Fireplaces provide an ambiance like no other household appliance can. When you go to light your furnace, you may reach for the bag of charcoal that you used to heat up the grill at dinnertime. While it may seem convenient, charcoal is not a good fuel source for indoor fireplaces. Why is this?
Charcoal isn’t good to use in a fireplace because it burns much hotter than firewood, acts as a dangerous fire accelerant, produces harmful carbon monoxide, and burns inefficiently compared to wood. Charcoal also produces carcinogens when used to cook with.
In this post, we want to explain five reasons why you should avoid using charcoal in your indoor fireplace so that you know how to keep your family safe while they enjoy the fantastic flames. We’ll also cover the safety of using charcoal briquettes in a fireplace, plus explain the differences between charcoal and coal – a common mixup. Lastly, we’ll answer if it’s safe to burn charcoal in an outdoor fire pit. (Good news – it is!)
5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use Charcoal In A Fireplace
It’s best to avoid burning charcoal in your fireplace for several reasons: it burns hotter than firewood, produces life-threatening carbon monoxide and carcinogens, and acts as an accelerant that can create dangerously high flames, like lighter fluid. Charcoal also takes longer to reach temperature, so it’s inefficient compared to wood.
We know you want to be as safe as possible when burning and enjoying your fiery beauty, so let’s take a look at five reasons why you shouldn’t use charcoal in a fireplace.
1. Charcoal Burns Hotter Than Wood
Charcoal burns much hotter than wood, so if you choose to use charcoal to fuel the flames, your fireplace and chimney may exceed the safe temperature limit and cause damage to the chimney and furnace.
Wondering how hot wood burns?
Wood burns on average between 320 degrees Fahrenheit to around 800 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the species of tree used for wood. Wood will begin to catch fire at about 390 degrees Fahrenheit and starts to crack, shrink in size, and bear char marks when it reaches about 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Between 500 – 800 degrees is when the wood fully ignites.
When wood burns and breaks down, a three-part process called pyrolysis occurs – but we won’t get into that today!
On the other hand, charcoal burns around a whopping 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit – a stark increase from 500 – 800 degrees a wood fire typically hovers at! Charcoal briquettes are also dangerous to burn since they get even hotter than that. A charcoal briquette burns around 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Now it depends on the type of fireplace you have whether or not it would withstand that kind of intense heat. Wood-burning fireplaces can blaze at temperatures up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Gas fireplaces can handle less, typically maxing out around 1,200 – 1,500 degrees. Electric fireplaces don’t need a fuel source since they get their power from electricity via a wall outlet, so charcoal isn’t even an option.
2. Charcoal Produces Deadly Carbon Monoxide
When charcoal is burning, it produces carbon monoxide, a highly poisonous gas that cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted.
While a handful of appliances and other types of engines produce this gas, the amount of carbon monoxide is usually not what’s concerning – it’s the gas accumulating in an enclosed space that’s dangerous. This gassy buildup can lead to lethal levels of carbon monoxide, which can cause harm to anybody (though particularly unborn babies, children, older individuals, and those with chronic heart conditions) or death.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is the result of breathing in too much carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when your body inhales too many combustion fumes. When you breathe in these fumes, the red blood cells in your body replace lost oxygen with carbon monoxide. This blockage stops your organs from getting oxygen, which can lead to death.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, around 20 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning due to burning charcoal in a closed or confined space.
3. Charcoal Produces Carcinogens When Cooking
Some people choose to cook in their wood-burning fireplace. If you choose to do so, choose wood to burn and not charcoal, since cooking with charcoal has a link to carcinogens, which are substances that promote cancer growth.
Cooking certain foods like meat (such as beef, pork, chicken, turkey, or lamb) at very high temperatures can cause heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs are carcinogens created when very high temperatures are present, and the creatine in meat reacts to the amino acids that are also naturally present in meat. You can see this reaction as the darkened char marks on both your food and your grill.
4. Charcoal Is A Fire Accelerant
Like lighter fluid or gas, charcoal is an accelerant. An accelerant starts your fire and makes it burn longer and harder, but using accelerants to light your fire also makes it more unpredictable – the fire may grow too quickly, have too-tall of flames, or escape the fireplace starting with a few burning stray embers.
Burning an accelerant like charcoal is also dangerous because accelerants release toxic fumes, such as carbon monoxide, which can build up to a deadly level in an enclosed space.
5. Charcoal Isn’t So Efficient
Compared to wood, charcoal is not as efficient when it burns. It takes longer to heat up charcoal (about 20-25 minutes versus 10-15 for wood), nor does it stay burning for as long.
