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Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts Buyer's Guide

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts Buyer's Guide

Considering a wood burning fireplace insert, but not sure where to start? Here's what you need to know about wood burning fireplace inserts, often also called a wood stove insert, wood burning stove insert, or wood burning insert. In this article, we'll go over different wood fireplace insert model options, what you need for installation, brand recommendations, and care and maintenance tips. But first, let's clear up a common confusion with fireplaces and fireplace inserts.

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts

Wood Burning Fireplace vs. Wood Burning Fireplace Insert

Oh, the joys of terminology. The biggest area of confusion when it comes to fireplaces versus fireplace inserts comes down to the difference between how the average person describes the different types of fireplaces and the technical terms used to categorize them. If you spend any amount of time probing the web for fireplace inserts, you may run across a number of terms, including wood stove insert, wood fireplace insert, or wood burning insert. Yet, all of these terms reference the same type of appliance. If you prefer to use wood logs for fuel, the information you'll want to know boils down to the differences between a wood burning fireplace and a wood burning fireplace insert.

What is a Wood Burning Fireplace?

Technically speaking, a wood burning fireplace is a structural opening in a wall that is designed to burn wood logs. It can be built using stone, brick, or any other veneer. Or, it can be a factory-built firebox constructed from metal and installed into a framed opening in the wall or a framed enclosure.

People often confuse the prefabricated fireplace boxes with fireplace inserts. After all, you insert the box into the opening in your wall. But, in reality, these factory-built boxes are just plain fireplaces.

What is a Wood Burning Fireplace Insert?

Wood fireplace inserts, often called a wood stove insert, are essentially legless stoves that are inserted into an existing fireplace. These are manufactured structures designed to transform low-efficiency, open-faced fireplaces into highly-efficient heating sources. Unlike factory-built fireplaces, a wood stove insert is not designed to be installed into a framed wall on its own.

A wood burning fireplace insert must be used in a properly rated manufactured fireplace or masonry fireplace. An outer frame called a surround helps cover the gap between the edges of the insert and the fireplace. Depending on the installation, a flexible liner may be needed to resize the larger flue of the fireplace chimney. This is because the greater efficiency of the fireplace insert makes for lower flue gas temperatures; thus, a smaller flue is needed for the insert to operate correctly.

So, now you know the difference. A wood burning fireplace is simply a masonry or prefabricated firebox that serves as a combustion chamber for wood. But, a wood fireplace insert is really more of a pedestal-free stove designed to fit inside an existing fireplace, which explains why so many people call them a wood stove insert.

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts

Why Should You Consider A Wood Burning Fireplace Insert?

The short answer is better heating efficiency and potentially lower costs on your energy bill. Although the open look of a traditional fireplace is appealing, you pay a steep price in heat loss. A wood stove insert features a compact, closed combustion chamber with blower fans that generate more radiant, even-flowing heat while using less fuel and less room air.

An open-faced wood burning fireplace pulls air from the room into the firebox and pushes excess air up the chimney while operating. This means a significant amount of the heat produced by the burning logs is whisked away before it ever heats your room.

In contrast, fireplace inserts typically use only 5 to 15 percent of the air volume of an open fireplace. Some models even offer a combustion air kit that allows air to be pulled into the unit from the outdoors. This makes them highly efficient. They can operate for several hours on a single load of firewood. No more blazing through stacks of firewood as you try to keep the room warm!

Another feature that contributes to heat efficiency is the smaller firebox. Although fireplace inserts have a viewing window to see some of that cozy fire, they need a compact firebox to maintain a hot, efficient fire. Some models are capable of exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit at the core of the fire. This translates to a much hotter appliance that radiates lots of warmth without devouring wood and wasting heat up the chimney.

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts

Yet, other aspects that contribute to the heating efficiency of wood fireplace inserts are blowers or fans. These components come standard with fireplace inserts. Yes, a blower requires a little extra forethought to provide electrical power to the unit. But, the fan circulates the heat from the fire throughout your room for a steady, even heat.

