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5 burning questions (and answers!) about gas fireplaces

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Hot cocoa, falling snow, a crackling fire – that's the picture-perfect winter scene, isn't it? You can get it with a push of a button thanks to gas fireplaces, but any time you start a fire in your home, safety should be the highest priority.

To learn how to reduce the risk of danger and prevent an unwanted house fire, we spoke with Paul Pirro of PSE&G's Appliance Service who gave us the 411 on how to enjoy a safe, cozy fire this winter.

Is a gas fireplace dangerous? 

Any appliance can be dangerous (including your toaster), but a gas fireplace is no different from any other gas appliance in your home. 

Is a gas fireplace safe, though? According to Pirro, these appliances have become safer over the last 20 years with precautions built into the units to stop dangerous situations from occurring.

"Some gas fireplaces have a device called an oxygen depletion sensor," says Pirro, "and it's designed to shut off the unit when a low amount of oxygen level is reached."

If your fireplace doesn't have enough oxygen to complete combustion, carbon monoxide (CO) will be created (a dangerous situation as Anna Faris discovered last Thanksgiving), so your gas fireplace's oxygen depletion sensor prevents this from happening. As a second line of protection, a carbon monoxide detector should be installed on the level of the home where the gas fireplace exists.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and most gas fire places, especially modern ones, also have security measures on their ignition device, whether they have a direct ignition device, an igniter, or a pilot flame.

"[Some gas fireplaces] contain a thermocouple attached to pilot assembly which shuts off the gas supply," says Pirro. "You press a button to allow the gas to go through to ignite that pilot light. Once it lights, that port stays open and the light stays lit. When the flame drops out, it closes automatically. Great invention."

Overall, this appliance uses very little gas.

"With a normal gas leak leading to and running through a gas heating type appliance, sometimes there may be a potential for a lot of gas to be flowing, but in the case of a gas fireplace, the flow is normally very low," says Pirro. "There's not a lot of gas. I don't want to say there's no danger because any time you smell gas, it should be addressed."

Does a gas fireplace need maintenance? 

Absolutely. At the bare minimum, your gas fireplace needs a yearly check-up. A technician will make sure the device's connections are tight and clean. They'll also check that the fence is unobstructed and cleared of debris around the log insert, and the fireplace itself is free of residue and other materials that can build up during normal burning operations. They'll also check the spark ignition if you have one. 

Pirro equates a gas fireplace to a gas grill. When you cook on a grill, it will begin to deteriorate, and its parts will corrode without the proper cleaning. If you're wondering, "Do gas fireplaces need to be cleaned?" The answer is yes! In fact, the more you use one, the more it will need to be cleaned.

"With all gas appliances that PSE&G service, we tell the customer to follow the manufacturer's instructions," says Pirro. "That's really the governing rule."

Homeowners should also clean the fan to improve air circulation, prevent clogging, and provide a warm flow of air. This allows your fireplace to serve as a secondary heat source. Glass doors shouldn't be ignored, notes Pirro, as dirt can also affect operation and energy efficiency.

The glass panel of a gas fireplace can heat up to how many degrees? 

Five hundred degrees, says Pirro.

To put that into perspective, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so gas fireplaces can create a heat output that is a significant burn hazard for homeowners, children, and pets.

Lower your risk of incidents by following these gas fireplace safety tips:

  • Use your fireplace for short periods of time, such as hours, not days.
  • Do not leave your fireplace unattended and talk to your professional about leaving the pilot light on.
  • Turn off your fireplace when it's not in use.
  • Keep pets and children at least three feet away, and place barriers around the fireplace.
  • Always provide adult supervision.

Manufacturers are required to include safety barriers or a safety screen that prevents someone from touching the glass panel, and certain models even provide a double glass heat barrier that has a cool down area between the glass front panels. Still, accidents do happen, so it's important to keep vigilant against all concerns, such as carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you don't have CO detectors already in your home (why don't you?), Pirro reminds homeowners that construction codes demand a CO detector on every level of the house, in every area of the house, and near sleeping areas.

To help prevent the formation of CO, the fireplace damper on a vented unit must be securely clamped open. "We recommend fixed open gas valves for that appliance," says Pirro, "so you don't forget to open the valve."

Why is bigger not always better for gas fireplaces? 

Oxygen is conducive to living. To keep oxygen levels sufficient for human life, a gas fireplace must fit the room of installation.

"By international fuel gas code and national fuel gas code, there are requirements," says Pirro, "so the installer needs to know that it should be matched up with the size of the room to install it properly."

PSE&G also suggests ensuring your contractor gets a building permit before installing the gas line, and prior to using your fireplace for the first time, complete these necessary steps:

  • Check the batteries in your CO detectors.
  • Have the unit checked by a municipal inspector.
  • Clean the chimney, especially in a vented fireplace, by professional chimney sweeps. 

Who ya gonna call for gas fireplace repairs? 

If you're living in New Jersey or on Long Island, PSE&G offers services for repairing fireplace and replacing parts. With PSE&G's WorryFree Protection Plans, homeowners get fast and dependable service from skilled technicians and receive round-the-clock scheduling online or by phone. PSE&G adds the low cost of the protection plan to your existing energy plan.

Though the service plans don't include annual inspections, technicians are capable and able to do so for an additional fee.

If you're living outside the Tri-State Area, product suppliers who sell these devices should have service personnel and offer contract services to inspect the parts, such as the gas fireplace igniter or standing pilot light, pilot tubings, the chimney cap, smoke shelf, smoke chamber, and control knob. 

Gas fireplaces offer comfort, style, and warmth during the long, cold winter months, but safety should always be your top priority when using your unit.

Says Pirro, "PSE&G, especially in the heating season, responds to a number of gas fireplace emergencies. Homeowners will smell an odor and call. Calls come in regularly but not every day."

Find out what to do if your gas fireplace smells or you think you may have a leak in "Warning signs of a leak in your fireplace." We also address issues with a gas fireplace and carbon monoxide poisoning to help you stay safe and warm all winter. 

Learn more about fireplaces, including vent free gas fireplaces, open gas fireplaces, wood burning fireplaces, and masonry fireplaces, in our vipTIPS. These expertly-backed tips can help you to learn how to operate a gas fireplace, chimney cleaning, and what are the parts of the fireplace called? We'll tell you! Plus, our interactive app sends personalized reminders for annual maintenance and tailored recommendations for home improvement, so you can keep your home and family safe. 

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