Fireplace Makeovers

Crackling fireplaces are a wonderful way to add warmth and ambience, but they are relatively inefficient devices for heating the home. Most fireplaces convert just 5%-10% of the burning wood’s energy into useful heat. A fireplace can even have a “negative efficiency” effect when there is no fire burning and the damper doors are left open, causing warm air from the house to escape up the chimney.

Fireplace inserts are an easy way to increase heating efficiency. Inserts slide into a fireplace or on its hearth where it will guide the fire’s heat into the room instead of up the chimney. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a well-fitted, properly installed insert can give a traditional wood-burning fireplace an efficiency rating of 80% or more. And while a fireplace by itself produces upwards of 40 to 60 grams of smoke per hour, the latest non-catalytic wood-burning inserts are certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to produce no more than 7.5 grams of smoke per hour. Tom Swan of Black Swan Fireside Hearth & Home ( in Newtown, Connecticut, says most of the models he sells produce “2.5 grams or under” of smoke per hour and he believes the EPA’s 7.5 standard will soon be even lower.


fireplace makeoverThe majority of fireplace inserts burn wood, gas or pellets composed of organic materials such as compacted sawdust, wood chips, nutshells, corn kernels, waste paper, barley, beet pulp, sunflowers, dried cherry pits and soybeans. By using byproducts that would otherwise go to waste, pellet manufacturers create a heating source that has very little negative impact on the environment. In fact, pellet emissions are so minimal that the EPA doesn’t even regulate them.

Unlike furnaces and boilers, fireplace inserts are also an eye-catching centerpiece to living rooms or other public areas in the home. They’re available in a wide variety of styles and finishes—from classic cast-iron potbellies to contemporary ceramic and stainless-steel models. Though the initial price tag and installation costs typically run over $3,000, inserts quickly pay for themselves in significant heating savings even when considering the cost of wood or pellets. Running an insert allows furnaces to be turned on later in the fall and turned off earlier in the spring, one of the reasons Black Swan’s website notes that the average return on investment for wood and pellet installations is less than two years. Here are a few top models:

fireplace makeover

• Highly efficient and completely airtight, the Heat & Glo Grand-I35 Gas Insert (starting at $2,297) features an energy-wise metal surround that hides the gap between the insert and the fireplace opening and is particularly suited to large fireplaces. The Grand’s dual-speed fan increases efficiency even more by ensuring warm air is effectively pushed out into a room. Seven ceramic fiber oak-style logs and glowing embers conjure images of a crackling fire and a wide variety of fronts and finishes are available to match any decor.

fireplace makeoverThe Quadra-Fire 4100i Wood Insert Stove (starting at $3,028) boasts a full bay door with three glass panes to showcase the fire. The timeless cast iron design features intricate detailing and gold trim inlays to accentuate the fire within. The 2.5-cubic foot firebox is easy to load and has a powerful blower that easily gets a large fire going. Patented Quadra-Fire Advanced Combus-tion Technology burns the smoke in four zones, which reduces emissions, improves efficiency and increases the amount of heat transferred to your home.

• The Harman Accentra Fireplace Insert (starting at $3,959) takes pellets, but you can also include a ceramic log set to get that homey wood-fire look. A microprocessor constantly senses room temperature and automatically makes adjustments in the feed rate and air supply so you get the optimal amount of heat with minimal effort—just fill the large hopper, set the desired temperature and you’re done. The Accentra Insert lights will automatically turn off if no heat is required and the Insert Track System glides the insert right out of the fireplace for easy cleaning and servicing.