Fireplace Inserts

Fireplace inserts—heat appliances that fit into the opening or protrude onto the hearth of a conventional fireplace—are similar in performance and function to free-standing stoves with some differences. They must fit and operate within an existing masonry or a factory-built fireplace with a working chimney.

Made of steel or cast-iron, inserts are available in many colors, styles and sizes. Depending on the type and brand, they may have heat-distributing fans, thermostatic or remote controls, arched glass doors, filigree trim and more.

The inserts are distinguished by the type of fuel they burn: wood, pellet, natural gas, propane or coal. Their maintenance requirements vary with fuel type.

Reasons to Switch
The open hearth, which has changed little over the generations, certainly creates ambiance, but it is inefficient, ineffective and usually messy.

Conventional fireplaces are considered 10 percent efficient at best and operate less effectively as temperatures plummet. They often cause drafts in the house as warm indoor air is sucked up the chimney and cold outside air is pulled indoors through any cracks or leaks.

Traditional fireplaces are also the source of smoke inside and outside. In most areas of the country, residential woodburning fireplaces are considered major sources of particulate matter air pollution. Particulate matter is a mix of fine particles, such as dust, molds, ashes and soot, with combustion by-products such as volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. There is also growing evidence that links particulate matter to health problems.

If you would like to rely on your fireplace for added warmth on cold days or for a back-up in emergencies, you should consider a fireplace insert. The newer inserts, especially those with secondary burn systems, reduce the amount of particulates emitted. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certifies wood-burning inserts and some pellet-burning models, according to John DuPree, EPA wood heat program team leader. An EPA-certified insert, identified by a permanent metal label, confirms that it has been independently tested by an accredited laboratory and falls within the legal limits of particulate emissions. The non-solid fuel or gas inserts also produce pollution and carbon monoxide but at a rate lower than an automobile.

Shopping Tips
Individual needs—such as the number of times the fireplace or insert will be used—will help determine whether an insert is cost-effective. Prices for the insert will vary with the fuel type, style and extras, such as fans and glass door styles.

Inserts range in price from $1,000 to $3,000. Include the costs of installation, operation and maintenance in your budget.

Talk with experienced hearth product retailers to learn about the performance characteristics of various inserts. Some factory-built, also known as zero-clearance, fireplaces may require an insert specifically designed for them. These units were designed to be fireplaces, so it is important that the insert fit exactly to make it more efficient and less polluting. Check your brand of fireplace.

As you shop for your insert, you may come across the term British Thermal Units, better known for its abbreviation, BTU, a unit of measurement of heat energy. Types of fuel—seasoned wood, green wood, wood pellets, propane and such—will vary in how much heating value they produce. Different inserts will vary in how efficiently they use fuel. Talk with insert dealers about expected costs, efficiency and heating value to be obtained from the fuel you plan to use and insert you are considering. Bring along your floor plan so retailers can help you find a fireplace insert suited to the space you want to heat. Regardless of the heat output, however, an insert—just like a fireplace—does not have heating ducts. An insert cannot be relied on to provide uniform heat in the room it is in or in any adjoining rooms.

When shopping for an insert, check to see how noisy the fans are. Some blowers have variable fan speeds and others operate at one speed. Doors vary in type but all should seal tightly. Depending on the fuel being considered, ask what to do if the glass on the insert doors smokes up or breaks.

Consider the availability and sustainability of fuels. Pellets, wood, coal and even natural and propane gas will vary in availability and price by area and year. Remember, natural and propane gas and coal are fossil fuels whereas wood and pellet materials are renewable resources.

Making the Change
If you plan to make the switch to an insert and live in an older home, have the chimney checked to make sure it’s clean and without cracks. The EPA’s DuPree warns that if fireplaces in older homes have not been used, the chimneys probably haven’t been maintained properly.

Check with your municipal code. To insure safer systems and better performance, communities may require a stainless-steel liner be installed from the insert flue collar to the top of the chimney. Depending on the fuel, the insert may be vented through a working chimney, direct-vented or vent-free.

Experts suggest using a certified professional installer who will insure that the installation meets state and local codes and that the insert is airtight. After installation, ensure that you operate your insert properly. Never burn residential trash in an insert or allow equipment to degrade, which can produce a lot of pollution.

For inserts that use solid fuel, experts advise inspecting, servicing and maintaining inserts and venting systems once a year to make sure they are operating safely and at peak performance.

Read "Installing A Wood Stove" for more information.

Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac