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Wood Burning Fireplaces Buyer's Guide

Wood Burning Fireplaces Buyer's Guide

So you love the aesthetic of a wood fire, but maybe don't have the ability to install a full masonry fireplace? Or, perhaps you need to upgrade your masonry wood burning fireplace to be more efficient?

Wood Burning Fireplaces

Despite changing EPA regulations and increasing interest in energy efficiency, wood burning fireplaces still occupy a large percentage of annual hearth sales in the U.S. and Canada. The appeal of a wood fire and progress towards better efficiency makes wood burning fireplaces relevant and valuable choices for many homeowners today.

A prefabricated wood burning fireplace is a good choice for your needs! eFireplaceStore has a wide selection of these high-quality fireplaces for you to choose from.

Before You Buy

To understand this category of fireplaces, you must know what prefabricated means. This is a fancy term that means manufacturers build the fireplaces in a factory offsite.

The larger group of factory-built fireplaces are sheet metal or steel models. These units require the use of fasteners, seams, or welds during their construction. They consist of a special "drop-in" design, allowing for an easier installation.

There's a smaller segment of the market that is closer in style to a true masonry fireplace. These are called modular masonry fireplaces. They are manufactured from individual blocks or sections of refractory cement. To construct them, you can either stack or interlock the modular pieces together. Many people choose to finish them off with firebrick. This gives them an authentic look of a masonry fireplace at a lower cost.

Another category includes the closed-combustion wood burning fireplaces. These models resemble a wood stove more than a masonry fireplace. They consist of gasketed and sealed doors to enclose the firebox. This construction limits air consumption, making them more efficient than their open-faced siblings.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

This category of fireplaces includes both EPA compliant and non-EPA compliant options. If you live in a region that follows EPA standards, you'll want to search for EPA-compliant models. To learn more about EPA compliance for your wood burning fireplace, please read our article on EPA Emissions.

Leading Brands

These are some of the brands most well known for their presence in the hearth industry.

Napoleon — Since 1981, Napoleon has offered a wide range of wood-burning appliances, including fireplaces. The current NZ lineup of fireplaces includes traditional and clean-view models. Traditional units feature statement-making iron and steel facades. And clean-view versions are highly efficient with superior aesthetics.

Osburn — Manufactured in Quebec City, Canada, this brand falls within the SBI parent brand. Osburn specializes in the build of wood-heating appliances. Osburn incorporates superior steel and ceramics into every product. The company uses automated CNC technology to ensure consistent build quality. While this means Osburn is more costly than other brands, they are built to last.

Superior — A member of the Innovative Hearth Products brand, Superior wood burning fireplaces offer great diversity and value. Their units come in a range of sizes. You can find compact wood burning fireplaces ideal for corner installations. Or, you can choose cavernous open-faced units that tie the whole room together. No matter your choice, Superior has a long heritage of producing durable units.

Majestic — Since the 1970s, Majestic fireplaces have undergone quite a few updates and changes. Yet, one thing has stayed the same. That is their commitment to manufacturing attractive and well-built open-faced fireplace models. Makers of the popular Biltmore series of wood burning fireplaces, they offer one of the best valued "big boxes" on the market.

Types of Wood Burning Fireplaces

There are three main kinds of prefabricated wood burning fireplaces. They fall under two classifications - open-faced models and closed-combustion models. Under the open-faced classification, there are sheet metal models and modular masonry models. The latter classification includes high efficiency closed combustion models. Each type has advantages and disadvantages to consider when you're planning your installation.

Open-Faced Sheet Metal Models

The largest segment of the market, open-to-the-room fireplaces do not need glass doors during operation. Almost every model comes with sliding screens for protection against sparks. And, most manufacturers offer glass doors as options. But, these units are not designed to be airtight, making them the least efficient type.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

The basic design of an open-faced fireplace is a galvanized sheet metal box. It's usually trapezoid in shape with standoffs affixed to the chassis. The standoffs maintain proper clearances to the wooden framing. A second sheet metal firebox sits within the outer chassis to further enhance safety. It's designed as a box within a box to contain the fire in a more protective shield.

In this design, the inner box connects to the outer box through a series of braces and straps. This construction leaves a few inches of space between the boxes. The extra space allows heat to dissipate and keep the outer surface of the firebox cooler. But, you can use a faceplate to conceal the visible gaps between the two boxes.

Because of their design, you can install these fireplaces into a wall cavity framed from dimensional lumber. As stated before, the metal standoffs or spacers maintain proper clearances. The standoffs are most prominent on the top of the unit since heat rises.

