Are Ethanol Fireplaces Safe? Scientific Research on the Topic

Recently, an article on Treehuggger was published by Lloyd Alter commenting on a recent Scientific Research Study published by Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research. The study concluded that ethanol fireplaces are a health hazard and should only be used in well-ventilated spaces. Here is an excerpt taken from Science Daily:

“These stoves do not feature any guided exhaust system whatsoever, so all combustible products are released directly into the environment.. …On a case-by-case basis, precisely how the course of that incineration runs really depends on the quality of the fuel and other factors – like the type of fuel, or the incineration temperature. As a rule, ethanol does not burn out completely. Rather, the incineration process results in CO2 – along with poisonous gases (like carbon monoxide, a respiratory toxin), organic compounds (like benzene, a carcinogen), and irritant gases (like nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde), as well as ultrafine combustion particles.”

-Dr Wensing, Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research

Holly and Martin Walton Ethanol Fireplace

The Walton Ethanol Fireplace by Holly & Martin, one of the most trusted manufacturers.

Here is the original article published by Science Daily and the original study by Franhofer-Gesselschaft.

So Why is this Misleading

“If ethanol runs out when filling the combustion chambers and it ignites, then the entire room could go up in flames.”

-Yes, if you spill ethanol and light the fire, it will burn. The same can be said about wood logs. If you dropped a wood log outside of your firebox and lit the fire, your whole house could “theoretically” burn down. Never refill an ethanol fireplace while the fire is lit. Always clean up any spills before lighting the fire.

On claims that the only byproducts of ethanol fireplaces are CO2 and water vapor, Dr. Wensing had this to say:

“On a case-by-case basis, precisely how the course of that incineration runs really depends on the quality of the fuel and other factors – like the type of fuel, or the incineration temperature.”

-So Dr. Wensing admits that the byproducts created by ethanol is dependent on the quality of fuel. Just as with any product, of course different levels of quality will yield different results. This goes for any other consumer product including TV’s, MP3 players, and cooking ware. Knock-offs do not hold the same safety standards as quality made products; yes, this has been established long ago.

“This means that the more ethanol which is burned within a certain period, the greater will be the amount of pollutants released.”

-Yes, the larger the fire the more byproducts (carbon dioxide) will be released. The same can be said with any fire regardless the type of fuel it is using to burn. While ethanol fireplaces are ventless, it is advised to have clean air flowing into the room to replace spent oxygen.

Did You Notice How the Study Compared Ethanol with Wood Stoves?

To make the study completely unbiased, researchers from Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft tested indoor air pollution of ethanol fireplaces and sealed wood stoves. This test compares a sealed wood stove with open ethanol fireplaces; of course the ethanol fireplace will release more C02 into the air!

“The finding: As long as the stove door is closed, the influence on the air quality within the interior space is negligible. Emissions enter the air of the room only when the fire wood is replenished and ignited. At that point, the researchers were able to measure a brief spike in concentrations.”

-So the seals are effective; great. That doesn’t compare byproducts created by burning wood. We understand that these closed units do not allow the pollutions to escape.

“During closed-door operation, no substances of any noteworthy level were released. For instance, the formaldehyde values were harmless.”

-So the study does find that wood burning stoves release formaldehyde byproducts into the air BUT it’s not considered indoor pollution because these stoves are sealed and do not allow any air to escape from the firebox. Not exactly comparing apples to apples here.

Are they Safe to Burn Indoors?

Fireglo Ethanol Fireplace Fuel

A can of Fireglo Ethanol Fireplace Fuel. 24 cans for less than $100!

Yes, ethanol biofuel fireplaces are safe to burn indoors. Reading through the scientific jargon, ethanol fireplaces do in fact produce C02 but this is a byproduct of ANY real fire. Fire needs oxygen to burn, and this is just the same with an ethanol fueled fire. The only option that releases zero byproducts is an electric fireplace.