How Do Fireplace Inserts Meet EPA Standards?

In the case of wood burning fireplace inserts, more efficient heat means cleaner heat. As with wood stoves, a wood burning stove insert is subject to EPA efficiency standards. The current EPA regulations, phase III, require that all new stoves produce less than 4.5 grams of smoke pollution per hour. The new regulations, phase IV, scheduled for May 2020 will require less than 2.5 grams per hour.

These standards are able to be met with a wood stove insert through the use of several technologies. Carefully placed air tubes bathe the fire in oxygen, creating a hot and steady flame. The design of the firebox also ensures that hot gases have greater residence time before being pulled away to the chimney or chimney liner.

Old wood burning fireplaces emit 30-60 grams of smoke pollution per hour, depending on whether you burn soft or hardwood.

If you are sensitive to smoke or concerned about air pollution, a wood burning fireplace insert is an excellent alternative. Click here for more information about EPA emissions standards for wood stoves and wood stove inserts.

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts

Types Of Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts

There are two main types of wood burning fireplace inserts: catalytic and non-catalytic.

Non-Catalytic Wood Fireplace Insert

This is the most common type of wood burning fireplace insert. Instead of a catalyst, these models feature ceramic baffles, firebricks, or vermiculite board. These components seal off most of the top of the burn chamber, leaving only a small space for smoke particles to escape to the vent system. Small air injection tubes provide oxygen to the fire. They also push smoke particles back into the fire to be burned again, minimizing smoke pollution.

Catalytic Wood Fireplace Insert

While more common in wood stoves, there are still several models of the catalytic wood fireplace insert on the market. Instead of baffles, a catalytic fireplace insert uses a catalytic combustor to reignite the smoke particles. Catalysts are often shaped like a honeycomb and coated with a metal. They react with the smoke particles, reigniting them to produce water vapor and heat. Reigniting the smoke particles in this way results in less smoke overall. It also lowers the ignition temperature, meaning that it takes less heat to start and maintain the fire.

Catalytic inserts often use a basic air recirculation system. It is similar to the non-catalytic models but less complex. The air recirculation system keeps the fire well supplied with air and cuts down on soot and ash buildup.

For more information on catalytic and non-catalytic technology, you can reference our article on wood burning stoves. Wood burning fireplace inserts with catalytic and non-catalytic features function just like wood stoves.

How Do I Choose A Fireplace Insert?

Now that you know the basics of a wood burning fireplace insert and its operation and design, it's time to discuss how to make the correct selection for your fireplace. Fireplace inserts are rated by BTU output and efficiency, with many manufacturers specifying the optimal amount of space you can expect to heat.

Before settling on a model, it's important to take measurements of the existing fireplace the insert will be installed into. Using a tape measure, document the front width and height of your fireplace opening. Next, measure the depth and the back width of the opening. Lastly, check to see if the back of your fireplace slopes forward. If so, note the minimum depth at the top of the fireplace.

With these numbers in hand, you will be able to seek out a fireplace insert to meet your needs. Remember, bigger is not always better. Choose a wood stove insert that is designed to heat only the area you require. Selecting an insert that is too large or too small can leave you dissatisfied with your purchase.

You will soon discover that while most fireplace openings are tapered, fireplace inserts are not. The width is usually the same or nearly the same from front to back. Most models of wood burning fireplace inserts will also offer at least two sizes of surrounds to cover the space between the edges of the fireplace insert and the fireplace opening. Be sure to not only select a wood stove insert that will fit into your opening but also purchase a surround that will completely cover the opening of the fireplace.

Whether you are installing a wood fireplace insert into a masonry or prefabricated fireplace, it is also important to take venting into mind. Be certain that there is adequate space to install a liner between the flue collar of the fireplace insert and the damper area of the fireplace itself. Some masonry fireplaces will have thicker lintel areas than others or a narrow smoke chamber. It may be necessary to modify the fireplace structurally in some cases to make room for the venting. If questions arise during the selection process, our helpful NFI certified technicians can assist in making a selection.