Charcoal burns for around 30 minutes, however, wood tends to burn for over an hour.
What Is Charcoal?
Charcoal is a leftover carbon residue produced from wood that has been highly heated with little oxygen so that all water and volatile components are gone. Charcoal looks black and is lightweight.
Let’s look at several versions of charcoal.
- Lump charcoal: One of the most popular types of charcoal, the lump variety is made from hardwood and through a process called carbonization. While not safe for enclosed fireplaces, lump charcoal is one of the best options for outdoor fire pits and grilling because it lights quickly, and it’s fairly easy to adjust the temperature since it’s so reactive to oxygen.
- Briquette charcoal: Charcoal briquettes don’t get as hot as lump coal, nor are they as quick to light, however, briquettes usually burn longer and are cheaper than the lump alternative. Charcoal briquettes can emit a chemical smell, though. The smell is because they are manufactured wood by-products combined with chemical additives, which help the briquettes ignite and steadily burn.
- Extruded charcoal: Extruded charcoal is typically made into log shapes through a highly pressurized process called extrusion. Materials that make up the charcoal logs – either raw ground wood or carbonized wood – are pushed through a mold to form their shape.
What’s The Difference Between Charcoal and Coal?
Though they seem similar, charcoal and coal are not the same. In short, charcoal is a man-made mineral, whereas coal is a natural mineral.
To illustrate, charcoal is created from burned wood that is put through an artificial process of extracting all water and volatile constituents from the wood.
Coal, on the other hand, is a natural mineral found in the Earth’s crust. This dark-colored mineral (though due to weathering may also have grey, yellow, or rust colors) forms under the surface of the Earth in the crust layer, sometimes down as far as 3,000 feet below the surface.
Miners get the coal through a process called underground mining, also known as deep mining. While coal seems to be present on every continent on Earth, the natural mineral can primarily be found in the United States, China, Russia, Australia, and India.
There are three regions across 25 states where coal is mined in the US: the Interior coal region, the Western coal region, and the Appalachian coal region.
Charcoal is not recommended as a fuel source, and neither is coal – for most fireplaces. For example, you should avoid burning coal in a wood-burning fireplace. Check that your fireplace is compatible with coal before using it in your fireplace.
Can You Burn Charcoal Briquettes In A Fireplace?
Charcoal briquettes should not be burned in a fireplace since anything made with charcoal will produce toxic carbon monoxide when burned, and that is not safe in an enclosed environment.
We couldn’t write this article without teaching you three reasons why you should avoid charcoal briquettes in your fireplace.
1. Greater Risk For Fire
As with anything made with charcoal, charcoal briquettes put you at an increased risk for an uncontrolled fire. Lighting charcoal briquettes – especially with an accelerant such as lighter fluid – can cause high flames in your fireplace that can catch fire to nearby objects (think furniture or the nearby basket of blankets) or burn you.
2. Accidental Poisoning
Furthermore, charcoal briquettes can cause accidental poisoning from carbon monoxide if the fireplace is burning in a small space with little ventilation, like in a tent, garage, or bedroom. Always burn in a well-ventilated area and avoid using charcoal briquettes as a fuel source for your fireplace.
3. They’re Unsafe For Children
Charcoal briquettes may look appetizing to some children since they often come in grey or black palm-sized nuggets, but of course, they are unsafe to indigestion or play and should be kept out of children’s reach.
Not only do these little fire starters pose a potential choking hazard for children, but they can also irritate the mouth and throat if swallowed.
Can You Use Charcoal In A Fire Pit?
Charcoal is deemed safe to use outdoors in a fire pit since the pit should be in a relatively open area outside, which makes the environment well ventilated. Whether you have a fireplace frame made from concrete, brick, or metal or have a hole-in-the-ground setup, it’s okay to burn charcoal in your fire pit.
Charcoal is actually considered to be a safer option than wood as a fuel source since charcoal fires are less likely to produce sparks and burning debris than crackling wood. Charcoal is also cheaper and more readily available than wood.
Also, did you know that charcoal and wood can be used interchangeably in a wood fire pit? If you do decide to use both fuel types, be sure to clear out the ashy remnants of the previous burn before lighting again. You should already be regularly cleaning out your fire pit as part of its regular maintenance.
We recommend doing a deep clean on your fire pit about every six months, especially if you do not keep it covered. Keeping your fire pit covered minimizes rainwater, leaves, and other debris from building up between burns.