A fireplace is only about 15% efficient, in contrast, a fireplace insert can be installed into an existing wood-burning masonry fireplace and by doing so it becomes up to 80% efficient, this being one of the important benefits of a wood-burning insert.
So I decided to write about this topic because there are hundreds of options for wood-burning appliances that look and work great, they are all used to burn wood but have some district differences that you may want to take into consideration.
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So you may be asking what are the differences between a wood-burning fireplace and a wood-burning insert?
Today I will answer that question and help you to decide if a wood-burning insert is right for you.
Whether you want to install a new wood-burning appliance in a new home or you are replacing an old or damaged one, whatever the case this article will help you decide by answering real questions homeowners have like:
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Wood-burning fireplace vs Wood-burning fireplace insert?
Let’s start off by talking about the different key differences between these two wood-burning appliances and in this way give you a better idea of what you are looking for in your home.
What is a masonry fireplace?
Open fireplaces, the first and most common type is the traditional masonry fireplace built with a cement block shell, a firebrick interior, and a metal upper damper to control the airflow, many people will cover the outside with various materials like stones, brick, tile, etc.
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Masonry fireplaces can have a metal or brick firebox inside and some of the newer designs are made of formed concrete pieces for a modern look, a great example of this is the belfries fireplace one of my personal favorites but I’ll talk deeper about them in another post.
Depending on the home an architect that works together with a certified chimney technician can come up with some beautiful designs and functional Ideas for your fireplace.
What is a factory-built fireplace?
The second type of fireplace is called a factory build fireplace sometimes referred to as a zero clearance fireplace, but that name doesn’t really represent it well, because each manufacturer stipulates on their labels and in their manual the clearances to combustibles like wood, drywall, or anything that can catch fire if it is installed to close so it is fitted with metal standoffs that stop it from touching anything combustible.
A factory-built fireplace is a metal fireplace with an open front that can be installed inside a wood-framed compartment or chase in the house and does not need masonry as protection, because it is already built inside of a protective insulated surround thus being able to be in close proximity of combustibles.
It also has its own metal chimney specific to each model or brand, some chimneys that are installed with a factory build fireplace are air-cooled, having two layers in them and an air space to cool the chimney as air rises.
Factory-built fireplaces always come with integrated damper control, and a perfectly proportioned chimney size and some even have integrated fans or blowers to move air around the firebox and out into the room, giving you a little more comfort.
The chimney on these units fits inside the chase leading to the roof from the interior or exterior of the house, both types of fireplaces Masonry or Factory-built are very common in modern homes, factory-built fireplaces have become more popular over the years because of their ease of installation for builders.
What is a wood-burning fireplace Insert?
Now a wood-burning fireplace insert is very different from the first two options because it is more like a wood stove, but it is essentially a wood stove you install inside of a traditional masonry fireplace.
So the wood-burning insert is built to be installed inside of a masonry fireplace, and depending on the size of your firebox and chimney size you then will be able to choose the insert you want to install.
Now there are some models that can be installed inside a factory-built fireplace, but it is not very common, and if you decide to go this route your options are very slim with only a few very small inserts that will fit inside the firebox and are rated to function inside one.
On the other hand, if you have a masonry fireplace you can install almost any insert in it that will fit.
Before choosing an insert to install you need to take into consideration the extra cost of a stainless steel liner, the needs to be connected to the top of the unit and needs to travel all the way out to the top of your chimney, forming one continuous pipe containing smoke.
If you need more help understanding the cost of a liner you can take a look at my in-depth article on The cost of a stainless steel liner.
Most modern appliances have a glass door with an airtight door gasket and an airtight firebox with air intake controls to regulate the wood consumption and heat output, wood-burning fireplace inserts use your existing masonry chimney with a stainless steel flexible or rigid liner, and most modern-day wood inserts use a six-inch liner as the standard size.
Which wood-burning appliance is more efficient?
This really is a great question because for most homeowners heat and efficiency are what they are looking for in a wood-burning appliance, but which one really produces the most heat?
Fireplace insert efficiency
Well, The wood-burning fireplace Insert will always win and I’ll explain why, an insert is airtight so it only allows enough air into the firebox to burn the wood slowly, and in most cases, it’s much hotter because it radiates that heat through its metal box, it’s burning cycle is a lot slower using much less wood making it up to 80% efficient.
Many people that heat their homes with a wood insert fill the firebox before bed, that amount of wood in most modern stoves should last all night and still have hot coals in the morning which can be used to stoke a new fire in the morning without any difficulty.
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Open fireplace efficiency
Now if you try the same thing with an open fireplace, using the same amount of wood it may only last a few hours because most modern open fireplaces are only 15% efficient and older units are around 10% efficient.
A fireplace insert blower adds efficiency
Now another great feature is that most modern wood-burning inserts have a built-in blower that pulls air in from the bottom or sides of the unit and pushes it over the top of the unit moving the maximum amount of air possible and taking advantage of the stove-radiated heat.
