Hot Advice: Custom Fireplace Design with an Ethanol Fireplace Insert

If you’ve always wanted a fireplace in your home, but costs or ongoing maintenance requirements have deterred you, you may want to consider using a vent-free and eco-friendly alternative. An ethanol fireplace insert is fueled by liquid biofuel. Ethanol, or denatured alcohol, to which it is also referred, burns cleanly and doesn’t produce smoke, ash, or odor. As a non-vented fireplace, one that burns ethanol fuel doesn’t require the high installation costs or level of maintenance than that of more traditional fireplace solutions. So, here’s an in-depth look at ethanol fireplace inserts, the fuel they use, and the pros and cons that are associated with this type of fireplace solution.

Ethanol Fireplace Fuel

The fuel that is used in ethanol fireplace inserts is ethanol. It is a clear liquid fuel that smells like rubbing alcohol in its raw state (but not when it’s burned). It is commonly referred to as ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, bioethanol, and bio ethanol fuel. No matter which title it is given, the fuel is all the same.

The ethanol that fuels this type of fireplace insert is not the same as the ethanol that is added to the gasoline for your car. Although similar, it does not contain exact attributes and its concentration is not as high. The ethanol fuel for fireplaces is an alternative energy source that produces a real flame and heat. It is a natural product that is produced from crops, like corn and sugar cane. It is sustainable and only emits heat, water vapor and trace amounts of carbon dioxide (about the same amount that humans produce when they exhale). As a result of the safe, non-toxic emissions, ethanol fireplace fuel may be burned indoors or outdoors.

Ethanol Fireplace Inserts

As its name suggests, an ethanol fireplace insert is a fireplace insert that burns ethanol fuel. They are solutions for creating a custom fireplace using your own design or converting an existing fireplace that you would like to make eco-friendly or is possibly non-functioning. This type of fireplace insert is generally very basic in installation requirements and very user-friendly. A burner vessel used for burning biofuel, ethanol fireplace inserts are typically made of stainless steel and are mostly rectangular or round. Ethanol fireplace inserts are available with the standard silvery stainless steel or a black finish. They are made in many different lengths that produce real flames of varying sizes. Some are operated manually, while more advanced ethanol burners function with remote control, voice activation, or by an app on your smartphone.

1. Installing an Ethanol Fireplace Insert

The installation of an ethanol fireplace insert is much easier than other fireplace types. They are also much less expensive and time consuming to install. When converting an existing fireplace to one that is ethanol burning, it is easily placed on the floor of the existing hearth. It is important that any fireplace doors remain open, and the flue or chimney of the fireplace is closed. Ethanol fireplace inserts are designed to be ventless, so the addition oxygen will alter the performance of the fireplace.

When creating a custom ethanol fireplace, you first need to build the skeleton of your structure. The framework should be constructed using metal studs, as they are non-combustible. The design should be in accordance with all required clearances, as specified by the ethanol fireplace insert’s manufacturer. Once the frame is built, it will be faced with a non-combustible material. The most common material used for custom ethanol fireplaces is concrete backer board. This product is like normal drywall, but contains pieces of concrete in its makeup, making it a non-combustible material. A cutout that accommodates the ethanol fireplace will be cut out accordingly. The burner’s manufacturer will indicate the size of the opening that needs to be incised. Once the metal studs are clad with backer board, the custom fireplace may be faced with the non-combustible finish of choice. Popular finishes include ceramic tile, marble, granite, and brick.

Once the fireplace surround is complete, the ethanol fireplace insert is simply entered into the area you cutout. The inserts are generally designed with a lip that surrounds the entire appliance. It is from this lip that the fireplace insert suspends. The installation is then complete. Nothing more. No attachments. No ventilation system, no large fuel tanks beside the house or fuel lines under it.