How To Install A Wood Burning Fireplace Insert

After selecting a wood burning fireplace insert rated for use with your existing fireplace, consider the installation process. For fireplace inserts, installation occurs in four phases: planning, prep work, installation, and inspection. While the process differs slightly when installing a fireplace insert into a masonry fireplace versus a manufactured fireplace, it's essential to comply with local codes and regulations.

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts

Installing a Wood Fireplace Insert into a Masonry Fireplace

Since masonry fireplaces are constructed on-site, there is not a specific agency that regulates them. That means there are no specific rules that govern the use of a fireplace insert in a masonry fireplace.

Instead, you should check with your local authorities to see if any regulations apply. If so, you'll want to know the modifications that must be made when installing a fireplace insert. You could locate information from your town code office or county fire department. In some cases, you must use a dedicated combustion air kit. In others, you must completely remove the damper from the fireplace.

After checking to ensure that you meet all your local code regulations, it's time to prep your fireplace for an insert. You'll need to make room for the insert. So, identify a suitable power supply for the circulating fan, and install the proper liner for the venting system.

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts

Preparing the Site — If the fireplace has a gas log lighter, you must remove it. You'll also need to cap off the gas supply and seal it with a high-temperature rated pipe thread sealant.

You may also need to grind down uneven stones or bricks around the fireplace opening. This provides a smooth surface to place the surround flush against the fireplace.

Power Outlets — As mentioned earlier, these units come standard with a circulating fan. Since most of the insert is contained inside the firebox behind the metal surround, the fan keeps heat from becoming trapped in the firebox.

The fan requires a 120-volt power supply. So, decide if it is feasible to install an outlet in the back of your fireplace. Are you content with having the power cord routed along the side of the hearth to a nearby wall outlet? This comes down to whether or not you are willing to spend extra to have an outlet bored into the masonry to hide the outlet and cord out of sight.

Chimney Liners — Installing the correct liner is vital for the safety and function of your fireplace insert. While some gas fireplaces use aluminum liners, wood-burning fireplace inserts require stainless steel liners. Typical grades offered are 304, 316, and 316Ti, with each grade having higher heat tolerance than the previous one.

Most modern fireplace inserts use a 6-inch diameter flue collar with the option of either a flexible or rigid liner system. The fireplace insert will always draft best if you install a complete liner. That is one that runs from the flue collar of the insert to the top of the chimney.

If the chimney is small or in an interior wall, you might be fine with only a short length of liner. A short length should be enough to bridge the gap between the insert and the first clay flue tile in the chimney. As a rule of thumb, you can utilize a partial liner if your interior chimney flue is no more than three times the area of the fireplace insert's flue collar or has an exterior chimney no more than two times the area of the insert's flue collar.

To install the liner, it is almost always necessary to remove the metal damper at the base of the chimney. You can usually just lift the damper out. But, there are also specialty adapters that allow a liner section to pass through the damper if removing it proves too difficult.

Installing A Wood Fireplace Insert Into A Manufactured Fireplace

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts

Unfortunately, it is often much more difficult to match a wood burning fireplace insert with a suitable manufactured fireplace. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The height of the opening in a manufactured fireplace is usually shorter than a masonry fireplace. This limits the models of fireplace inserts that can be installed.
  • Many manufacturers explicitly forbid the use of fireplace inserts. Or, they significantly restrict the use of them to a limited number of approved models.
  • It can be difficult to find an insert that has a flue collar that overlaps the flue opening of the fireplace itself. The two collars must overlap so that the flexible or rigid vent liner can be installed.

In addition to these limitations, you must consider the same power requirements for the fan and the removal of any gas log lighters.

What are Some Top Brands for Fireplace Inserts?

To help you in selecting the perfect fireplace insert for your home, we've compiled a list of some of the industry's finest brands.

