Fireplace Inserts Add Warmth and Efficiency

By: Brett Freeman , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

Open hearth fireplaces create great ambiance. Unfortunately, they also create soot, smoke, and, in many cases, cold drafts elsewhere in the house. As a result, many of these increasingly anachronistic fireplaces are left unused or even sealed shut. A better solution is to install a gas or pellet burning insert fireplace, which offers the same ambiance, increased efficiency, and few of the drawbacks of open hearth fireplaces.

There’s nothing like gathering around a fire on a cold winter day. But if your house has a traditional, open hearth fireplace, plan on gathering close. In keeping with this blog’s ongoing discussion about home heating and energy conservation, I thought it was important to point out that open hearth fireplaces send most of their heat–as much as 90 percent–up the chimney. And it’s not just heat escaping up the chimney, warm air from inside your home is also pulled along, and is replaced by cold air leaking in from outside, creating drafts. Open hearth fireplaces also create smoke in the house and release considerable pollution into the air outside. The solution? A fireplace insert that burns cleanly and efficiently without creating the updraft of a roaring cordwood fire.

How Inserts Work
The concept behind fireplace inserts is pretty simple–a sealed fireplace is inserted into an existing open hearth fireplace opening. In most cases, the insert is custom-built to ensure an air-tight fit. You might also opt for a pellet-burning stove, which extends from the old fireplace onto the hearth. The issues involved in installation, such as making sure the fit is airtight and inspecting and, if necessary, installing a protective sleeve in the chimney, mean that installing a fireplace insert is beyond the skills of most do-it-yourselfers. Be safe and hire a certified installer who not only has the experience and expertise to do the job right, but is also familiar with any applicable local building codes that need to be followed.

Going With Gas
Fireplace inserts that burn natural gas or propane typically include fake logs around the burners, which creates a look that most closely resembles a traditional cordwood fire. Some newer models use colored rocks or other materials, rather than fake logs, to achieve a much more modern, arty look. The advantages of gas fireplaces is that they are efficient and release no particulate matter into the atmosphere. They do release carbon monoxide and other pollutants, but at a much lower rate than an open hearth fireplace. The price of natural gas and propane can also fluctuate significantly.

Heating With Pellets
Another option is to install a fireplace insert or heating stove that burns pellets. Pellets are usually made of sawdust, wood bark, and other wood byproducts. Some stoves can also burn other biomass fuels like corn kernels. These fuels burn much cleaner than cord wood, releasing far less particulate matter, and leaving far less ash behind.

Making the Change
A huge, open fireplace is great in a ski lodge, but in your own home, you want a fireplace that burns cleaner and more efficiently. With a fireplace insert, you can build a fire that heats your home, not your chimney and the great outdoors.

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  1. 15 Responses  to “Fireplace Inserts Add Warmth and Efficiency”

  2. Rich
    Aug 29, 2011
    We have a Majestic natural gas stove now I would like to replace it with a pellet insert. I am sure the gas stove, which is mostly for aestetics, has some clearance but is it possible to do this project and do it safely thanx for your time Rich
  3. Carol
    Aug 29, 2011
    We are looking to convert our wood-burning fireplace to gas with a gas insert; however, our fireplace has the front and right end open. Does anyone know if an insert is made for a right end open fireplace? If so, where would I find this?
  4. Aug 29, 2011
    Lovely stuff, I love fires, insert, free standing or open the smell the sounds and the light. Cheers
  5. Aug 29, 2011
    Kerry, Please keep in mind, I'm going on the presumption that we are all dealing with "Old House" era homes. In my mind, this means something built before 1940. These types of fireplaces tend to be more shallow in depth and more square in proportion. These types of homes themselves tend to be less airtight than more modern homes as well, so the idea of the fireplace itself causing the draft issues in the home is laughable at the very least. I deal primarily with fireplaces in Victorian Era homes. These homes originally had fireplaces in virtually every room and were quite shallow ( 6-14" in depth most commonly ). In our area, these were originally coal burning fireplaces and the homes themselves were heated on a room by room ( zone heating )basis. Unlike a conventional heat pump or furnace, these fireplaces were there to warm only the room you were occupying at that particular time. When you were ready to leave the room, the fire was extinguished and the fire in the next room would be lit. In cases of fireplaces of this proportion, there are shallow gas inserts of various designs that can work. There are also quite a few electric inserts we use that fit inside these older fireboxes as well. The primary thing to remember is that our beloved old houses, fine as they are, were not designed for modern convenience. Just as the electrical systems and the plumbing weren't. They were designed for the period they were built. While improvements can always be made, they will never be "new homes" and I for one believe that is the largest part of their charm!
  6. Kerry Hoffman
    Aug 29, 2011
    @Christi -- what products would you suggest to reduce pollution and increase energy efficiency? Would you advise to never use a fireplace insert?
  7. Aug 29, 2011
    Wow. As one who works and deals everyday with old victorian era fireplaces, I'm terribly sadden that a contributing writer posting with such "authority" hasn't done their homework. There are so very many products out there specialized for these grand old homes. I cannot tell you how many times a day I hear "they said tear it down, close it up, sheet rock over it..." Thank goodness for us enthusiasts that know, it's not because it doesn't exist, it's because someone doesn't KNOW it exists. Keep it up enthusiasts!
  8. Aug 29, 2011
    Personally, I see this issue from both sides. My favorite place in the world is an A-frame cabin in Sequoia National Park that has been in my family for more than 60 years. The cabin consists of a kitchen, a great room, and a loft, and is dominated by an enormous open fireplace in the center of the great room. I can't imagine the cabin without it. At the other end of the spectrum is the house I grew up in, which was built in the 1830s and featured shallow coal fireplaces that were no longer practical. We installed chimney liners and wood burning stoves (pellet stoves weren't yet around) that offered incredible heat, but burned far cleaner than coal. They also preserved the historical feel of the house. I admit, I love open hearth fireplaces, but I'm also tasked with suggesting and exploring green alternatives for old house renovations, and big, open wood fires simply aren't efficient or clean. Also, large open hearth fireplaces were certainly common in timber country, but most cities in the U.S. were heated with coal, which means old houses in many parts of the country have smaller, shallower fireplaces that are not at all compromised aesthetically with inserts.
  9. Shanster
    Aug 29, 2011
    I don't think any old house lover in their right mind would replace historical windows with vinyl windows and I don't believe any of the articles on this site have ever suggested that. Case in point: http://www.oldhouseweb.com/how-to-advice/old-windows.shtml and http://www.oldhouseweb.com/how-to-advice/preserving-and-restoring-old-windows.shtml
  10. Lucy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Adding solar panels to a slate roof is bound to detract from its "Old House Character" -- but is that a good argument against doing so?
  11. Sir Edward
    Aug 29, 2011
    Daniel, If I read the site byline correctly, it is "ideas and advice for old house enthusiasts" not "a guidebook for precise application of strict old house preservation guidelines." Surely there is a place here for ideas, as the site suggests, and in this case the blogger discusses the environmental aspect of fireplaces, which are common features in old houses. How might someone who is both environmentally concerned and a lover of old houses reconcile this? I thought the post was interesting for that reason. In quite similar fashion, I love historic cars and own a 1951 Jaguar Mark VII and I wouldn't dream of replacing the engine. However, I also wouldn't dream of using it for a cross-country trip through Britain. I've visited this site for years and I enjoy the community here. What makes it special is the exchange of opinions and ideas on old house topics. I'm sure you'd agree. Given your strong leanings toward historic preservation, perhaps you should suggest writing a piece for this blog every now and again to voice your opinion!