By Mary Ellen Polson
Got a mid-century ranch house with a planter strip where nothing ever grows? Consider “planting” it with a linear fireplace, fueled by bio-ethanol. Perhaps you live in a big-city apartment where chimney flues are not allowed. No problem—hang a ventless fireplace no deeper than a high-definition TV on the wall, and watch the flames play behind a glass screen. What if your 19th-century farmhouse never had a fireplace? Your options—from bio-fuels to gas, direct vent or ventless, traditional or the latest in contemporary installations—are many.
Alcohol gels have been with us since the invention of Sterno. New, high-end designs are fueled by alcohol cartridges that eliminate the potential hazards of the open canister. Linear burners, also called ribbon or strip fires, burn either gas (natural or LP) or biofuels.
“Biofuel” is an all-purpose term for ethanol made from plant materials like sugar cane, potatoes, and beet juice. Just in case you didn’t know, ethanol is also a form of denatured alcohol. Unlike wood, an ethanol flame evaporates without producing smoke, particulates, or residues (or much scent, either); some people consider it superior to wood as a “green” product.
Whether they burn alcohol or natural gas, the new fireplaces incorporate design details that make them safer, warmer (some open flame designs are encircled by glass screens to radiate more heat), and more versatile, challenging architects and designers to think out of the box (or at least the fireplace surround).
While some ventless designs are pretty far out—one resembles an open laptop computer burning from within—others are well suited to mid-century modern interiors. And the minimalism of the burner strip makes it just as adaptable as a set of gas logs or fireplace insert in homes with traditional fireplace openings. Direct-vent models, which draw air from the outside instead of using warm air already in the room, can really throw some heat. A favorite application for direct-vent models are the two- or three-sided fireplaces that wouldn’t look out of place in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
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