More and more frequently I have clients who want me to custom build outdoor fireplaces in their backyards. Especially in this economy as homeowners maximize their property investment by taking "staycations" the backyard is becoming an oasis of outdoor enjoyment. Fireplaces have traditionally been thought of as wood burning but more and more homeowners are using gas logs as a beautiful and simple alternative to the wood burning fireplace.
Wood burning fireplaces can become complex even when we are building outside. The atmosphere created around a wood burning fireplace is comforting, calming. The crackling and popping of the wood and the smell that permeates the entire yard adds enjoyment to the functional heater. However, building a custom fireplace can become expensive and complicated. In addition to the firebox and the mantle that we devise as the custom plan, a flue and chimney must be built up through the roof and terminated above the roof line. For many homeowners we have worked with, the expense of cutting through a roof, plus the associated laws and inspections attached to resealing a roof and the expense of building a chimney places the project outside an acceptable budget.
For instance, a homeowner decides to build a marble mantle seven feet wide and four feet high. The budget takes into account the marble tile to finish the design and the firebox, structural materials to build the fireplace and labor. Most people do not look at a chimney and think "Wow, that is a great looking chimney" so we do not always account for the ventilation when we design our perfect outdoor accent. The ventilation can not be skipped just because there is plenty of ventilation outdoors. The proper flue will "pull" the fumes and smoke up and away from the fireplace. Without the vent gas fumes will flow from the front of the fireplace and the area usually reserved for sitting in front of the fire will be hot and smelly. The homeowner contacts a contractor who explains the chimney, flue and roof termination will double the budget.
I have been in this situation many times and the answer is often gas logos. I have had clients with damage to their chimney flue inside a wall and believe they can put a gas log fireplace kit into their wood-burning fireplace instead of repairing the damaged flue. This is a mistake, and a dangerous mistake. Gas logs use liquid propane or natural gas instead of wood for fuel. When gas burns, oxygen is burned and carbon monoxide is created. If there is damage to the flue, a typical gas log fireplace is not the answer because the fresh air ventilation is still necessary to pull out carbon monoxide.
The answer is ventless gas logs. Vent free gas logs do not have to be vented. When a client wants to design a custom outdoor fireplace but they do not want to build a chimney and cut through their patio roof, a vented gas log kit is the perfect solution because no ventilation is necessary.
Ventless gas logs are designed to be used indoors and have several safety features that make them safe inside your home. Manufacturers of ventless gas logs have a limit to the amount of BTU's burned which limits the size of most unwanted gas log burners to 30. "The size of a firebox that would comfortably hold a 30" gas burner is 42 "to 48" which is Still a large fireplace. A standing pilot assembly holds lit and heat is tracked with a thermocouple. If the flames go out for any reason, the thermocouple cools and gas stops at the valve. Oxygen depletion sensors are also attached to the gas valve to ensure the flames do not burn up so much oxygen in the house that unsafe conditions are created.
Outdoors a ventless gas log can not deplete oxygen or fill your home with gas but a different set of issues ensues. Oxygen Sensors can get pollen and dust in them and wind can confuse the pilot assembly of ability to provide continuous heat to the thermocouple. The design of the fireplace and the placement of the logs should be discussed with a professional to minimize these possibilities. These issues do not risk the safety of your family but if the thermocouple thinks the pilot is out because the wind is directing the flame in another direction, your gas log burner will turn itself off. An experienced installer will manipulate the mounting bracket to work around wind issues and position the Oxygen Depletion Sensors so they do not get clogged with pollen and dust.
The benefit to a ventless gas log fireplace outdoors is convenience and cost. The process of building proper ventilation and a chimney can often double the expense of custom fireplaces indoors or outside. Convenience is the ability to create a perfect flame pattern as easily as turning on a barbeque grill. Many gas log fireplaces have complex valve options that allow variable remote controls that alter flame height, on / off remotes, wall switches and thermostatic controllers that turn the fireplace on and off based on the temperature read at the thermostat. I do not recommend any of these valves in your backyard. A manual safety pilot kit has a standing pilot light that stays on always. As long as the pilot is burning, the fireplace can be controlled with a simple control knob. A couple of decorative ceramic pinecones or wood chunks hide the controls. Remotes, wall switches, thermostatic controls and other valves use batteries. Even a gas log fireplace that is under an overhang will be affected by moisture in the air. Here in Florida where humidity is tremendous, a battery operated valve will corrode within a year in most backyards.
Proper placement and a good design will ensure a beautiful fireplace at an affordable price. Years ago ventless gas logs were only for indoor applications where it was impossible to place a vented fireplace. Innovations in log design and burners that burn so clean that very few fumes are created have made unvented gas logs a much more attractive option. Fire effects that do not use ceramic logs but burn crushed fire glass, ceramic fire shapes, river stones or nothing at all have evolved in to a modern design for contemporary homes that do not want a gas log fireplace to appear to be a wood burning fireplace . These fire effects are gaining popularity both indoors and out in the backyard.
Ethanol fireplaces are also a new interesting application. Ethanol burners are rectangular reservoirs with slits or ports in the top to allow flames to keep the alcohol burning. Many ethanol burners can burn for four to six hours before depleting their load and have a heat shield on top that can be used to turn the flames off. Ethanol is functional, beautiful and simple because it does not need ventilation, does not require gas lines running through the house and creates a strong tall flame pattern.
We build custom fireplaces for many home owners and there are always strengths and weaknesses to every option. In my experience, many clients are pleased with ventless gas log fireplaces outdoors in spite of the limitations involved in placing an indoor product in the backyard. Foregoing a chimney and ventilation system saves a lot of money and a lot of time. Vent free gas logs have become as attractive as wood burning and vented gas log fireplaces and they are safe indoors and out. If you are considering a custom fireplace in your backyard or if you are just considering doing something to make your home resort more fun, the ventless gas log fireplace is affordable, safe, simple and can completely change the space you use outside.
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