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Why some states, cities are banning ventless fireplaces

Home inspectors say they can be safe if checked annually
Home Tour: A mountaintop retreat in East Walnut Hills
Posted at 10:40 AM, Jan 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-14 11:47:27-05

Many homeowners have gas fireplaces because they are safer, cleaner and more convenient than wood.

But one family who had a close call with carbon monoxide poisoning is now raising questions about ventless fireplaces; fireplaces that don't require a chimney or vent to the outdoors.

Christy Sullivan says she, her 3 dogs, and her dog sitter are lucky to be alive after a carbon monoxide scare.

Local firefighters believe her ventless (or vent free) gas-burning fireplace had been giving off deadly carbon monoxide gas, possibly for some time in her Kentucky home.

They say it had built up to a dangerous level on a night when Sullivan was away and Lauren Freeman was dog sitting for her.

Alarm sounds, but no signs of trouble

"At 6 in the morning, the ADT alarm system on their house started going off," Freeman said.

Freeman checked the house, saw no smoke or sign of a break-in, and thinking it was a false alarm, she turned it off and went back to the upstairs bedroom.

But a few minutes later, Sullivan said, "I got a call from ADT, thank goodness for them. Because if they hadn't called me, Lauren would have gone back to bed and within an hour she might have been dead along with the dogs."

Freeman said, "Christy called me (from the hotel where she was staying) and said there was carbon monoxide in the house, and I needed to get outside and get the dogs outside."

So she ran out and called 911. Responding firefighters turned off the gas to the fireplace, opened all windows and aired out the house. Their testing showed high levels of CO in the family room around the fireplace.

Sullivan said she never expected trouble from this gas fireplace since it was only five years old and she didn't use it that much. It did have a full-time pilot light burning, however.

How to protect your family

It turns out these fireplaces should be checked periodically, just like a furnace or central AC unit.

The National Association of Certified Home Inspectors says ventless or vent-free fireplaces:

  • Should not be run continuously for more than two hours, and not left on all night while people are sleeping.
  • Should never be used in bedrooms.
  • Should be professionally serviced every fall and checked for inefficient burning.

In addition, fireplace manufacturers and fire departments recommend cracking a window nearby to allow fresh air into the room when using these fireplaces.

The State of California and some east coast and Texas cities have recently passed laws restricting or even outright banning vent-free models, requiring gas fireplaces to have outdoor vents (though older homes may still have them).

Newer models are required to have an oxygen-depletion sensor, which sounds a warning if the oxygen level in the room is too low.

But that sensor typically does not warn of high carbon monoxide levels, and if you don't have a carbon monoxide detector, you won't know you are being poisoned.

Freeman says she didn't smell anything, since carbon monoxide is odorless.

"I had no idea what was going on," she said.

Fireplace industry says they are safe

The gas fireplace industry says ventless fireplaces are safe to use, and in fact are much safer than wood burning fireplaces, blamed for several hundred fires and several deaths every year.

They say there are no confirmed cases of deaths due to ventless fireplaces.

If you have one, just make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detector in the room, so you stay safe and you don't waste your money.

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