Osburn — Manufactured in a state-of-the-art facility in Quebec City, Canada, the Osburn brand of fireplace inserts offers a broad range of wood burning fireplace inserts. They offer cutting-edge modern designs to time-tested traditional styles. Their product line also includes door overlays and surrounds. This means that there is always an Osburn fireplace insert to meet your needs.

Buck — One of the few crossover wood-burning product lines on the market is offered by Buck Stove. An early pioneer of wood stove technology, Buck products are very modular. You can configure them to serve as either a free-standing wood stove or a fireplace insert. Simple and robust, their products are designed to endure.

Napoleon — Among some of the longest-running designs on the market are Napoleon wood-burning inserts. Having nearly perfected their designs early, Napoleon tends to make small changes to their inserts. Doing it this way allows them to keep the core unit that has worked so well for years. This also makes for a very stable product offering that is familiar to many and loved by even more.

Vermont Castings — A well-respected name in the hearth industry, Vermont Castings makes high-quality wood burning fireplace inserts. They may be small, but the quality is second to none. Their units feature beautiful cast iron door overlays, surrounds, and special details that add charm to any home.

Regency — Another well-known brand, this manufacturer offers a good mixture of plate steel and cast iron fireplace inserts. The company provides a wide range of styling and sizing options for customers. Many models blend the high efficiency offered by modern technology with the charm and design of an older insert. It's easy to see why this brand has maintained a healthy lineup of products over the years.

How Will Your Fireplace Insert Ship?

Because of their weight, fireplace inserts ship via LTL freight. The units, along with their required surrounds, are usually wrapped in plastic and screwed down to a shipping pallet. This prevents movement, keeping all the small parts in place during transit.

The freight companies will contact you directly to set up the date and time for a delivery appointment. When taking delivery, make sure to thoroughly inspect the shipment right away to ensure that nothing is damaged and that all the parts are there. If you do find a missing part or damages, contact the manufacturer right away to arrange for warranty replacements.

How To Clean A Fireplace Insert

Want to keep your fireplace insert happy and healthy for years to come? Follow these tips to give your appliance all the care it needs to stay in top working order. Start by reading the owner's manual for specific cleaning instructions. Next, use the correct type and amount of fuel to prevent overfiring. Last, have your chimney inspected every year.

  • Read the owner's manual carefully. This should go without saying, but reading the manual is critical when it comes to the safety and care of your fireplace insert—don't skip it! You'll likely find helpful advice for minor troubleshooting issues when operating your fireplace insert as well as maintenance instructions tailored to your specific model.
  • Have your fireplace insert and chimney inspected once a year by a professional. Not only is this a safety precaution, but it also saves you money by catching any problems before they cause more damage.
  • Use the right fuel. Follow the recommendations for what wood to burn in your fireplace insert. And, keep in mind that seasoned firewood burns more efficiently and creates less ash. (You can read more about sourcing firewood here.) Never burn trash.
  • Don't let the fire get too hot. Fireplace inserts are designed to create lots of efficient heat, but misuse can result in too hot of a fire that damages the insert and could ruin it. Overloading the firebox and operating the fireplace insert with the door open are two common causes of overfiring. So, your best bet is to follow all the instructions in the manual to maintain a proper temperature.
  • Follow the cleaning instructions to remove the ash on a regular basis.

Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts


Now that we've covered the ins and outs of fireplace insert types, installation, brand recommendations, and maintenance, you should be well on your way to finding the perfect option for your home. As always, if you have any questions, our NFI Certified Specialists are more than happy to help. Feel free to contact us and we will be glad to assist you.

About the Author

Collin Champagne

With over 13 years in the industry, Collin is a National Fireplace Institute (NFI) certified technician and managed content for the eFireplacestore and eCanopy brands. He has achieved the highest NFI certification possible as a Master Hearth Professional and is certified in all three hearth appliance fields: wood, gas, and pellet. With experience with sales and in-field installations, his expertise shines through his technical knowledge and way with words.

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