Efficient fireplace inserts

Up in smoke

They look great but that homey glow real fires produce sends heat right up the chimney as the fire sucks warm air from the rest of the house.

“Ninety-five percent of the heat is lost,” said Prof Kevin Eigel, who studies energy use in homes. “The rest of the house gets cold even while it’s warm right around the fireplace.”

Fortunately, homeowners have more options than ever to get more use and heat from the fireplace.

Options range from a simple blower system that costs less than $1,000 to wood-burning inserts that can cost more than $5,000 but can heat an entire home.

Homeowners seeking to add some heat to their fireplace must start with two choices: Do they want an insert? And what fuel do they prefer?

Fireplace inserts are essentially steel boxes lined with ceramic or brick that fit into fireplace openings and use the existing fireplace flue (with a liner inserted down the chimney). Such inserts ordinarily use one of three fuels: wood, gas or compressed-wood pellets.

Heat from the insert gathers in chambers around the fire and is typically sent into the room with a blower.

Although inserts ordinarily produce more heat than other options, they cost substantially more because of the material involved and the labor required to install them.

Homeowners who don’t want the expense of inserts have two options: blowers that rest in the fireplace and send heat into the room; or vent-free gas logs.

Although each option presents practical considerations, some of the choices are driven by aesthetics. Wood might be preferred by those who like the idea of providing their own fuel.

Gas, on the other hand, offers a wide range of looks and sizes, from sleek contemporary models that “burn” rocks or glass crystals to ones that resemble wood burners.

“These are very realistic compared to 20 years ago,” said Pete Morris, who opened Aspen Fireplace & Patio on the North Side in 1988.

Gas also offers convenience of use, which helps explain why about 70 percent of the almost 1 million fireplaces and fireplace inserts installed in the United States last year were gas-fueled, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.

“People want to walk in, turn it on, and turn it off when they’re done,” said Harold Wagner, a fireplace salesman and installer at Scioto Valley in Hilliard.

The newest flames in the fireplace belong to pellet inserts and vent-free systems.

Pellet-burning fireplaces haven’t caught on as much in Ohio because of the abundance of wood and natural gas but remain popular in other parts of the country and in Europe.

Vent-free systems, however, have grown enormously in popularity, driven by their ease of installation and the fact that they require no chimney.

Although vent-free systems have been approved for use by the federal government, concerns about carbon-monoxide buildup have led some states, such as California, to ban them. All vent-free logs come with oxygen-depletion systems that shut off the fuel line if oxygen levels drop to a certain point. In addition, manufacturers and retailers recommend installing carbon-monoxide detectors in any room that uses the logs.

Vent-free systems come with other drawbacks. The burned-dust smell can be annoying to some, and vent-free systems can produce a lot of humidity, which can be a problem in tightly insulated homes.

“If you have a brand-new house, you probably don’t want to go vent-free,” Wagner said. “You will literally wet the walls.”

Before installing any product, even vent-free ones, experts recommend cleaning and inspecting the fireplace to ensure that it can handle the use.

Most inserts, either gas or wood, are designed to fit horizontal fireplace openings, although a handful of gas insert options are available for owners of older homes with small vertical fireplaces.

Insert options

Gas insert

Natural gas powers the flame in these inserts, which are vented through a liner in the fireplace chimney. The flames dance around artificial logs, although glass, rocks and other materials can be used. In most systems, homeowners control the flame and blower with a remote control.

Cost range: $2,500 to $5,000

Pros: efficient; easy to use; provides instant and steady heat; offers a variety of looks

Cons: fuel cost; lacks “real-fire” look; produces less heat than wood

Wood-burning insert

Although similar in installation to a gas insert, a wood-burning insert usually requires removing the existing flue to accommodate a liner through the chimney. Heat is regulated by controlling air into the burn chamber. Although flush-mount wood-burning inserts are available, the most efficient units jut out of the fireplace into the living area to allow more surface to throw off heat.

Cost range: $3,000 to $6,000

Pros: inexpensive fuel; generates high heat

Cons: requires monitoring; damper must be removed; heat can’t be instantly adjusted; more visible than other options; exposed surface extremely hot

Pellet-fueled insert

Similar to gas- and wood-burning inserts, these use compressed-wood pellets for fuel. The pellets are automatically dropped into a small flame depending on how much heat is sought. Like wood-burners, most units jut out of the fireplace into the living area.

Cost range: $4,000 to $6,000

Pros: clean burning; an easy-to-manage fuel source

Cons: fuel cost and availability; requires electricity (can’t be used during power outage); small flame

Non-insert options

Blower system

There are two primary variations of blowers, the “poor man’s insert.” One system blows warm air out of tubes that serve as a grate. The other relies on a heat-gathering tube placed at the bottom of a fireplace, under glass fireplace doors. At one end of the tube is a blower that kicks heat into the room while the glass doors help keep warm air in the home from vanishing up the chimney.

Cost range: $500 to $1,500

Pros: inexpensive; simple installation

Cons: doesn’t produce as much heat as inserts; heat can still be lost up the chimney

Unvented gas logs

These logs burn at 99.99 percent efficiency, requiring no venting. They are installed like conventional gas logs but used with the flue closed. They can generate so much heat around the fireplace that experts caution against using them if you have a wooden mantel or a television above the fireplace. Vent-free logs can also be installed with fireplace inserts, which allow blowers to add to their efficiency.

Cost range: $750 to $1,500

Pros: inexpensive; can be installed in any opening; venting isn’t required

Cons: produces moisture; can produce odor; extended use requires opening window; less-realistic flame than vented gas logs; requires carbon-monoxide detector; produces heat around opening

Note: Costs are for installed product, which might include $300 to $500 for running a gas line.


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