Carbon monoxide IS a respiratory hazard. It can cause difficulty breathing but here’s the thing; any fire will give off both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. To claim that ethanol fireplaces are unsafe is completely ignoring the fact that all fireplaces, wood burning stoves included, release CO2 and CO. If ethanol fireplaces are going to be deemed unsafe, so should traditional wood burning fireplaces that are in millions of homes.

Ethanol Fireplaces are Safer than Wood Stoves

Ethanol fireplaces are safer than wood stoves because they do not emit the same byproducts that come from burning wood mass. Think of all the ashes and fumes you smell sitting around a campfire and around the hearth. Ethanol is a clean biofuel that does emit Carbon dioxide but it is IMPOSSIBLE for a fire to burn without turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is a Wood Research Institute

One detail worth mentioning is the source of the information. The study that found ethanol fireplaces to be unsafe was conducted by a Wood Research organization. Some have speculated that Fraunhofer is biased to wood burning stoves as their specialty is within wood research. This would why explain why they would go to such far extents to dispute any alternative heat form.

Ethanol Fireplaces are Certified by the UL

Established in 1894, Underwriters Laboratories is a global independent safety consulting and certification company with more than 100 years of expertise. UL is most notably recognized for their role in the analysis of the adoption of electricity and the drafting of safety standards for electrical devices and components.

The UL is one of a very few companies to perform safety testing by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA. If you look at the underside of many products in your home, you’ll likely find the UL stamp of approval somewhere on the device.
Ethanol fireplaces are Certified by the Underwriters Laboratories as being safe for consumer use. Some ethanol trusted biofuel manufacturers (the actual fuel) include Nu-Flame, Real Flame, Pure Fuels, Vio Fuel, Brasa Fuel, DecoFlame, and ModaFlame.

Verification from External Sources

“Alcohol molecules are very short and produce very little CO compared to any other hydrocarbon liquid. Much of the liberated energy is from hydrogen combustion.”

-John Laumer, Treehugger Chemist

In other words, ethanol fireplaces use oxygen from the air to produce water vapor and very little C02.

What is Ethanol

Ethanol is an ecological fuel that is obtained through fermentation of saccharine. Ethanol is an eco-friendly biofuel that is made from materials like corn, potatoes, milk, and rice. Also known as Gel Fireplaces, ethanol fireplaces are safe for consumer use. Always follow manufacturer’s guidelines for proper use.

Nu-Flame Bio-Ethanol Fire Fuel

Nu-Flame Bio-Ethanol Fire Fuel is made from renewable plant resources, emits no soot or ashes, and the bottle is equipped with a special valve insert to prevent spillage.

Why Ethanol Fireplaces are Better

  • Better indoor air quality. No smoke or unpleasant burning odors.
  • No chimney vent means heat/energy is not lost.
  • Cleaner burning. No residue, soot, ashes, or harmful substances.
  • Only byproducts are heat, C02, and water vapor.

Many if not all ethanol fireplace manufacturers advise consumers to avoid burning fireplaces in confined spaces as fire consumes oxygen. Crack a window to allow C02 to exit and oxygen to flow. The room should be larger the 215 square feet.

Torrance Cast Cinderstone Ethanol Fireplace

The Torrance Cast Cinderstone Ethanol Fireplace is constructed with a fiber-enforced, light-weight concrete and backed with a durable internal steel frame.

To browse Ethanol Fireplaces, you can visit this page:

Additional Resources:

  1. CPSC Issues Recall on Outdoor Fireplace Manufactured in China
  2. Why You Need to Replace Your Old Fireplace with a New Gel Fireplace
  3. Beijing Bans Outdoor Grills to Curb Pollution
  4. US Outdoor Grilling Industry Projected to Grow 4% Year by Year

About the Author
is an interior design consultant focusing on crisp modern interiors with a tinge of retro styling. She offers design and consulting services for residential and commercial spaces. Follow her for fool proof design tips for everyday homeowners.