If you are like many homeowners who own an older home, you may have a fireplace with a traditional masonry chimney. While nothing beats a real wood-burning fireplace for authenticity and ambiance, most of these older fireplaces are extremely inefficient for heating purposes. And with today’s high cost of home energy and heating fuel, every bit of efficiency counts!
In the 80s it seemed like wood fireplace inserts were all the rage and then they kind of disappeared from the home improvement radar screen. Today’s fireplace inserts are true heating units, made to retrofit a fireplace to greatly improve efficiency and add a more stylish and up-to-date design. A fireplace insert is a good option to consider if you need to update an older fireplace in your home.
An older, masonry fireplace without an enclosed firebox can be inefficient since much of the combustion air simply escapes up through the chimney. An open fireplace draws the air in too quickly, wasting precious fuel and up it goes! Learn about the key benefits and characteristics of fireplace inserts, wood stoves and pellet burning units in this section of our fireplace guide.
Fireplace Insert Benefits
While wood and pellet-burning fireplace inserts have been around for a long time, today’s high tech units offer great heating efficiency and enhanced design options so they will look attractive in your home; matching that country, modern or other decorating style you’ve gone to great lengths to give your home! Wood fireplace insert benefits include:
- Enhanced fireplace efficiency
- Clean burning and easy operation
- Cuts home heating costs
- Improved fuel efficiency and fuel options
- Lower combustion air emissions, environmentally friendly
- Helps heat a home during power outages
A well-designed insert is very efficient. These units are made to heat the house; not just provide a pretty flame in the fireplace! Fireplace inserts can be retrofitted to fit almost any existing masonry or factory-made fireplace. Inserts may burn gas, wood or wood pellets made of wood by-products.
Depending on the existing chimney and fireplace vent design, most fireplace inserts are easy to install and have a fan to help move warm air into the living space. Inserts are generally made of steel or cast iron, with insulated glass doors for enhanced performance.
While they are generically referred to as “wood fireplace inserts”, these heating units are available for a variety of fireplace fuels including coal, oil, natural gas, liquid propane, wood and wood by-products or pellets. This makes fireplace inserts quite versatile in an uncertain time of increasing fuel prices and regional fuel availability.
The insulated glass doors on a fireplace insert are designed to slow the fire and increase the temperatures for more complete combustion inside the combustion area. This can cut heating costs and helps the home feel warmer, since inserts are also designed as heaters, optimized to maximize radiant heat flowing into the living space.
An EPA-certified insert can reduce the emissions from a wood burning fireplace to nearly zero, making them more eco-friendly than a traditional wood fireplace.
Attractive Modern Fireplace Inserts
I remember as a kid during the 70s, a friend’s parents installed a fireplace insert with a blower in their family room fireplace. The room was always warm, but the cast iron, glass-door insert looked like an antique automobile and was about as large too!
But, despite the stigma some of us may feel toward inserts, today they are widely available in a variety of styles, colors and finishes from modern to traditional and everything in between. In some cases, adding a stylish insert with matching surround and glass doors can give your fireplace an updated look without spending thousands of dollars on a complete custom fireplace.
Style is a always a personal choice, but choosing a fireplace insert that matches the décor, materials, colors and textures in your room is easy with so many models on the market today. Metal finishes include stainless steel, brass or another gold-toned metal finish, painted finishes from neutral black or dark brown to white, off white or even a brighter color finish like burnt orange or cobalt blue.
The easiest way to add accent color to your fireplace is to use materials such as ceramic tiles to give your insert and surround a custom look. Natural stone, wood or brick will also work well if you decide to build a custom surround and hearth around your fireplace insert.
For ease of installation, many fireplace inserts include options to easily add the surround and mantle of your choice, in which case a custom hearth and surround are not needed.
Fireplace Insert Heating Efficiency
Older wood-burning fireplaces often have an efficiency rating as low as only 5 or 10 percent. Adding an insert can increase efficiency by 50 percent or more, while reducing emissions to almost zero!
By enclosing the combustion area, an insert allows the fuel to burn more slowly, increasing the amount of heat output and greatly improving heating efficiency. Most units also include a blower or fan to further enhance heat output and comfort inside the living space.
Fireplace Insert Features and Characteristics
Types of Inserts – Categorized by fuel type; natural gas, liquid propane, EPA certified wood, wood by-products or pellets and coal.
Fireplace Insert Size – Units range from small to quite big, depending on the size and shape of the fireplace opening; be sure to measure the height, width and depth of the opening and also at the back of the opening, as well as the size and depth of the hearth.
Fireplace Insert Applications – These units are designed to be installed inside an existing fireplace with a chimney.
Insert Venting Options – Depending on the fuel used, may work directly through the existing chimney or may require either a direct vent or vent free venting system. The chimney liner is another factor; not all liners are suitable for all fuels, so check with your manufacturer.
Fireplace Insert Materials and Fabrication – Units are made of cast iron or steel, doors use self-cleaning glass, fans and blowers are optional, along with options such as remote control flame regulators and thermostatic controls.
Insert Styles – Fuel choice may determine some aspects of design, but most models are available in many styles, finishes and colors.
Fireplace Insert Installation Tips
- In most cases it is advisable to consider having your fireplace insert professionally installed by a licensed contractor or installer.
- If you do decide to install your own fireplace insert, be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully and consult with them if you have any questions. In some areas, a building permit may be required, so check your local building codes first.
- The installation must be airtight and oftentimes adjustments are needed to give the flame a realistic appearance.
- Since you still have a chimney, you will need regular inspections and chimney cleaning as with any traditional masonry or factory-built fireplace chimney.
Factoring Fireplace Insert Cost Savings
To determine your savings and return on investment of buying a fireplace insert:
- Add together the costs for the fireplace insert, delivery, installation; your total up front investment cost.
- Calculate the projected annual fuel and maintenance costs moving forward (lower costs once insert is installed).
- Subtract the new annualized cost figure from the previous annual expense to calculate annualized savings.
- Divide the up front costs by the annualized savings to calculate how long it will take to recoup your investment.
Fireplace insert savings calculation example:
- Up front cost = $1,000
- New projected annual fuel and maintenance cost = $300
- Historical annual fuel and maintenance cost = $500
- Net annualized savings = $500 – $300 = $200
- Time to recover costs = $1,000 / $200 = 5 Years