The manufacturer will specify dimensions and guidelines for framing the fireplace opening. Once you complete the framing, you can slide the unit into place. You then secure it to the adjacent framing using nailing flanges.

Despite cheaper installation costs, these types of fireplaces are the least efficient. They maximize fire viewing aesthetics, but they do not meet EPA regulations. This means you cannot install them in any state, city, town, or county that follows EPA regulations.

These units are ideal for those seeking light to moderate use in areas that do not enforce EPA standards. Their aesthetic value and charm make these units a compelling option.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

So why are open-faced, wood burning fireplaces so inefficient? This has to do with the science behind how they operate. When burning wood fire, the resulting combustion creates a rising column of flue gases. The gases are much hotter than ambient room temperatures, inducing a force known as a draft.

This mechanism carries the flue gases up the chimney and out of the home. But, without a dedicated air kit, drafting removes heated room air from unsealed areas of the home. This provides a steady supply of combustion air to the unit. This results in the use of more wood fuel with a limited return on heat output. This is what leads to the efficiency challenges of an open fireplace.

Here is another way to understand the operation of open-faced models. While burning, open fireplaces remove what is called "dilution air." This is the air that's pulled into the fireplace due to the negative pressure zone created from the home. The larger the fire, the more air it needs to sustain. This means larger fires result in greater air depletion.

In older homes, this dilution air is suctioned from leaks in the home's envelope. Any doors, windows, attic accesses, recessed lights, etc. that allow air to leak past, will do so. This replacement air is much cooler than indoor temperatures. So, this leads to the feeling of the home getting colder in any room where the fireplace is not located.

As homes have become more energy-efficient, old sources of replacement air are better insulated. New doors and windows create a tighter seal. Modern insulation forms a more effective air barrier. And, modern house wraps prevent most air intrusion. This leads to the need for a dedicated source of combustion air for the fireplace. Having an external air source, however, increases the efficiency of open wood burning fireplaces.

Air Kits

The addition of a combustion air kit on a modern, open-faced fireplace helps with the air loss. Here at eFireplaceStore, we strongly encourage the use of an air kit. These should be used for every open-faced fireplace installation.

Most air kits consist of a 4-inch flexible or rigid duct, a mounting collar for the fireplace, and an exterior hood and screen. Almost all open-faced wood fireplaces sold now have a knockout part. It is located on the outer chassis with a control lever or flap that controls airflow. When installing the fireplace, you must remove the knockout to mount the collar and route the duct to a suitable source of combustion air.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

If you are installing the fireplace on an outside wall, you can route the duct to the side of the home. Installation on an interior wall is more challenging but possible. You would have to route the duct through a basement or crawl space. If your property sits on a slab, you will route the duct up through an attic or through joist space to pull air from the soffit. No matter how you choose to route the combustion air duct, it provides a steady flow of air to the unit. This dedicated air source limits the amount of air pulled from unsealed openings in the home.

Now, recognizing the efficiency benefits, the new ICC code calls for the use of a combustion air duct. Code officials also realized that a combustion air kit prevented smoke leakage issues found in new homes without one.

Wood Fireplace Fronts and Faces

Besides combustion air kits, you can choose either a radiant or circulating type of fireplace.

A radiant or smooth-faced model of a fireplace will have a face that is free of louvers or vents. The face covers the gap between the firebox and the outer chassis of the fireplace. You can cover the smooth face with a noncombustible veneer, such as stone or tile. This gives the fireplace a more custom appearance. And, it makes it look more like a masonry fireplace.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

The other version, a circulating fireplace, will usually have the exact same facing as a radiant model. Yet, the facing will feature louvers, vents, or filigrees cut into the front of the facing. These components promote active air circulation. When burning, the fireplace will draw cooler air settled on the floor of the room near the opening of the fireplace. Some of the air will find its way into the bottom louvers, where it is warmed as it passes between the inner firebox and outer chassis of the fireplace. It will then rise and exit through the top louvers of the fireplace and into the room.

To induce more convection, most circulating fireplaces offer an accessory blower that you can install at the base. Fireplace blowers are a type of rotary fan, making them quiet and reliable. You can switch them on and off as needed, with variable speed options on some models.

Due to the aesthetic nature of these fireplaces, their heating ability is limited, even with a fan. But, many customers report that adding a fan improves the heating of the immediate space. It also induces slow-moving convection of air in the room. This creates a more even heating zone by pulling stagnant hot air away from the ceiling and toward the floor.

