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"New electric fireplace kits have realistic flames, use year-round"

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Dear Jim: I like to sit by a fireplace, but I hate all the hassles of it. I want to use it year-round. Do complete electric log fireplace/mantel kits really have realistic flames and sound? Do they produce much heat? - Pat W.

A: If you have not seen electric fireplaces recently, you will be amazed at how well the new technologies produce realistic-looking flames. Some even produce the sounds of real crackling logs. It takes about 10 minutes to take one out of the box, plug it in, and be sitting in front of a fire.

If you are a year-round fireplace worshiper, you can operate the flames and sound in the fireplace without switching on the built-in heater. There just is a small light bulb or two, a tiny motor and a fan that use very little electricity so operating it won't increase your air-conditioning bills.

Since an electric fireplace is plugged into a standard wall outlet, the heat output is limited to about 5,000 Btuh, similar to most electric space heaters. It won't do a lot to heat up a large room, but when you are sitting in front of it, the heated air will keep you toasty warm.

If you have an existing fireplace, you can just install an electric log/heater unit in it. For the most attractive fireplace, it is better to install a complete kit with a fireplace surround and mantel. These are made to be freestanding, so you can move them around like a piece of furniture.

The surrounds and mantels for electric fireplaces are often more attractive than for real wood or gas logs because concern for high heat is not a factor. Hand-polished wood and lacquered brass trim can be closer to the opening. Some complete space-saver fireplaces are only eight inches deep.

The types of controls vary among the models. The best ones allow you to vary the appearance of the fire from lazy flames to a raging fire by turning a knob. Thermostatically controlled heat and a multispeed blower improve comfort. Some even have TV-type hand-held remote control units.

There are many ingenious design methods used to create realistic flames. One unique method uses a frosted glass screen with dancing lights projected on the back of it from reflective ribbons and a fan. Another design uses a rotating lens in front of multicolored light bulbs. Some logs sets are made of real wood logs instead of imitation painted ceramic ones.

Other simple-to-install complete fireplace kits use natural alcohol-based fuel made from grapes or corn to produce realistic wood flames. The alcohol is available gelled or as thickened liquid. They are very convenient to use, but produce heat, so they are not the best to use during the summer. No local codes ban alcohol models as some do for vent-free gas fireplaces.

Instant Download Update Bulletin No. 787 - buyer's guide of 11 electric and gel- or liquid-alcohol fuel log and fireplace kit manufacturers showing how the realistic flames and sound are created, the maximum heat outputs for winter use, the various flame settings, heat and sound controls, unique features, cost-to-use chart, prices, and many illustrations of various models.

Dear Jim: We have a septic tank at our house. I want to install a garbage disposer, but I heard it can cause expensive problems with a septic tank. Will one work with a septic tank? - Sandi S.

A: When you use a garbage disposer, a lot more organics and solids get into the septic tank and leech field. Most major garbage disposal manufacturers offer special models for homes with septic tanks.

If you do install one of the septic-tank disposal models, just use good judgment about what you put down the drain and follow the manufacturer's recommendations. Also, have the tank pumped out regularly to remove solids.

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