Choose Fireplace Inserts for Warmth and Efficiency

Susanne Clemenz

Older fireplaces are charming--dancing flames, woodsy smells, crackling embers, and a bit of warmth. It's hard to recreate the wonderful feeling of sitting in front of an actual, authentic wood burning fireplace. But older fireplaces also involve chopping wood, messy wood litter and ashes, wood-bourne pests, safety risks for children and property, polluting emissions, and the need for an attendant. Fireplace inserts may lack some of the charm of traditional wood-burning fireplaces, but they offer convenience and improved heating efficiency.


In a traditional fireplace, the open damper sends your home's heated air up the chimney. The open hearth also reduces the temperature within the firebox, reducing the efficiency of the burning process. By enclosing the firebox and reducing the flue, efficiency of fireplace inserts can range between 60% to 90%, while reducing emissions. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, studies have shown that installation can significantly affect efficiency and performance of your fireplace insert, so consider an expert.

When considering a fireplace insert, consider fuel type, cost, venting options and aesthetics. In terms of fuels, some homeowners go with a wood-burning insert but even more choose newer fuels such as gas, processed pellets, or even electric depending on the availability of an energy source close to the hearth. (We run through some of the options below.) Costs for inserts generally run $1000 and up depending on the look and advanced features such as fans and thermostats.

While inserts have been promoted in the past for their ability to operate without external venting, we recommend that you choose a vented model. Increasingly, states and local municipalities are banning ventless inserts due to the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Last but not least, you should consider the aesthetics of the insert and do your research on models. A good place to start is in our fireplace insert product directory.

Choose from Electric, Gas or Wood-Burning Fireplace Inserts

Weigh the pros and cons of all insert types. All have attractive exteriors to choose from:

  • Wood fireplace inserts are an improvement over your built-in. You still have the woodpile, litter, ashes and hauling, but the natural flames, crackle, and woodsy smells also remain. Wood fireplace inserts seal off the original fireplace opening. There's a refractory chamber surrounded by a plenum that circulates room air around the hot firebox and back into the room. The hotter firebox burns more completely than your fireplace, reduces polluting chimney emissions and allergens, and may have controllable fire levels. Embers are contained. A smaller flue goes inside the chimney to emit gases and smoke.
  • Pellet fireplace inserts burn wood byproduct pellets or biomass pellets. The woodpile is replaced with clean pellet bags--no chopping! Pellets are poured into a hopper with an auger that meters them into a firepot. Burn rate is adjustable. A fan circulates the heated air around the room. Remote programmable controls are available. For convenience, keep a bigger supply inside when cold weather is predicted. The pellets create minuscule amounts of ash for reduced cleanout. You still get real flames, and realistic-looking ceramic "wood." Enjoy hours of safe heat, unattended.
  • Gas fireplace inserts retain an old fireplace's looks, but eliminate ongoing work and mess. A monthly or seasonal glass cleaning is all that's required. You need natural gas or a refillable liquid propane tank in your yard, plumbed to the insert. Ceramic "logs" are surrounded by adjustable flames. Air intake from outside is circulated around the firebox. The heated air is radiated and blown into the home; returned cool air vents outside. Pollutants are minimal. Programmable controls are available.
  • Electric fireplace inserts are circulating heaters with the appearance of flames. Installation is easy, daily fire chores are eliminated, and there are a many styles to choose from. They require no chimney or venting and can have remotes and wood-crackling sounds. They're great zone heaters for guest room or home offices.

All fireplace inserts offer more heating efficiency and less work than your old fireplace-- reasons enough to own a fireplace insert!


About the Author
Suzanne Clemenz designed her passive solar home and interacted with the contractors every day of the 6-month project. She started drawing floor plans and making models in the early '70s after purchasing several building lots. Recently she expanded and remodelled her newly-purchased home, working with contractors on the floorplan, electrical changes, painting, installation of wood laminate flooring, flood prevention walls and stonework, major drainage issues, an irrigation system and a landscaping. Researching and keeping up on issues and products related to home design and maintenance is an ongoing avocation.

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