Home-Heating Guide (cont.)

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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.

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