Fires can be risky business. Whether it’s smoke from wood-burning fires, fumes from gas-burning fires, particulates, or electrical malfunctions, your fireplace should be handled with care. The United States, each state, counties and cities have regulations that help protect the environment and moderate health and safety concerns when it comes to your fireplace. Here’s what you need to know.

The Ban on Wood Burning Fireplaces

Tacoma-Pierce County in Washington and Marin County in California have prohibited any wood-burning stove that is not EPA certified. Various communities in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, California, and Fairbanks, Alaska prohibit the sale or installation of non-certified wood stoves.

The San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and Denver disallow new construction of wood-burning fireplaces. Some of these areas will allow wood-burning fireplace inserts that are EPA Phase II certified.

Most states, cities, and counties have burn restricted days when pollution is high or there are other particulates in the air that decrease air quality.

It is important to check your local regulations and codes because they do change. As more attention is placed on air quality and the dangers of smoke, the Environmental Protection Agency and local governments pass new laws to keep air safer.

In fact, at least 10 states are suing the EPA to review its carbon emissions policies and crack down even more. Attorneys General from New Jersey, Alaska, Oregon, New York, Illinois, Washington, Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Minnesota all say that the testing and certification standards need to be beefed up across the nation. Many states still allow carbon-emitting wood stoves that contribute to air pollution.

Close up of gas fireplace burning with blue and orange flame.

The Scoop on Gas-Burning Fireplaces

All fireplaces with real flame burn a fuel source and have emissions of some sort. While wood is thought to have the most (and the most problematic) emissions, natural gas fireplaces create some carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and sulfur oxides. Most natural gas fireplaces need to be vented to manage any exhaust.

When you install a gas fireplace, it must be vented to the outdoors. You can use an existing chimney, but only one gas unit per chimney is allowable. By law, each gas fireplace must use a separated venting system.

Ventless gas fireplaces have been on the market for several decades. These have regulators that mix gas and air from the room decreasing exhaust fumes to almost nothing. They are very efficient.

There are alternative fuel sources that can be considered as well. Some of these burn cleaner than natural gas.

Propane is about five times more efficient than a wood-burning fireplace and produces twice the amount of heat as natural gas. It also produces less methane than natural gas.

Another option for a gas fireplace is ethanol gel. It burns less intensely and creates smaller flames but has similar emissions to natural gas and propane.

Electric fireplace in a gray surround with no mantel in a living room.

Electric Fireplace Regulations

Of all the types of fireplaces, electric has the fewest existing regulations and the least legislation underway. It is quickly becoming the fireplace of choice. There is no real flame with an electric fireplace, so that means no chimneys or venting are needed. No vapor or emissions are created, so no environmental concerns to worry about.

Heating is designed to be pushed out into the room so clearance regulations are minimal ***. Many electric units can be run without heat reducing the clearance requirement even more. They can be installed in any room on the wall or in the wall depending on the type of fireplace. They can also easily be added to existing masonry fireplaces bringing new life to old unused fireplaces.

Be sure that the proper electrical outlet is near enough to the unit to be directly plugged in. Do not use extension cords or outlet adapters. Many electric fireplaces can be directly wired into the electricity. If you chose to directly wire, hire a certified electrician to install your fireplace.

Electric fireplace with proper clearance above for the mantel and art hung above the mantel.>

Clearance Regulations

Gas fireplaces, like all fireplaces that have real flame, require clearance between the fireplace and the mantel or any other items placed above the fireplace. National fire code says that any combustible materials should be at least six inches from the firebox opening. This includes mantels, trims, etc.

Additionally, most fireplaces (gas and otherwise) require steel framing and concrete board on the walls up to the point of minimum clearance.

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