2. Using an Ethanol Fireplace Insert

To operate an ethanol fireplace insert, the liquid biofuel is poured into the designated area for fuel introduction. While most times fuel is poured directly into the flame opening when not afire, some ethanol fireplace inserts have a designated fuel introduction portal. The ethanol fireplace fuel is generally bottled in quart sizes, so filling the fireplace insert is very easy. A funnel is simply inserted into the area the burner is to be filled and the liquid is poured into the burner until its capacity has been reached.

Once the ethanol fireplace insert is fueled, ignition may be achieved by lighting the fuel with a long fireplace lighter or safety match in manual burner inserts. A push button, remote control, or voice command ignites the more advanced models. The vapors being emitted by the liquid fuel will ignite and start the combustion process. Most times, the flame will grow to its full ability within ten to fifteen minutes of being ignited. The clean burning fire will burn with a brilliant orange flame that dances across the top of the fireplace insert. Its movements are affected by the environment in which it is placed, and no two fireplace experiences will be the same.

As the fire burns, it will consume the ethanol fuel, which will leave less vapors available for combustion. As this happens, the flame presentation will grow shorter over time until the fireplace self-extinguishes. If, however, you would like to extinguish the ethanol fireplace insert before it has consumed all the ethanol, you simply snuff out the flame by closing the ethanol burner’s flame opening or extinguish them by push button or voice when using a more advanced ethanol burner.

The Pros of an Ethanol Fireplace Insert

There are many benefits to incorporating an ethanol fireplace insert into your fireplace design or conversion. The following points are among the chief reasons that build and design professionals, as well as homeowners decide to use an ethanol fireplace insert:

  • Ethanol Fireplace Inserts do not require a vent or chimney.
  • This type of fireplace solution burns cleanly and doesn’t produce smoke, ash, or smell.
  • Installation of an ethanol burner is user-friendly and includes no relative costs.
  • Because no toxins are emitted, ethanol fireplace inserts may be used virtually anywhere.
  • With no requirement for a chimney or flue, ethanol inserts are more efficient – allowing you to keep all the heat they produce on the inside.
  • Ethanol fireplace inserts create stunning ambience and provide supplemental heat.
  • There is no ongoing maintenance that is required to for the upkeep of an ethanol burner. Simply wiping it down occasionally will keep it looking new for years to come.
  • Because ethanol fireplace fuel is environmentally friendly, burning it reduces the household’s carbon footprint.
  • An ethanol fire does not spark or ember, making it safer than alternative fireplace types.
  • Ethanol fireplace inserts are safe to use both indoors and outdoors.

The Cons of an Ethanol Fireplace Insert

For some, when considering whether an ethanol fireplace insert is the solution for their specific needs or environment, they find the following points to be drawbacks of this fireplace type versus the more traditional fireplace applications:

  • Ethanol fires do not produce a sound or a minimal flame presentation, like an ember.
  • Before refilling an ethanol fireplace insert, you must wait for a period of 20-30 minutes before adding more fuel.
  • While ethanol fireplaces do not require ventilation, they do require a minimal amount of space for safe operation. This requirement prohibits some from being able to have an ethanol burning fireplace.
  • Ethanol fireplace fuel is highly flammable. Because its container is plastic, many people fear that an accident will occur.
  • When comparing other types of fuel, some consider the cost of bio ethanol fireplace fuel to be high.
  • Ethanol fireplace inserts produce a lower amount of heat than wood or gas fireplaces.
  • An ethanol flame must not be covered during operation. Because there is no venting, it must remain “open” to get the oxygen it needs to burn. This is prohibitive to those with children or pets in many cases.


While ethanol fireplace inserts are convenient and cost-effective, they are not appealing to everyone. If, however, you would like to create or convert a fireplace so you can enjoy the ambience and warmth of a real flame, you may want to explore this fireplace solution more closely. With no need for a vent, attachment, fuel tank or line, and with drop-in installation, ethanol fireplace inserts are becoming the choice fireplace solution by architects, contractors, interior designers, fireplace designers and homeowners for their ease, cost, and consideration of the environment.

After all, everyone should be able to experience the entrancing look and warm feeling of a fireplace – anywhere.

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