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Fireplaces vs. Fireplace Inserts – What’s the Difference?

The crackle of a real fire is easier than ever to add to your home. With plenty of options for fireplaces and fireplace inserts, homeowners can find fixtures that fit their budget, style preferences, and available fuel type. Yet it’s important to understand the difference between these two types of fixtures before shopping for something new to warm up your living room or den. While they’re similar, inserts are quite different from traditional fireplaces in many ways. Explore the pros and cons of both types of fire features to make sure you’re choosing the right one for your home.

Types of Fireplaces

Traditional fireplaces are still built today from pre-formed firebrick cores and stylish front pieces complete with tile or stone veneers. However, other fireplaces are also available. Some models are freestanding or entirely enclosed, providing a slightly more efficient heat transfer into the room. While it’s traditional for a built-in fireplace to use solid wood as a fuel, there are also designs available to heat with electricity, gas, ethanol, wood pellets, or even coal instead. Modern fireplaces can be built more quickly and with a lower total weight than old-fashioned flagstone hearth models, reducing the need for structural changes to compensate for their installation.

Pros:

-Warm, radiant heat

-Emergency source of heating if the power goes out

-May raise the value of home

-Inspected and approved models meet home insurance requirements

Cons:

-May raise home insurance rates

-Contributes a greater fire risk than an enclosed fire insert

-Requires a bigger and more expensive chimney

-Makes more of a mess than a self-contained insert

-Requires a larger hearth area and a bigger footprint in general.

Types of Fireplace Inserts

Fireplace inserts are contained heating units generally designed to fit inside existing fireplaces. However, you can also install them with a brand new hearth and mantel and avoid the need for installing a fireplace first. They’re often easier to get approved than traditional open fireplaces or wood-burning stoves in areas that have restrictions on air pollution, especially if you choose a gas model. Fireplace inserts can mimic the look of an enclosed fireplace but tend to be less expensive to install due to their all-in-one design. Much like other modern fireplaces, these inserts can run on practically any fuel. Even wood-burning inserts are available for classic crackling flames visible through a clear glass cover. Electric and gas fireplace inserts are common, as are inserts that rely on fuel cells or ethanol to produce a real flame without much fuss. These inserts can be installed with a traditional hearth and surround appearance to mimic a fireplace or given a more modern treatment.

Pros:

  • Can be installed in apartments, mobile homes, and structures that might not support the weight of a traditional fireplace
  • More efficient for producing supplemental heat, especially with ventilation and fans
  • Reduced risk of sparks or flaming logs starting a house fire
  • Lower maintenance and cleaning requirements compared to traditional fireplaces
  • Available in a wide variety of styles and sizes
  • May cost less to install than a full fireplace

Cons:

  • Still requires ventilation and proper chimney maintenance
  • May need electricity to produce heat, reducing its usefulness in case of a power outage

Efficient Heating

If you’re interested in a secondary or emergency source of heat, a fireplace insert is generally the best option due to the increased efficiency when compared to an open fireplace. The numbers vary depending on the study, but average results show a fireplace radiates only about 15% of heat back into the room. A well-designed fireplace insert can provide 70% or more of the heat to the room rather than letting it just escape up the chimney. Enclosed and freestanding fireplaces can radiate more heat into the room than open designs, but they still can’t beat the efficiency of enclosed inserts. Inserts with built-in fans and ventilation systems provide the most heat. If you want an emergency heating source, make sure the insert can still operate with the power out.

Fuel Options

Both fireplaces and inserts offer a full range of fuel options today. Gas inserts function similarly to gas logs for traditional fireplaces. You get the look of real flames flickering without the mess or cost of firewood. Electric fireplaces and inserts are a good choice if there’s no option for ventilation since they don’t produce any fumes or gases. If you want to burn real hardwood logs, you may need a masonry fireplace to support an insert rather than getting the simplified installation offered by other fuel types. Make sure to compare the installation requirements of different insert options before assuming they’re all equal in cost.

Chimney Requirements

Traditional fireplaces need large, open chimney designs to keep air flowing smoothly up and out of the home. Since most fireplace inserts feature an active ventilation or blower system, they can rely on smaller vent pipes instead while still sending fumes and gases away from your indoor air supply. Reduced chimney installation requirements can make it possible to fit an insert in where a full fireplace may not work well. It also reduces the overall costs of adding the fixture to the home in most cases.

Overall Safety

Fireplace inserts are generally considered safer for home use than fireplaces, especially compared to open designs with large hearths. Families with children or pets are often concerned that popping sparks or rolling logs can lead to injuries. It’s a genuine concern that can only be reduced and not entirely mitigated by the use of enclosed designs and fireplace screens. Inserts tend to feature sealed designs that greatly reduce these safety risks. Wood-burning models also produce less creosote due to the increased efficiency of the burn chamber, cutting down on the risk of chimney fires. There’s relatively little direct risk for burns from a fireplace insert, even on a model with a door that opens, compared to with an open fireplace.

Hearth Designs

Fireplaces tend to run to the more traditional side of the style spectrum. However, you can easily find modern designs as well if you look outside the usual limited selection from standard retailers. Fireplace inserts tend to run to the more modern side in design instead. Yet there are still plenty of traditional options too. Most fireplace inserts work with any surround, hearth, and lintel you prefer. This allows you to customize the finished look without having to go with a traditional fireplace installation.

Maintenance Needs

In the competition for low maintenance, fireplace inserts come out on top regardless of the fuel used. Wood-burning inserts need less cleaning and care than their fireplace counterparts, and the rule remains true for gas, electric, and pellet-fueled models as well. The chimneys in particular that connect to full-sized traditional fireplaces tend to need a lot of cleaning and routine repairs. Without prompt cleaning and crack sealing, fire risk rises and gases can escape into the home. Choosing an insert will save you money for years to come by reducing the need for professional maintenance and repairs without compromising on safety.

Retrofitting Options

If you want to change the fixture in the future, choosing a fireplace now will allow you to put in an insert later. However, inserts are also easily swapped out for different models. There’s no real reason to choose one over the other when it comes to future renovations. Fireplace inserts tend to last longer without needing major repairs to stay safe to operate, so consider avoiding a traditional fireplace if you’re concerned about home repair expenses over the next few decades.

Choose your favorite wood-burning or gas log fixture based on a balanced comparison of the pros and cons. Fireplace inserts are more flexible and provide better performance for most people, but you may still want a traditional fireplace install instead.

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