When an insert or a free-standing wood-burning stove has a blower I think of it as amplifying the heat or I always say… it really makes a small fire big, or we could say almost doubles its heat potential because this also helps distribute the heat to different areas of your home which can drastically lower your heating bill.
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What is better a fireplace insert or a fireplace?
The truth is that open fireplaces are not as efficient as a wood insert but, to be honest, it all comes down to what your expectations are, and you can ask yourself before installing one, Am I planning to heat my house with the unit?
If so a fireplace isn’t for you because what it really does is keep you warm when you are close to the unit and as soon as you move away from it you feel cold and the rest of the house becomes cold because the air is being pulled out of the house and it is going right up the chimney and causing you to spend more money in your heating bill each month.
Let’s say that’s not a problem for you because what you really want is an ambiance that is second to none, maybe you love entertaining guests, or just love the smell, sound, and look of an open fire, then an open fireplace is for you, there is nothing like sitting in front of an open fireplace with a glass of wine and some good friends and there’s almost nothing more relaxing on a cold night in my opinion.
Should I buy a used fireplace Insert?
So I think this is an important point because as an installer and inspector, I have a lot of people ask me if it’s worth it to buy a used fireplace insert, and I honestly think that it is but there are a few factors you need to look at before you do this.
If you are looking to buy a used fireplace insert you could look on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or even your local classified ads.
Take a look at the information below before you buy one to guide you through the process.
Look for the fireplace insert Certification Lable
The first thing you need to look at is the label located on the back of the stove it’s normally black in color and has the certification (UL) or (WH) etc. these are some of the companies that do certification tests on wood burning appliances to see if they meet certification and safety standards in the USA and Canada.
To see more on this take a look at my post on Uncertified wood burning stoves
The label also specifies the clearances to combustibles which are very important to know before you buy something used, remember you are installing this wood insert into a pre-existing fireplace and you need to know things like the size of your hearth, the distance of your mantel, the distance of a combustible floor in front of the appliance, etc. and the label located on the back of the unit tells you all of those things.
What this label means is that the appliance is certified and can be insured if installed to the specification stated on it, some of the details of installation are on this label like clearances to combustibles, chimney size, etc.
The label also gives us information on whether the fireplace wood insert will fit inside the existing fireplace cavity with dimensions of length, height, and depth, so remember all wood inserts require a stainless steel solid continuous liner from top to bottom of the flue and this is installed inside you existing clay tile flue.
If when you look at a used insert it doesn’t have a certification label on it, it will be considered an uncertified wood-burning appliance, and you really should steer clear of it and buy something else.
The reason for this is that an uncertified stove will need very large clearances to combustibles for example 4 feet in any direction among other complicated installation problems.
Also, they are not EPA certified and which means they are not inefficient and you will consume much more wood than a modern stove, because what you are really looking for is fireplace insert efficiency.
How old is the fireplace insert?
Now the label states something else of great importance that you need to look out for when buying a used wood insert, one of the most important specifications on the certification label is the year it was built.
Now the year is important when buying a used wood insert because if it’s 30 years old or more it’s reaching its life expectancy depending on the amount of usage. Another possible problem is that manufacturers every so many change components slightly so that older stoves become obsolete and it becomes harder and harder to find parts when needed.
stay away from any wood burning appliances 15 years old or more, unless the owner hasn’t used them much.
Can you still buy parts for the Fireplace insert?
Also one of the most important factors in buying any appliance is parts availability because the last thing you want is to need a replacement part that’s not available and have to order it from Germany, England, or from another faraway country, this can be a real headache for any homeowner, sorry that wasn’t an attack on Germany or England because they could say the same thing about stoves from Canada or the United States.
Is the fireplace insert EPA Approved?
Always take into consideration that the appliance is (EPA certified) this is the “Environmental protection agency”, what this means is that the appliance is in compliance with this agency’s standards for the environment and emissions which for most homeowners is very important, and for the most part modern wood inserts live up to this standard.
What is the difference between a fireplace and a wood-burning fireplace insert?
A wood-burning insert fits inside an open masonry fireplace and it is an airtight unit similar to a wood-burning stove.
Which one produces more heat and is most efficient?
A wood-burning insert produces much more heat and is more efficient than an open fireplace, generally, inserts can be up to 80% more efficient than a fireplace.
How to buy a used fireplace insert?
To buy a used wood insert the most important thing to look for is a certification label, which is generally situated on the back of the unit, this label will guide you on clearances to combustibles, and it will also allow you to buy home insurance, my recommendation is never to buy a unit that doesn’t have this label.
What do I need to install a fireplace insert?
You will need a stainless steel liner kit found here, this will come with everything you need, remember to measure the height of your chimney to get the right size.
So if you are looking for a new wood insert and you are in the market for one just remember you get what you pay for, but everyone’s budget is different and no matter if you are installing a new factory-built fireplace in your home or you are looking to put a new or used wood insert in your existing concrete or cement block fireplace, take the time to weigh out your options and look at what is most important for your family and what will bring you the most joy for years to come.
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