Bio-ethanol fires - more than just decoration?

Bio-ethanol fires - more than just decoration?

They are largely decorative but bio-ethanol is a renewable fuel and contrary to public perception, these fires do provide some heat.

By Kay Hill
Globe bio ethanol fire by Scandinavian brand Vauni

Bio-ethanol itself is derived from plants so it's renewable and bio-degradable. But it's not a cheap fuel and bio-ethanol fires are wanted principally for their looks, albeit they do provide spot heat. Pictured above: Globe free-standing fire from Swedish brand Vauni. Find a comprehensive range of products at Bio Ethanol Fires and Bio Fires while Go Modern has very contemporary products.

As with woodburning stoves, so sales of bio-ethanol fires are growing at a rapid pace in the UK and in other EU countries. 

But it is a technology still in its infancy and John Rogers, MD at Bio Ethanol Fires is the first to acknowledge that these are products we buy more for their looks than their heating powers: 'Bio-ethanol fires are a massive growth area at the moment. People have central heating, perhaps eco-friendly systems that keep the house nice and warm with underfloor heating or radiators... but there’s no character to it.

'The purchase of a bio-ethanol fire is often driven by women as they find that the only focal point in the living room is the great big stupid TV their husbands have bought! They want something else to look at, but without having to have a flue fitted or worry about cleaning up after a coal or log fire.'

Suspended for greater impact...Cocoon Aeris black bio ethanol fire, 4.5kW, £2,2990 at Go Modern
HotBox by Polish brand Planika keeps ethanol in a separate tank from the burner. Puts out up to 5.6kW, from £1,740 at bioethanolfires.co.uk
Beo Levitate bio-ethanol fire, £395.99, available at Worldstores
Cotswold Basket bio ethanol fire, 3kW, £1,950, www.biofires.com
Eco Smart Igloo Kaatchi model, up to 3.5kW, £2,900, www.smartfireuk.com
Affordable Allure bio-ethanol fire, 2-3kW, from £495 at www.biofires.com

How well do they heat a room?

There’s a bit of a myth doing the rounds that bio-ethanol fires are purely decorative and don’t produce any meaningful heat; but in fact many will give out around 3kW, enough to heat a modestly-sized room. So if you need extra heat in one room, or it's not cold enough to justify putting on the central heating but a room could do with warming up, they have some merit. 
 
How green are they?
 
Bio-ethanol is a plant-derived alcohol, produced in this country mainly by fermenting sugar beet; but it can also be made from potatoes, sugar cane, bananas and cereals. Because it comes from crops it is wholly sustainable, although obviously some energy is used in its manufacture, and much of the fuel is imported from Scandinavia. The fuel itself is biodegradable. Because there is no flue or chimney to waste heat, bio-ethanol fires can be counted as 100 per cent efficient, as all the heat goes into the room.
 
What about the fuel?
 
Bio-ethanol comes as a liquid which you buy in containers of one litre to up to 40 litres. It is treated so it isn’t drinkable to avoid poisoning incidents. Small bottles are easier to use, so many fireplace companies send bulk orders of litre bottles rather than single large drums. Bio-ethanol fuel used for fires should not be higher in ethanol than 96.6 per cent or it can overheat, so DO NOT be tempted to use bio-ethanol designed for cars. 
 
Don't be square, choose a triable.. Mont Blanc bioethanol fire, 3kW, £2,100, www.bioethanolfires.co.uk
Cream compact stove, £1,599, 3kW at bioethanolfires.co.uk
This fire costs £3,400, 5kW, www.urbanfires.co.uk
Zeta model from Eco Smart, up to 3.5kW, £9,950, www.smartfireuk.com
Do they cause pollution?
 
When bio-ethanol burns it produces a negligible amount of carbon dioxide and vapour. Emissions are so low that they are counted for Building Regulations purposes as being flue-less, not requiring any outside venting in normal use. Users often notice a slight smell with the fuel is lit or extinguished, similar to a candle odour. You do need to place these fires in rooms with good ventilation though - so a small windowless room isn't advisable.
 
What fitting do they need?
 
One of the big advantages of bio-ethanol fires is that they do not require flues, chimneys or fixed ventilation, so they can be placed almost anywhere in a home, while taking into account sensible safety precautions around flames, without the need for a fitter. They can also be relocated instantly outside for patio heating (although hopefully you are all far too environmentally friendly to even think about it…)
 
Are they difficult to use?
 
Most bio-ethanol fires have fairly small burners and need refilling every couple of hours or so, although some are designed to burn for up to 10 hours. Refilling while the fire is running or still hot can be very hazardous, with most manufacturers advising that you wait at least 15 minutes after the fire has gone out before attempting to refill it. As the liquid burns completely away there is no cleaning required.
 
How much do they cost to run?
 
Bio-ethanol costs from around £2 - £3 a litre, with bulk purchases working out cheaper. Most companies estimate that their fires cost from 75p to £1 an hour to run, giving a kWH cost of around 25p, five times the cost of gas and far dearer even than electrical heating.
 
According to John Rodgers at Bio Ethanol Fires at the moment, bioethanol fires aren't a low-cost way to heat a house, but they're great for providing spot heat, heating a difficult room or adding focal points. You also don't have all the maintenance and installation costs associated with wood, gas and coal.”
 
VERDICT:
 
Bio-ethanol is an expensive option that is still in its infancy, but the very attractive contemporary designs of many of the fireplaces, ease of fitting, and the clean, bio-degradable nature of the fuel makes them appealing for those who want the occasional bit of extra warmth.
 
 
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