Wood Fireplace Doors

Now that we've discussed combustion air and the differences between circulating and radiant, we can move on to doors. There is a lot of misinformation on the use of doors on prefabricated fireplaces and how or when you must use them.

The ICC released a code stating that all new fireplaces had to come equipped with gasketed doors. The vague language used in the code led many consumers to buy doors for their prefabricated masonry fireplaces. But, what many customers and installers did not realize is that this code only applied to masonry fireplaces. Due to the confusion, this code was later repealed with the release of the 2015 ICC publication. While this is not the case today, the use of fireplace doors still raises concerns.

Most open-faced fireplaces offer accessory door assemblies. The bi-fold design, two separate doors that fold using two panels of glass each, is most prevalent. These doors are not designed to be airtight, as they are manufactured from tempered glass. This material requires some airflow for cooling purposes. Yet, you can close accessory doors during the operation of the fireplace to limit airflow.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

We recommend only closing fireplace doors on these units when using a combustion air kit. This helps to ensure the fireplace has adequate combustion air. It also limits the turbulence that can erupt from the rapid suctioning of combustion air through narrow gaps between the glass panes.

If you choose to close your fireplace doors during operation, make sure to keep them open during the first 15 to 20 minutes of the initial burn. Allow the fuel logs to fully engulf to allow gradual radiant heating of the doors. Doing this prevents the likelihood of breakage that can result from thermal shock.

Wood Fireplace Liners

Most open-faced sheet metal models range from 36 inches to 50 inches of opening width. Depending on the series, the height of the opening can range from 20 to 40 inches. The size variances give more options for installation. Likewise, there are various types of firebox liners you can use. Models on the lower end of the price spectrum will use refractory cement liners. These are stamped with a faux brick pattern. Stacked or herringbone panels are common, while colors range from light grey to dark red or brown. These liners protect the metal firebox from corrosion. They also add aesthetic value while absorbing and radiating heat into the room.

On some high-end models, the cast liners are exchanged for authentic firebrick. To complete this look, you'll need a metal panel chassis. The chassis supports the brick and mortar that you'll use in an assembly. When installed, these brick panels do an excellent job imitating the look of a true masonry fireplace.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

Wood Fireplace Venting

Most installers use an air-cooled Class A chimney system to vent an open-faced sheet metal fireplace. This chimney consists of a double or tripled-walled metal pipe system. But, most are proprietary and listed for use with specific fireplace models. To install this system, you'll need a range of components. These parts include pipe lengths, elbows/offsets, braces, roof flashings, and caps. The fireplace itself will include an operable damper. The role of the damper is to limit the amount of air that escapes the chimney when the unit is not in operation.

Our Chimney Pipe Buying Guide can help you select the right chimney pipe parts for your needs.

Another interesting fact to know is that open-faced, wood burning fireplaces are not limited to burning wood. These fireplaces are also equipped to handle a set of vented or vent free gas logs. Almost all sheet metal models will feature a knockout section in the metal chassis and the refractory panels for running a gas line. It is best to install the gas line during the initial installation of the fireplace. During this time, you have the most access to the space around the firebox. When used for wood burning, you can use a gas log lighter to light the wood logs more easily. Of course, this depends on the manufacturer's approval. You'll need to leave the glass doors open when using gas logs. Doing this prevents overheating if using vented logs. And, it allows for room air to circulate better with vent-free logs.

Open-Faced Modular Masonry Models

Open-faced modular masonry models operate much like open-faced prefabricated models. They draft the same with the same ventilation requirements. They call for protective screens during operation, and they can accommodate gas logs. But, they also have differences we need to explore.

Modular masonry factory-built fireplaces are unique in nature. The term "modular masonry" refers to their construction. You build them from individual blocks or "modules" of cement or cast stone "masonry". Highly engineered, each fireplace can consist of 70 or more cast stones or cut stones. These pieces must be assembled in a specific order. The stones are held together by slots, grooves, pins, or gravity. Some applications call for mortar during assembly, but this varies by manufacturer.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

One advantage of open-faced models is their ability to mimic the look of a true masonry fireplace. Not only do they look like the real thing, but they function the same as well. They can match the longevity of a true masonry unit, often at a significantly lower cost.

As with open-faced sheet metal models, you can construct a housing cavity for a modular fireplace using framing lumber. Some people choose to place the unit in front of an existing wall, flanked with built-in shelving. This gives the unit a more custom appearance. Just make sure to follow manufacturer guidelines before making this decision.

Unlike metal units, the insulating properties of cement or stone supply the air space needed to support modular units. Some models are thick enough that no extra space is required around the outside of the units. Others will specify a certain amount of air space.

