Hot Topic: How to Choose a Freestanding Fireplace

Instill the coziness of a crackling fire in virtually any indoor or outdoor space with a freestanding fireplace. Here's what you need to know to select the right one.

By Jan Soults Walker

Cool evenings inspire dreams of gathering around the warmth of a fireplace. If you think you don't have the space or funds for one, the good news is that a freestanding model makes it possible.

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David Howell
Just like their built-in counterparts, freestanding fireplaces serve as beautiful focal points, indoors or outdoors, but in many cases can be more affordable and easier to install—even in compact spaces or on interior walls of existing homes.

Start the selection journey by envisioning where you want a freestanding fireplace in or around your home. Then, determine how much space you have available, taking into account the floor plan and furniture placement, so the fireplace is sized right for the room. Think about the style, too—everything from traditional to contemporary, as well as looks somewhere in between, is on the market.

What's available?

Ines Hanl
Deciding on the type of fireplace is one aspect of the selection process. Your options include:
  • Vented. Some freestanding fireplaces require a flue or chimney that extends above the roof to draw smoke, carbon monoxide, and fumes out of the house. Unfortunately, these conventional versions also suck out warmed air. To conserve energy, consider a "direct vent" version, which features two pipes—one smaller and tucked inside of the other—installed directly through an exterior wall. One pipe pulls air from outside to fuel the fire, and one exhausts smoke and fumes. A tempered or ceramic glass panel keeps the fire on view inside but creates a seal so very little warmed air is drawn from your home. 
  • VentlessAs the name suggests, a ventless/vent-free fireplace requires no pipe or chimney to the outdoors, which lets you locate it almost anywhere. As a good source of supplemental heat, a ventless fireplace also generates moisture, so check the manufacturer's recommendations for room size to avoid over-saturating the room. While today's vent-free versions are considered clean burning, there is a very small amount of pollutants (such as carbon monoxide) released into the air of your home. Ventless fireplaces must meet stringent guidelines to preserve indoor air quality, and all are equipped with devices designed to automatically shut off the fireplace should carbon monoxide increase and oxygen levels fall. Still, people with sensitive noses or breathing issues may find a ventless model unacceptable.
  • Portable and tabletop. In compact spaces or in situations where you would like to transport the beauty of flickering flames from spot to spot, consider a portable fireplace. While some are sized to fit on a tabletop (and can also be used by the pool, on a deck or patio, or to light a path), outdoor models may feature wheels to make them easily movable.
  • Wall mountA thin design lets you hang this type of fireplace on a wall, like artwork.
  • Insert. Transform a heat-sucking, built-in fireplace into a supplemental heat source with an insert that slips into the firebox. A fan on the insert sends heat into the room.
  • Cabinet styleThis multipurpose piece of furniture serves as an entertainment center and storage unit as well as a fireplace.
  • OutdoorSome models of freestanding fireplaces are designed specifically for outdoor use.

All fired up

Wittus - Fire by Design
Freestanding fireplaces come in a variety of fuel source options. Keep in mind that some models can use two or more fuels.
  • Wood burning fireplaces (vented or direct vent) provide the authentic feel many homeowners long for. Keep in mind that wood has to be brought into the house, stacked into the firebox, and lighted, and the fire must be maintained. There's also ash left behind to clean out. According to the EPA, some communities prohibit the installation of wood-burning fireplaces in new construction.

  • A pellet fireplace is fueled with densely packed pellets that burn efficiently and are made from wood or crop waste products. Some models will also burn biofuels, such as nutshells, soybeans, wheat, or corn. Either version requires a vent as well as regular cleaning to remove the ash.

  • Electric models, which simply plug into any 120-volt outlet, use LED lighting to mimic the look of flames. These vent-free units emit no toxins and often serve as supplemental heat. Because logs and flames aren't real, there's no maintenance or cleanup. 
  • Natural gas or propane fireplaces require a line to connect to the fuel source, but not all need venting. Because the faux logs don't actually burn, no ash is produced.
  • Gel fueled fireplaces use canisters of isopropyl alcohol gel or ethanol-based gel or liquid to produce a flame. Salt in the mixture of alcohol gels crackles to mimic the sound of burning logs. A word of caution: The EPA does cite a German study warning that ethanol-based fuels release higher levels of pollutants into your home.

More to know

For freestanding fireplaces with real flames, closely follow guidelines for installation and usage to ensure safety. In most cases, wood- or gas-burning units require a surrounding of noncombustible surfaces.

For electric units and some gas models, convenient remote control starters are available.

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