Last year, I came across a sidebar article in one of our trade publications, Hearth & Home, about two large gas fireplaces being installed in the new Oakville Hospital in March, 2014. These fireplaces caught the eye of the publication’s editors because of the ‘fail safe’ system that the manufacturer, Stellar Hearth, had come up with to protect the public from burning-hot glass. This sensor will shut off the gas to the fireplaces if the glass temperature exceeds 120 degrees F, ‘well below the 172 degrees F. soon to be required by the new glass door barrier standard’ for gas fireplaces. (As of January 1, 2015, this standard is now in place.) This manufacturer has developed the Safe T Touch system, to protect people from being burned by hot glass, in part to avoid the use of mesh barriers on their fireplaces. On their other gas fireplaces, this system prevents the glass from exceeding 150 degrees F. – presumably, the design team and hospital staff requested that this temperature be lowered even more in their public spaces. Here’s a great ‘flythrough’ video of the new facility; watch for the fireplaces in the lobby area, and the cafeteria. The lobby unit is 15 feet wide, while the cafeteria fireplace is 12 feet wide; each one burns more than 200,000 BTU’s of natural gas.
Fireplaces are becoming more popular for hospitals and medical offices, for their ability to put people at ease during what can be a stressful time, as well as other public spaces, such as hotel and condo lobbies. Designers of these spaces, and their contractors, need to be aware of the pros and cons of gas vs. electric fireplaces, as do their clients.
- Can the fireplace be operated safely in the designated location? If the fireplace isn’t on, it isn’t providing the desired effect. We asked Stellar Hearth how long these extreme fireplaces could be left on without the glass temperature triggering their fail-safe shut-off. In response to our question, the manufacturer informed us that the fireplace is designed to run as long as they like without the glass getting above 120 degrees F. This begs the question, “How are they keeping all the heat generated by 200,000 BTUs from heating up the glass?” Answer: ‘we are pulling the heat off the glass and venting to outside the building.’ A friend in the custom gas fireplace business tells me that there is also a coolant system in place to further reduce the temperature of the glass. Is anyone else struck by the irony of burning 200,000 BTUs of natural gas to create a fireplace which in turn creates so much heat that it has to be specially cooled? With electric fireplaces (which currently max out around 10 feet long in mass production, and 12 feet long for a custom order), the glass never heats up, because there is no combustion inside. There is no danger of stray hands being burned, and no need to turn off the fire or cool the glass due to safety concerns.
- Can the fireplace be operated throughout the entire year? An electric fireplace can be operated with or without heat; with the heat on maximum, the output is only 5000 BTUs, which is enough to take the chill off a 400 square foot area. In warmer months, an electric fireplace can operate with the flames only, and no heat. By contrast, most gas fireplaces become unbearable in warm weather or small spaces. In our hospital example, we wonder if they will turn them off, and lose the welcoming effect, in warmer months? Ironically, this could be a part of the cost-saving strategy, given our third point, below.
- How much does it cost to run the fireplace(s)? We did the calculations for the Oakville hospital example, using current and projected natural gas rates, and compared them to the cost of running comparable electric fireplaces. Based on Enbridge gas prices, and assuming 24/7/365 operation, EACH of the two gas fireplaces will cost $5700.00 to run in 2014 and rising to just under $7000.00 per year by 2018. This is in addition to the purchase cost of approximately $65,000 EACH (according to our friends in the gas fireplace business.) By contrast, a 10-foot electric fireplace (the largest model currently in mass production) will cost $2799.00 to purchase and $643.00 to operate in 2014, with the heater on half the time. Annual operating costs will rise to just under $900.00 by 2018. With heaters off, operating costs drop to $32.00 in 2014, rising to $44.00 by 2018. We haven’t even factored in maintenance costs, which are virtually nil on electric fireplaces, but no so on gas fireplaces. As a hospital donor or administrator, which costs would you prefer to report to your stakeholders?
- What is the environmental impact of the fireplace? At a time when many of us are at least becoming more conscious of our environmental footprint, and some of us are fully engaged in reducing it, designers need to be able to address this question. The sheer wastefulness of burning 400,000 BTUs of natural gas in order to get a pleasant effect, while expending even more resources to make the heat go away, is obvious. Natural gas may be ‘clean’, but we are still burning a very large quantity of a non-renewable fossil fuel, for nothing more than aesthetics. By contrast, today’s electric fireplaces, with LED light bulbs, use an extremely small amount of electricity, and only generate heat when heat is desired. When that heat is produced, 100% of it stays in the space and none is lost to venting.
If you are concerned purely with aesthetics, then I will confess that electric fireplaces can’t yet replicate the see-through design being used in the hospital cafeteria, nor the end-wall corner design being used in the lobby. Let’s face it, these gas fireplaces are impressive! And if you are designing a space for a luxury brand like Hummer, then excess is part of the mantra, and wastefulness isn’t a deterrent. However, if form follows function, then I think these oversize gas fireplaces get a failing grade in the hospital application. What do you think?