Everyone loves the warmth and beauty of traditional fireplaces, but their energy efficiency leaves a lot to be desired. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, older fireplaces only have a heating efficiency of approximately 5% to 10%. Wood-burning stoves aren’t much better: the Environmental Protection Agency states that 75% of the heating stoves found in homes are older, un-certified models, and 50% less efficient than newer models. For those reasons and many more, fireplace inserts have become the optimum heating solution for energy-minded homeowners.
The Many Benefits of Fireplace Inserts
So, fireplace or insert? It’s easiest to answer that question with some more questions – where do you want to put it? Do you already have a fireplace?
A standalone fireplace is exactly what it sounds – the mantle, ventilation, and fire area all in one. These can be electric, gel-fueled, or wood-burning. They’re usually made of wood and come in a variety of styles and sizes to match your room and home. Inside, there’s a built-in fireplace insert.
A fireplace insert is a firebox surrounded by cast iron or steel with insulated glass doors for viewing the fire, and usually a fan or blower for distributing heat. This closed combustion system slows down the fire and increases its temperature for greater heating efficiency. Inserts are also more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. Most of them are fueled by electricity or natural gas, and even new wood-burning models produce fewer emissions and less smoke than standard fireplaces.
But convenience may be the greatest advantage. Most models are designed to fit inside an existing masonry or steel-lined fireplace, offering an instant, hassle-free energy upgrade without sacrificing the romantic appeal of an open flame. Gas and electric models can start with the push of a button. You may not even need an existing fireplace: some vent free inserts can be installed directly into a wall.
A fireplace insert is definitely a smart purchase if:
- You have a poorly vented chimney, an unused or inefficient fireplace.
- You want a fireplace but can’t install (or afford) a traditional system in your home.
- You want to enjoy a cozy fire without the mess and expense of wood.
- You’re looking for a more efficient home heating source. Many people use inserts for zone heating, i.e. heating the parts of the house in use, while turning down the thermostat, a practice that can reduce fuel bills by up to 40%.
The Four Fuel Types & What You Should Know
These fireplaces and inserts operate via four primary fuel sources: electricity, natural gas or propane, wood, and pellets.
An electric fireplace or fireplace insert doesn’t produce a real flame. Instead it uses light to simulate flickering flames and glowing embers. It’s the ideal solution for residences where flames or wood-burning smoke aren’t allowed. Electric is the single most energy-efficient option available to you, costing just pennies an hour to operate.
Electric models can be used with or without the heater, which is a big plus for warm climates. Programmable timers and digital thermostats make temperature control easy. There are no emissions, and installation simply involves plugging the insert into a wall outlet – no permits, no piping, no venting required.
There are three options available if you go the electrical route:
- Add the insert to an existing fireplace.
- Add it to an interior or exterior wall space, which will require additional installation work.
- Purchase a freestanding electric fireplace, complete with decorative mantel.
Natural gas-fueled fireplaces and inserts require professional installation, as a natural gas line must be connected. But apart from the initial costs, this is a highly efficient option for those who love real flames. Gas is a low-cost, clean-burning fuel source for indoor or heating. The flame’s natural beauty is enhanced with ceramic logs or glass crystals.
Proper ventilation is essential, and we recommend installing a carbon monoxide detector for safety (though some systems have an oxygen depletion sensor or an automatic gas-shutoff feature).
As the EPA puts it, “Smoke coming out of your chimney is wasted energy.” That’s one reason why a wood-burning fireplace insert is a smart purchase, especially if you have an older fireplace. Wood-burning inserts are much more fuel efficient, using less wood while producing less smoke.
EPA-certified models produce significantly less particle pollution as well, which is better for the environment and your health. The tradeoff for the beauty of a traditional wood fire is the higher cost of fuel and the need for regular cleaning and removal of ashes.
These eco-friendly models are fueled by pellets made from corn or compressed sawdust. These renewable, low-emission fuels burn for a longer time than wood, and cost less than firewood in most areas. Pellet-burning fireplace inserts are designed to minimize smoke and maximize combustion and heat via an automated feed system (and thus require electricity to operate). Depending on the model, other forms of biomass may be used as fuel.
Vital Facts on Size, Heating Output & Venting
If you’ll be installing within an existing fireplace, be sure to take measurements before your purchase. Check the opening height, depth, and the width at both the opening and the rear of the firebox to determine the minimum clearance requirements.
An insert’s heating power is measured in BTUs. Anywhere from 4,700 to 5,000 BTUs is common, particularly with electric fireplaces and inserts. To provide some idea of what that means, a 10 x 10 foot room with an 8-foot ceiling and average insulation would need about 5,000 BTUs to raise the temperature by 10°F.
Finally, it’s important to note that though some inserts are vent free, some fuel types (such as wood) will require a positive connection to an existing chimney. Most gas-fueled inserts require direct vent coaxial piping, in which case combustion products can be vented directly through the wall behind the unit, and combustion air is drawn from outdoors. This is a closed, highly efficient system that will do an excellent job of heating an airtight, well-insulated home. With natural draft venting, known as B-vent, combustion products are vented through the roof and combustion air is drawn from the room, which makes for less efficient heating, as heat is lost through the flue.
- Never leave a fire unattended.
- Keep a fire extinguisher within your home.
- Place fireplace tools and accessories out of the reach of children.
- Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and test them monthly.
- Follow all manufacturer’s installation and venting instructions.
Gas logs are a more simple and convenient way to enjoy a classic wood fire. They are affordable, extremely safe and do not require maintenance. In addition, they do not burn at the same high rate as seasoned hardwood, which ends up saving money. And there also is no mess or cleanup afterwards. They are considered a green choice when it comes to the fireplace market; they burn very clean and can even be used in the case of a power outage.
Vented Gas Logs: Designed to use right in your traditional wood-burning fireplace. The only modification is the installation of the gas line. They are very flexible; logs can be moved around creating a more realistic fire. When in use, the fireplace damper must be in the open position.
Ventless (Vent-free) Gas Logs: Capable of a high amount of heat output. When in use, the fireplace damper can be closed. The logs burn so hot that nearly 100% of the fuel is combusted. Ventless gas logs produce a small amount of moisture, which can be very beneficial in the winter months.
For almost any type of gas log set, your fireplace should be a minimum of 12-14 inches deep. Maintain a minimum of 2 inches on both sides between the gas log burner systems equipment and the fireplace sidewalls.
To find the correct log set, obtain these relevant dimensions:
- The front width
- The back width
- The depth from back to front
- The height of fireplace