered whether safety barriers would dissipate the energy of the fire and make it less warm in front of the fireplace. Eight experts tell us that the barrier creates a reduction of about 2 percent to 3 percent in radiant energy and that consumers won’t feel the difference when they sit in front of the fireplace. We didn’t notice any difference in our evaluations.
In 2013, manufacturers expressed concern that consumers likely would be able to remove the safety barrier easily. We found that it isn’t easy to do so. Removing the barrier requires the use of a tool, such as a hacksaw, to cut pieces of the screen. All manufacturers designed the barriers so the fireplace looks unfinished—with exposed framing and gaps—if the barrier isn’t in place.
“We don’t want consumers removing the screens,” says Bob Ballard of HHT. “If a consumer chooses to remove it, the fireplace will look like something’s missing.”
One manufacturer, Travis Industries, secures its aluminum-mesh safety barriers in a steel frame in such a way that the screens will prevent fragments or shards from flying into a room if a fireplace’s glass front breaks or cracks. In this case, it doesn’t add anything to the price of the barrier. Experts say glass also could crack in the rare case of a delayed-ignition event, which is an explosion that can happen when a burner is clogged.
“We thought that if we’re adding a barrier and a screen component, let’s also make that barrier strong enough to contain glass fragments should there be a defective piece of glass in a unit,” says Kurt Rumens, who is the president of Travis Industries.
The Travis Industries concept was so well-received in the industry that CSA Group, which is a standards organization, is considering revising the safety-barrier standard to account for delayed-ignition events. Discussions are in the preliminary stages, and it would take at least 2–4 years before proposed revisions were announced, HPBA says. We wanted to ask CSA Group what parameters were being considered and how much that such a barrier would cost, but the group didn’t respond as of press time.
Travis Industries also is the only manufacturer that we found that developed an air-cooled safety barrier for ultrawide custom linear fireplaces. In the company’s DaVinci line (starting at $6,900), the firebox’s glass front sits 4–6 inches behind another glass panel that’s one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch thick. Between the two glass panels, a layer of air that’s brought in by a vent from outside of the home cools the barrier, the company says. Experts tell us that the DaVinci works and that we can expect to see more air-cooled indoor fireplaces in the next 2 years.
SLOW BURNERS. In 2013, Environmental Protection Agency planned to propose mandatory emissions standards for residential wood-burning heaters, including fireplaces. Those standards now are in place, but the agency didn’t include wood-burning fireplaces.
Enesta Jones of EPA tells us that the organization decided not to include wood-burning fireplaces, because wood-burning models “generally are not effective heaters.” Naturally, HPBA was pleased with EPA’s decision.
“We knew from surveys that most people don’t use their wood-burning fireplace very often,” says John Crouch of HPBA. “If you look at the cost-effectiveness of emissions-control technology on an appliance that is used a couple times a year, it costs a couple hundred dollars to remove a small amount of particulates.”
EPA has only its voluntary program that “qualifies” wood-burning fireplaces that emit no more than 5.1 grams of particulate matter per kilogram of wood that’s burned. EPA says qualified fireplaces emit 70 percent less pollution than do unqualified models.
To participate in the program, manufacturers must submit their fireplaces to testing by an independent third-party laboratory. Not many do. EPA says that as of press time, 25 fireplaces from 10 manufacturers qualified as meeting the voluntary standards, compared with 23 fireplaces from eight manufacturers in 2013. These models start at $750, compared with $700 before.
It’s beneficial to be qualified, Crouch says, because certain areas of the country allow only qualified fireplaces.