How Electric Fireplaces Work

If you’re looking for the benefits of a traditional fireplace without all the work that’s involved, an electric fireplace might be just the answer.­
If you’re looking for the benefits of a traditional fireplace without all the work that’s involved, an electric fireplace might be just the answer.­
iStockphoto/Gordon Ball

­Fireplaces are great, especially if you live in a region that routinely experiences cold winters. The ability to add some logs to your fireplace and feel the heat reach all parts of your home is wonderful. But, as with many­ home f­eatures, there is some cost to this convenience. You need a steady supply of wood for burning. This means either an extra workout for you or your wallet - you're going to chop the wood or you'll have to pay someone else to do it. There's the routine cleaning of the fireplace and the area surrounding it. There's the annual cleaning of the chimney and flue. And finally, there's the actual task of building a fire; this takes a little preparation and time.

For some folks, the warm crackling fire is completely worth all this effort. But for others, it seems like a lot of bother. They want the benefit of having a fireplace without all the work involved. The answer for these folks is an electric fireplace. If you've ever seen an electric fireplace, then you know how realistic it can look. An electric fireplace can have a mantle just like a traditional fireplace. It can have fake logs and fake flames that do actually look realistic. And, it can produce about 5000 BTUs of heat. But that's not enough heat to be the main source of heat for your house [source: Harris]. Of course, the modest amount of heat, for some people, might be a concern. But if it isn't, an electric fireplace might be just the thing for your home.

­Best of all, electric fireplaces do not require any clean up because there are no logs or ash. These fireplaces also do not require an electrician to perform elaborate wiring, since they simply plug into your home's standard outlets. Plus, many are lightweight for easy movement [source: Garner].

In this article, we'll take a look at the mechanics of electric fireplaces, discuss the difference between an electric fireplace and an electric fireplace insert and we'll consider the accessories that are available for today's electric fireplaces. Click to the next page to get started.

Electric Fireplace Mechanics

An electric fireplace is a pretty straightforward household appliance. It doesn't have too many components, so the mechanics of an electric fireplace are not hard to understand. The two main things to consider are:

  • How does it give off heat?
  • How does it so closely resemble actual, flickering flames?

First, let's consider the heating aspect. Inside the electric fireplace, there are metal coils that heat up automatically when the appliance is plugged into an electrical socket. In addition to the coils, there's also a fan inside the electric fireplace. The fan, which is sometimes referred to as a blower motor, pushes the heat outward into your room. Luckily for your ears, the fan makes very little noise, so the fireplace is practically silent [source: The Best Electric Fireplaces].

The nice thing about an electric fireplace is that none of the heat is wasted, since the fan pushes out 100 percent of the heat generated by the coils. Another advantage is that the fireplace is cool to the touch. Heat is only conducted through the coils, so electric fireplaces pose no danger for families with curious children who have a tendency to touch surfaces [source: Buchanan]. Though the fireplace itself is cool to the touch, you should be aware of nearby fabrics, like curtains, that might be a fire danger if heated too much by the air output [source: Donovan].

Now, what about those flickering flames? The realistic flames are produced by a regular light bulb and refracted light. The light is refracted in a three-dimensional pattern that has no particular order, and this process gives the flames a realistic look [source: The Best Electric Fireplaces].

Click to the next page in order to find out what inserts are right for your electric fireplace.

Electric Fireplace Inserts

As mentioned earlier, there is a difference between an electric fireplace and an electric fireplace insert. It's helpful to think of them this way: electric fireplaces can either come as an entire unit, complete with mantle, or they can simply be the electrically powered insert that fits into an existing fireplace cavern. Inserts contain the same parts as normal electric fireplaces, so their inner workings and mechanics are the same. For instance, there is no difference between how many BTUs are produced from the electric fireplace and the electric fireplace insert.

The convenient thing about an electric fireplace insert, however, is that it takes the place of your old wooden logs but you don't have to worry about proper ventilation or cleaning the flue. Furthermore, if there's ever a moment when you'd prefer a real fire, you can easily take the insert out and create a traditional fire using wooden logs. And most inserts are portable enough that, if you wanted to do so, you could easily bring your insert along to use at someone else's house that has a regular fireplace [source: Fireplace Inserts FAQ].

Inserts can have all different types of appearances. You can choose a design that matches your home's overall style. If you want a sleek look, you can opt for an all black insert. Or maybe metallic-looking appliances dominate your house, so an all chrome insert might match best. If you have more of an antique decorating style, maybe you'd want a brass insert [source: Fireplace Inserts FAQ].

For more information on fireplace inserts in general, see "What are fireplace inserts?"

Read on to learn about the many accessories that can complement your electric fireplace.

Electric Fireplace Accessories

The nice thing about electric fireplaces is that you don't have to count on buying all the traditional accessories that you might for a real wood-burning fireplace. You don't have to worry about vents, flues or chimneys. You'll have no need for a cast iron fire peg or rack of other log-poking devices. You will not need a chainmail screen or window in front of your heat source to contain the ashes.

Although there are many things you won't need because of all the notable differences between a traditional fireplace and an electric fireplace, there are several things you can purchase to enhance your enjoyment of an electric fireplace.

The look of your fireplace depends on what style you choose for its exterior. Some fireplaces can be mounted on a wall like a picture frame or sit on top of something that basically resembles a TV stand. While others can appear more traditional and come equipped with a mantle, for displaying photos, books or figurines [source: Banker]. Mantles can be made from different materials, such as wood, marble and cast iron [source: Electric Fireplace].

You can also choose what you want the fire to look like inside the fireplace. Imitation logs are probably the most popular, but you can also opt for pebbles that look like coals [source: Electric Fireplace]. Some electric fireplaces are even made in a more modern style, complete with burning elements that actually look like steel tubes [source: Harris].

A remote control is one of the handy accessories that may come with your electric fireplace. It allows you to change the settings from another part of the room. Since an electric fireplace can either be set to generate heat or create the visuals with no heat, the remote control gives you the option of choosing [source: Harris].

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Banker, Kristen. "Eco-Friendly Fireplaces for the Modern Home." (Accessed 2/27/09)
  • The Best Electric Fireplaces. "How Does an Electric Fireplace Work?" (Accessed 2/27/09)
  • Buchanan, Christa. "Go on, light a fire." (Accessed 2/27/09)
  • DIY Network. "Electric Fireplace Installation." (Accessed 2/27/09),,DIY_13914_2757521,00.html
  • Donovan, Dave. "How to Buy an Electric Fireplace." (Accessed 2/27/09)
  • Electric Fire. "Electric Fireplace." (Accessed 3/02/09)
  • Fireplace Inserts FAQ. "Electric Fireplace Inserts." (Accessed 2/27/09)
  • Garner, Elizabeth. "Advantages of Owning an Electric Fireplace." (Accessed 2/27/09)
  • Harris, Bronwyn. "Electric Fireplaces." (Accessed 2/27/09)
  • WGAL. "Some Not Satisfied With Amish Electric Fireplace." (Accessed 2/27/09)