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Make a Decorative Indoor Fireplace and Emergency Heater Without a Chimney

Emergency Heat

I live with my child in a small house. We don't have a fireplace. A few years back, the power went out on one of the coldest days of the year. Within a half hour, my house temperature had dropped almost 30 degrees F. I was terrified for my infant who was sleeping soundly in his room.

Since then, I've struggled to find something cheap, safe, and easy to use that will look nice and double as a decorative fireplace when not needed as an emergency heater. Propane and kerosene kind of scare me after reading stories of people whose heaters catch on fire. I wanted something easy.

Here's what I came up with. So far it's been safe with my cats, my child, and my rambunctious dog. The drawback is that in an emergency, you will need to refuel it every two-three hours, but it is what it is...

What You Will Need

  • a cheap outdoor chiminea with a metal grille around it
  • a bag of lava rock (I used the kind for gas grills, small bag)
  • a rectangle planter, preferably terra cotta, that fits into your chiminea (your could also use two or three round terra cotta pots)
  • several small bags or one large bag of fish tank gravel
  • small votive candles in glass jars for decorative purposes
  • Real Flame gel fuel cans (or any other indoor alcohol gel fuel) for emergency purposes

I bought my random metal and cast iron chiminea at Menard's at the end of the fall season and it cost me a total of about $45. I believe it was normally priced at $129.

The decorative planter I have here is a painted terra cotta planter from Mexico that I found at a local Ace Hardware store.

My choice of fish tank gravel was turquoise, blue, and white because I happen to like those colors.

Put It Together

  1. Start by putting your chiminea in an area where it looks nice. It will be a bit heavy when filled, though still movable in an emergency.
  2. Put your planter in the middle of the inside of the chiminea. Block any holes at the bottom of the planter. I used a lump of Play-Doh for this... after I ended up with fish tank gravel everywhere from an unblocked hole... Grumble.
  3. Fill the planter up to about 2" from the top with fish tank gravel.
  4. Put the lava stone around the outside of the planter. It is there just for decorative purposes, so if you don't want it, you can omit it.

For a Decorative Indoor Fire

Take the glass votive candle holders and push them into the fish tank gravel until the edges are about flush with the edge of the planter. I find about six candles to be perfect for this. When you light them, the flames will be low enough that from a bit away, it looks like an actual fire going on in the planter.

The chiminea's metal top will feel a bit warm and emit some radiant heat. I have found that it is not enough to burn fingers (my child touches it all the time to warm up his hands.

If you'd like to add a smoky fire smell to add some realism, get some wood block incense and put the little ceramic burner plate for it somewhere in your fish tank gravel. The trick with the wood block incense it to hold it with tongs in the middle of a candle flame for at least a minute to actually get it to burn. They're a little tricky.

The indoor chiminea adds a rustic potbelly-stove look in your house. You could roast some marshmallows for s'mores on it, if you'd like.

Ina pinch, you can use the little tea light candles and set them in the fish tank gravel, but I don't think they look as nice as that candles that reflect in the glass.

Emergency Heat Use

You can use this for method for emergency heat or if you just want a decorative fireplace that actually emits heat as well.

Take two to three cans of Real Flame gel and push them into the fish gravel. In a true emergency (where you don't care about decoration), you can just push the lava rocks to the side and set the heat cans in the chiminea in order to replace them more easily. Alternatively, you can set the cans on top of the fish gravel.

I generally keep a case or two of fuel cans in my garage just in case. Each can lasts about 2-3 hours, but they tend to lean more toward two, I've found.

Sometimes, when I still want decor but I get lazy, I just put the two cans behind the planter so I don't have to move the candles. It still looks good because the cans are hidden by the planter and all you see is the flames.

I have found that one can will heat up my small (25' by 15') living room / kitchen area pretty quickly when my heat is running. In an emergency situation, I would probably use three cans and try to keep the "stove" in a smaller area.

The chiminea top will get too hot to touch comfortably. If you have small children, keep them from touching the top. My pets generally have a better radar for this stuff than my child does, so they don't usually bother it.

Other Emergency Heat Tips

  • In a real pinch, you can take an empty steel can, shove a roll of toilet paper in it (pull the cardboard roll out), and soak the t.p. in 71% rubbing alcohol (91% will work, too, just not as long). Light the toilet paper with a long lighter and you'll have made your own can of alcohol fuel. It does not produce carbon monoxide and can be burned inside. It does not last as long as gel fuel, in my experience.
  • Another option is to put hand sanitizer in a steel can and light that as gel fuel. Same as above.
  • Keep a few cans of gel fuel in your car in case of an emergency in cold weather. Also pack a lighter and a large metal coffee can. You can set the gel fuel in the coffee can, light it, and set it somewhere safe inside the vehicle. Crack open a window to provide oxygen.

Make Good Decisions

  • This stuff has fire. Fire burns and is hot. Please be careful.
  • Real Flame fuel gel is meant to be used safely inside. It will not cause carbon monoxide poisoning. However, any flame will eat up oxygen and make CO2, so it would not be wise to use this in a completely airtight situation.
  • Do not let small children touch the chiminea when there is fuel burning in it. Don't leave them near the lit chiminea when they are unsupervised.
  • Make good decisions. This has worked well and safely for me. It might not work as wonderfully for you. Or maybe it will. I have nothing to do with your potential success, lack of it, or bad decision.

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