It’s fair to say that gazing at the “flame” of an electric fireplace a decade ago was the equivalent of looking in a snow globe to see a real blizzard. It might have been entertaining, but it hardly emulated the experience of the real thing.
What a difference a few years make! You’re still not going to whittle a branch and break out the marshmallows when you sit in front of a cutting-edge, contemporary electric fireplace, but you will find yourself drawing closer to feel the warmth and enjoy the highly realistic flame effects.
This rapid advancement in electric fireplace innovation is a classic case study for a business school. Did innovation drive demand? Did demand – in this case, a demand driven in part by regulatory forces – drive innovation? On this question, we’ll be classic fence-sitters and say both had an effect.
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The end result is that sales of electric fireplaces are on the rise across the United States and Canada and hearth industry manufacturers have taken note by investing in electric fireplace R&D. Industry magazine Hearth & Home notes that electric fireplace sales topped two million in 2016, doubling the sales of all wood, gas and pellet appliances combined, according to the publication.
Exact numbers are hard to pinpoint because some of the electric fireplace industry’s largest manufacturers refuse to release sales figures, according to John Crouch, Public Affairs Director/Government Affairs for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, an industry trade group.
Crouch notes that heavy electric fireplace manufacturer representation at the association’s trade show in Nashville this past March is a strong indicator that the market is on the upswing.
“It was incredible to see the booths of some of these manufacturers,” he pointed out. “Some of them pulled out all the stops. It’s clear there’s a real strong interest across the board in electric fireplaces. They were always kind of a fringe player, but they’re mainstream now.”
While it’s easy to focus on the retail consumer market, the commercial and residential home building sector has fast become a major proponent of electric fireplaces. Especially in multi-unit buildings and local jurisdictions where wood burning is banned and the push for net zero buildings in cities like Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Portland, Oregon is erecting future roadblocks for gas burning appliances.
So far, electric fireplaces have stayed out of the regulatory cross-hairs. Given their benefits, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking aim soon. The reasons?
Given his incredibly fluid imagination and keen sense of wit, it’s easy to imagine Ben Franklin chortling in amazement while he sipped a glass of port in front of a contemporary electric fireplace.
This is the man, after all, who sold all his worldly possessions to fund his study of electricity, climaxing with his famous 1752 experiment involving a key, a kite, and a lightning storm. Franklin got the recognition, but he was continuing a centuries-old fascination with harnessing nature’s elements.
Little-known Englishman William Gilbert coined the word electricity in 1600 when he was conducting experiments rubbing amber – a fossilized plant-based resin – in efforts to determine its magnetic properties. He himself was continuing a centuries-old experiment undertaken by ancient Mediterranean cultures. In fact, the Greek word for amber is elektron.
Many centuries and infinite kilowatts later, electric fireplace manufacturers employ LED (light emitting diodes), in conjunction with material ribbons, mirrors and/or steam, to produce optics that simulate the movement and colors of a real flame. The look of an electric fireplace’s flame effect can vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer; make sure to visit your local fireplace retailer to find the best option for your application.
With added features like efficient heaters, highly realistic fireplace media (such as log sets and contemporary glass), stylish fireplace surrounds and wireless apps connected to any number of electronics, it’s little wonder that the popularity of electric fireplaces continues to soar.
Big box stores and online sales have been the electric fireplace main distribution hub for builders and consumers. That trend seems to be shifting as manufacturers roll out high-end electric fireplaces and specialty retailers sense a trending opportunity.
While the large distribution channels might win a price war, they often fall woefully short when it comes to product knowledge and customer support. True, electric fireplaces may be easier to install and maintain when compared to wood, gas, or pellet fireplaces, but they are listed by Underwriters Laboratory and the Canadian Standards Association and they do require a level of knowledge that large channels can’t offer.
High-end electric fireplace manufacturers are the perfect destination for retail consumers, home builders, architects, interior designers and anyone else wanting to know more about the innovative products that are sparking a surge in consumer demand.
Robert Conlin is a freelance writer living in Wiscasset, Maine. A former certified chimney sweep and retail stove shop owner, he has returned to his roots as a journalist/writer in producing enterprise reporting and online content for a variety of publications and companies.