One large difference is the increased weight of this type of product. Most prefabricated metal fireplaces will weigh less than 200 pounds. But, versions manufactured with firebrick can weigh up to 700 pounds. Modular masonry fireplaces can easily weigh a ton. As such, modular models require structural provisions not needed with a metal fireplace. If building on a conventional foundation, you'll need extra piers and bracing on the floor. For slab foundations, you'll need to pour a thicker footer beneath the fireplace. But, when adding a fireplace, it's good to consult a structural engineer or architect.

Once installed, you have the option to burn wood in many modular masonry models as is. But, an unfinished cement firebox does not appeal to most consumers. An easy solution is to install firebrick within the firebox. This will give the unit a more polished look that mimics the aesthetic of a true masonry fireplace. If installed properly and finished with a matching masonry or stone surround, you can't tell the difference between modular models and real masonry fireplaces. A close examination of the damper area within the fireplace is the only giveaway.

Venting a Modular Masonry Fireplace

Modular masonry models can use either an air-cooled chimney or modular flue sections. The diameter needed for an air-cooled chimney depends on the fireplace model. You'll need a special adapter to vent the fireplace through a metal chimney. While the metal chimney system offers a cheaper solution, it will need framing if enclosed by a chase. It's important to note that framing adds to the labor expenses for the job.

Modular flue sections are extremely durable. You can stack and mortar them together. Then, you can add veneer made from your preferred material directly to them. But, these systems are very heavy and may need extra support. They can be quite costly for tall chimneys, so they may not be right for every application.

Overall, modular masonry fireplaces offer the best of both worlds. They have the same advantages and limitations of their metal counterparts. Their large openings make a statement in any room you choose to install them. Yet, they offer increased durability compared to prefabricated fireplaces. And, they're less costly than a masonry fireplace.

Most people associate modular masonry fireplaces with outdoor fireplace kits. This can be attributed to their design and construction components. Most people prefer modular units for their installation ease and customization options. All you have to do is add your choice of stone or tile to put a personal stamp on them. To gain a deeper understanding of how modular masonry fireplaces work, click here.

Closed-Combustion Wood Burning Fireplace

This last group of wood-burning models is often called "closed combustion", "EPA Fireplaces." Another name for them is "high-efficiency wood burners". While the terms imply similar connotations, there are important differences between them.

No matter their EPA rating or lack thereof, high-efficiency wood burning fireplaces operate much like wood stoves. In fact, they have more in common with wood stoves than they do with open-faced fireplaces. To construct them, manufacturers use varying combinations of sheet metal, plate steel, and cast iron. The sheet metal is used to structure the outer chassis. Plate steel is used to build the upper chassis and fronts. Cast iron is used to make durable door frames, decorative fronts, and overlays. The heavier material absorbs much of the heat and radiates it back into the room.

Closed-combustion fireplaces use a small fraction of room air during operation - 5 to 15 percent of the air used by open-faced units. Most models offer combustion air kits as accessory items, as well. When using a combustion air kit with high-efficiency models, the majority of combustion air comes from outside the home. And, less room air usage is ideal for energy-efficient homes where make-up air is difficult to come by.

One major difference between open and closed-faced fireplaces lies in their fueling capability. Closed-combustion high-efficiency models are designed exclusively for wood burning. You cannot use vented and vent free gas logs inside them like open-faced versions.

Closed-combustion units contain purpose-built air systems and efficiency and emissions control devices. These components combined with their sealed front design contribute to higher operational temperatures. With limited cool air circulation from the room, gas burners and gas logs could overheat.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

Also, high-efficiency fireplaces have a much smaller combustion chamber than open wood burning fireplaces. The small chamber allows the unit to achieve optimal combustion for maximum heat. The design of the fireboxes prevents larger particulate matter from escaping. The combustion process allows all but the smallest ash to recycle into the fire. This, in turn, produces a cleaner burn while extracting the most heat from every piece of wood fuel. Sure, the small combustion chamber and sealed design limit the viewing area of these models. But, high-efficiency fireplaces are far more effective heaters. They are reliable sources of heat, especially during a power outage in the winter.

How High-Efficiency Fireplace Models Heat Your Home

Heat is effectively transferred to the living space through different means. The first is through the use of pyroceramic glass. This type of glass comes standard on fireplace doors. It allows infrared heat to pass into the living space. Another primary source is through a circulating blower. Some manufacturers offer the blowers as a standard fireplace component, others as accessories. While similar in design, circulating blowers emit stronger convection power. They transmit the radiant heat produced from the fireplace quicker and further into the home. In essence, circulating blowers make high-efficiency models even more efficient.

