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A Buying Guide to Fireplace Inserts

 
Oct. 24, 2016

By Fran Donegan

Who doesn’t appreciate a roaring fire on a chilly night? Unfortunately, most fires in traditional masonry fireplaces are long on atmosphere but short on energy efficiency. Approximately 70 to 90 percent of the heat produced by the fireplace disappears up the chimney. To keep itself going, the fire feeds on the room’s air that your furnace or boiler heated. If the thermostat that controls the heating system is in the same room as the fireplace, the room may be toasty but the rest of the house will be extremely cold, and the heating system will need to work extra hard to stabilize a comfortable house-wide temperature once the fire burns out.

One way to tame the energy hog is by modifying the fireplace with a fireplace insert. In most cases, an insert is a sealed firebox installed in the fireplace opening. Some inserts are designed to burn wood like a traditional fireplace, but you can also find gas inserts, pellet inserts and electrical inserts. Each has its pros and cons, but, in general, all are net heat producers. Some can provide extra heat to a single room while others can heat an entire house. As a general rule, the Department of Energy says that an insert rated at 60,000 British Thermal Units (BTU) can heat a 2,000 square foot home; one rated at 42,000 BTU can heat a 1,300 square foot space. You can find this information in the manufacturer's product literature.

Fireplace inserts come in a variety of styles, so it is easy to find one that goes with the design of your home. Here's a look at the different types of fireplace inserts.

Wood Burning

Installing a wood-burning insert will provide the closet sensory experience to an open fire. The inserts come in a variety of sizes, so it is important to measure the existing fireplace accurately.

Because wood fires produce a variety of emissions that contribute to air pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates wood-burning heaters—a wood-burning insert is considered a wood heater. The latest standards issued in 2015 limit particle emissions to no more than 4.5 grams per hour.

Benefits

  • Most inserts contain a fan and blower that pulls room air around the firebox, where it is heated and then blown back into the room.
  • They have long-burning fires. In general, the bigger the firebox, the longer the burn.
  • Some inserts can heat an entire house.
  • Air wash technology can keep viewing glass clean on some models.

Tips and Best Practices

  • Professional installation is recommended because damper and chimney modifications may be necessary. The insert must connect to the chimney flue. Running a new flue liner from the insert to the top of the chimney is considered the best installation practice.
  • Annual flue cleaning is necessary.
  • The insert and installation tend to be at the top end of the price scale.

Pellet Burning

Rather than burning logs, these units use small wood pellets for fuel. The user dumps the pellets into a hopper, where they are automatically dispensed into the firebox. These inserts must be EPA certified for particle emissions.

Benefits

  • They are very energy efficient.
  • They are easy to use with long burn times.
  • Some units offer remote start or they can be hooked up to the home's thermostat for automatic start.
  • Zero-clearance units are available. Zero-clearance inserts can be placed against or very close to flammable material such as drywall or wood framing. That means a masonry fireplace is not necessary for installation.

Tips and Best Practices

  • Ceramic logs are needed to provide realistic fire experience.
  • Pellet inserts are at the top end of the price scale and have more moving parts than other inserts, so repairs can be expensive. Factor this into your budget when choosing an insert.

Gas Burning

Most of these inserts use natural gas as the fuel, although propane models are also available.

Benefits

  • Models are available in a wide variety of sizes and heat outputs.
  • Some models offer push-button or remote start, which means no messing with logs.
  • It is easy to control the size of the flame and heat output.
  • Zero-clearance models are available.
  • Direct-vent models are available. These units can be vented out of the back or sides of the insert and directly through a wall, which means there is no need for a traditional masonry chimney.
  • Unvented models are available. These require no venting at all.
  • Air wash technology keeps the viewing window clean.

Tips and Best Practices

  • These inserts provide a different experience than a wood-burning fire and use simulated logs.
  • Depending on the model and accessories, gas-burning inserts fall in the middle of the price scale. However, they can be more expensive to operate than wood or pellet inserts and require gas service to the fireplace.

    Image 3

    Electric Inserts

    These units operate on electricity to produce the simulated flames and heat.

    Benefits

  • These units are relatively inexpensive to buy and install.
  • No venting is necessary, so the inserts can be installed pretty much anywhere.
  • The units are available in a number of sizes and shapes.
  • Some models offer a variety of flame configurations and looks.
  • Tips and Best Practices

  • They have relatively low heat output compared to other types of inserts, so they work best for homes that just need ambiance rather than an additional heat source.
  • These inserts provide a different experience than a wood-burning fireplace.
  • Choosing the right fireplace insert depends on the configuration of your budget, your preferred level of maintenance and the configuration of your home. Whether you go with gas or wood-burning, there’s an insert available for every type of house and homeowner.

    Fran Donegan writes on home heating topics for The Home Depot. Fran is a longtime DIY writer and the author of the book Paint Your Home. To review a selection of fireplace inserts that can help heat your home this coming winter, the Home Depot website is a place to conduct this research.

 

All guest posts have been reviewed and approved by the Sustainable Community Media Editorial Team to ensure quality, relevance/usefulness and objectivity.

 


Topics: Appliances, Going Green, Healthy Homes, Kitchen, Maintenance & Repair, Ranges

Companies: The Home Depot


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