Can I Use My Gas Fireplace?
February 15, 2021 8:10 AM   Subscribe

The heater in our home stopped working overnight, and we are waiting for a technician to come and work on it. While we wait, we would like to use our gas-powered fireplace to keep ourselves warm in 5-degree weather, but we want to make sure it's safe to do so.

We have lived in our home for 12 years and have never used the gas fireplace. The home was built in 1998. The fireplace has sand in it, and we aren't sure why. I don't remember the sand being there when we moved in, but I'm not really sure. There was also some fluffy stuff in it that looked like a cross between insulation and dryer lint. We took all of that out and threw it away. If we clean out all of the sand, do you think we can safely use the fireplace? Here is a picture
of its current state and the space above the fireplace.
posted by JXM368 to Home & Garden (9 answers total)
Open the damper on your vented gas fireplace.

The sand and the (non-flammable) fluffy stuff is supposed to be there. The gas comes up through the sand and makes the fluffy stuff glow ("glowing embers"). It makes the fire look like a fire, and not like a bare burner with flames shooting out of it.

You will need a lighter and the little (or long) key thing to open up the gas valve. You literally control the gas flow using the key thing, which is kind of terrifying.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:20 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]

I'm definitely not an expert on gas fireplaces. This might help. The sand disperses the gas. The glass wool was to make it look like a fire (glows in the gas flame).
Again NYGFD (not your gas fireplace doctor) but it sounds safe to use it.
If you are still worried, you could call gas fireplace expert. He could check it out and replace the rock wool.
posted by H21 at 8:21 AM on February 15

After 12 years, and with no indication it worked before, and after having removed stuff from it, I'd suggest getting it inspected and serviced before use. Here in the UK, you have to have to gas fires serviced by an engineer annually.

A cheap electric fan heater is a good thing to keep around for emergencies such as this.
posted by pipeski at 8:27 AM on February 15 [17 favorites]

We have a wood burning fireplace with a gas starter. It's basically the same as yours but we use the gas to just get the wood burning. A technician who cleaned ours told us we could use gas only if we wanted.

Just go really, really easy with the gas. Mine goes from shut off to raging inferno with barely a twist of the key. One person turns it just a tiny bit, then the other person uses a BBQ lighter to ignite it. It might take a few tries to get it right. Just don't turn the gas on high and then light it. Several GENTLE attempts is better tha a big scary flame up. Once you get the hang of it it's easy and safe.

Also, before anything, check, double check and triple check with a flashlight that the flue/vent is wide open. Be ready to shut it off if anything seems weird.

EDIT- pipeski probably has the best response. But if you DO try it, do NOT leave it unattended, ever.
posted by SoberHighland at 8:28 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

Is there a pilot light?

Most gas logs that I've worked with work like this:

There's a control knob that you turn to set the flame level. To start the fireplace, you have to light the pilot first. To do that, you turn the knob to PILOT, push and hold the control knob in, then click the igniter button to light the pilot. Once the pilot lights, you have to continue holding the knob for about 30 seconds while the pilot flame warms the thermocouple (a safety shutoff that prevents the gas fireplace from dispensing gas when it's unlit). Once the thermocouple is warmed, you release the knob, then turn it to ignite the fire.

Some things you might run into:
  • If the igniter doesn't spark, it's because your power is off and the igniter uses electricity. Locate the pilot, and have a clicky-lighter or match available. Then press the knob to start the flow of gas, and carefully use the lighter or a match to light the pilot.
  • If the pilot doesn't light, try holding the control knob down for 10 seconds before you try lighting the pilot (via the igniter or manually). This clears out any air in the gas lines, which may have built up over the long time that you weren't using the fireplace.
  • If the pilot lights but doesn't stay lit when you release the control knob, the thermocouple may be dirty. When the pilot is lit, the flame should be touching a small metal piece about the width of one of the wires in a coat hanger—that's the thermocouple. Make sure it's in the flame, and clean it with an old toothbrush if necessary.
  • If the pilot light fails to stay lit, you may need to turn the fireplace to OFF for a minute and let it sit, to reset a safety shutoff.
One final word of advice: clean the damned thing first, and while you're cleaning, see if there's any serial number or model number on the unit that you can google. Then get the manual and read it before you light.
posted by vitout at 8:45 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

I'd get it inspected before use (doesn't help you now but your furnace guy might be qualified). Make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detector while using it.
posted by Mitheral at 9:02 AM on February 15 [4 favorites]

PS: You might find that running your open hearth fireplace actually cools your house. They are at best 10% efficient and that minimal gain is sometimes offset by the increased air exchange (a fireplace like you have is basically a 6-10" fan sucking cold air into your home).
posted by Mitheral at 9:26 AM on February 15 [5 favorites]

There was also some fluffy stuff in it that looked like a cross between insulation and dryer lint.

This could be nesting material that fell down the chimney. If you haven't used it in 12 years something could be living in it. I would get the whole thing inspected before I used it.
posted by bondcliff at 9:34 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]

You would probably smell a gas leak, but do you have a carbon monoxide alarm in your sleeping area, and the room with the gas fire? Death by carbon monoxide poisoning is relatively painless but still not likely to be on your list of things to do this month. You should be able to order alarms on Amazon.
posted by plonkee at 11:40 AM on February 15 [3 favorites]

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