Beyond blower components, you can attach radiant heat ducts or central heating ducts. Heat ducting attaches to specific knockouts on the top or sides of the fireplace. And, it doesn't require electrical power. Instead, the heat ducts collect heat from the chassis of the fireplace. They then direct heat flow into an adjacent space via registers.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

Central heating systems are a step above this. They use a special adapter, flexible ducting, a powerful fan, and a control module to pipe heat to other areas of the home or into a central air furnace. This system can be split to force heat into adjacent spaces of the home or directly into the plenum of a furnace. The splitting allows the HVAC system to heat more effectively when operating, reducing the amount of run time. In turn, it saves you money on your heating bills.

Venting High-Efficiency Wood Fireplaces

When it comes to venting, most of these systems must use a solid insulated Class A chimney. However, you can adapt some models for use with an air-cooled system from an approved manufacturer. You would vent them much like a stove but without stovepipes. So, if you're using a Class A chimney, you must attach it directly to the top of the appliance with an anchor plate. If the manufacturer allows the use of an air-cooled chimney, they will offer an adapter plate to ensure a proper fit.

Lifespans You Can Expect

With proper installation and maintenance, prefabricated wood burning fireplaces can last more than 25 years. But, you must make sure to paint and seal all terminations to prevent water intrusion and corrosion. It is also necessary to avoid burning certain materials. Some of these materials include construction debris, excess paper, greenwood, and softwoods. Burning these types of materials can result in very hot temperatures and overfiring. This could warp the chassis or kink the venting components, shortening their lifespans.

It's important to use these fireplaces with dried medium-to-high-density cordwood. By doing so, you can expect your fireplace to be a statement piece in your home for a long time. However, that doesn't mean you won't have to replace some parts along the way. Replacement parts play a role in the proper maintenance and upkeep of any appliance.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

Open-Faced Sheet Metal Models

The question is what type of parts can you expect to replace? On these fireplace models, you'll replace concrete liners, spark screens, and termination caps.

The concrete panels will begin to break down after 5 to 10 years of use, depending on the frequency of use. They are relatively easy to remove and replace. And, most manufacturers offer replacements for decades after the fireplace is discontinued. There are also a host of generic replacements on the market.

The screens can corrode over their lifespan and often need replacing around the 10-year mark. Again, manufacturers offer replacements. But, there are also many high-quality generic screens on the market.

Between harsh weather conditions and direct contact with flue gases, venting termination caps see the most abuse. These may break down and need replacing every 10 to 15 years. This largely depends on weather patterns in your areas. While manufacturer-specific caps are usually available, universal caps are a good choice.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

Open-Faced Modular Masonry Models

Due to their design, modular units do not require much maintenance. When they do, it's usually a breakdown of the mortar or firebricks. But, this takes decades of use. You can scrape or chisel out mortar and patch repair it as needed. But, you'll need to use refractory mortar when making a repair.

The firebricks can crack and break down, again, usually over the course of decades. Most manufacturers use universal firebrick. So, in this case, the source of replacement does not matter unless you need a unique color.

High-Efficiency Closed Combustion Models

With these, you'll usually need to replace components needed for efficiency.

The baffles or catalysts that make them the most efficient face higher levels of wear and tear. While fairly low in cost, you can expect to replace these parts every 3 to 5 years.

Wood Burning Fireplaces

The door gaskets are the other thing that takes a beating on these fireplaces. These will break down after about 5 years of normal use, but replacements are easy to find. Replacement gaskets from companies such as Rutland are readily available. They only require high-temperature adhesive or retaining brackets, as used by some models.


Receiving your new wood burning fireplace may seem like its a chore in and of itself. Due to the massive weights of these fireplaces, they are only able to be shipped via freight. This means that you'll need to schedule the delivery. You'll also need to have several people present to help get the fireplace in your desired place. Don't forget to take apart the packaging to inspect your new fireplace, too.

Your fireplace will arrive on as many pallets as needed for optimal protection. Manufacturers ship them this way to minimize the risk of damage. Your stone or cement liners will be wrapped separately for their protection. After confirming you have all the required pieces of your shipment, check for damages before signing off on the delivery.

Final Thoughts

A new wood burning fireplace can be an exciting thing. So rest assured that you've made the best choice for your home. If you need help or have any questions or concerns about wood burning fireplaces, reach out to our NFI Certified Technicians. We're here to help you with any hearth related needs.

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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