Purchasing a fireplace insert is a great way to spruce up your existing fireplace or completely change its appearance. Given the number of options available to consumers today, it can also be challenging to find the right model for your home. In our fireplace insert buying guide, we’re going to give you tips to help you pick the perfect insert while touching on key areas like installation and cost.
- What is a fireplace insert?
- Types of Fireplace Inserts
- Measuring your Fireplace for an Insert
- Fireplace Insert Installation
- Fireplace Insert Cost
- Final Thoughts
- Fireplace Insert FAQ
What is a fireplace insert?
The term fireplace insert may be self-explanatory to some homeowners, but it’s important to understand how they’re made and what they can and cannot do. Simply put, a fireplace insert is a box made of fireproof material that usually involves a combination of steel, glass, and cast iron. They create a closed combustion system, which traps the heat and increases the efficiency of your existing fireplace.
They are most often designed for older masonry-style fireplaces, which are known to leak heat and lose efficiency as they age. A fireplace insert can also help you completely change the style of your fireplace or convert it from burning wood to something more efficient like natural gas, propane, or wood pellet fuel.
Types of Fireplace Inserts
Installing a fireplace insert isn’t much fun, but choosing a new one for your home can be an exciting endeavor. There are hundreds of high-quality systems to choose from alongside countless mid-range and budget-friendly fireplace inserts. With that in mind, before you can choose a style, you must select a type of fireplace insert.
Gas Fireplace Inserts
Gas fireplace inserts fall into two distinct categories, with propane inserts and ones that operate from natural gas. Both are excellent alternatives to a traditional wood-burning fireplace as well, considering you’ll never have to deal with firewood again.
Smoke and embers will be a thing of the past, which makes this type of insert safer around children and pets to a degree. They can produce plenty of heat but no open flames like wood-burning fireplaces. They are often the best choice for leaky old hearths that are too expensive to fix and can come with handy features, including remote controls and blowers like their electric counterparts.
The downside to this type of fireplace insert is efficiency unless you purchase a vent free system. While those are extremely popular, a ventless fireplace insert can also be dangerous. In other words, it’s not something we recommend when you already have a chimney in place. Vented gas-powered fireplace inserts aren’t as efficient but considerably safer to use indoors.
With either style, you need to invest in a carbon monoxide detector. Building codes and regulations can also come into play with gas fireplace inserts depending on where you reside. Most of these systems don’t require power to work or have a battery-powered ignition, but blowers and other features may not function in the event of a power outage.
Electric Fireplace Inserts
An electric fireplace insert provides more options than any other insert when it comes to style. You can find models with a modern design and sleek stainless flashing, and inserts that are more for decorative purposes than producing heat.
With this type of insert, no fuel is involved. That means you never have to chop firewood again and don’t have to worry about gas lines or propane tanks. They are safer to use from that standpoint and the only style we consider relatively easy for homeowners to install compared to a gas-powered or wood-burning insert.
While this is the best fireplace insert for a non-functioning fireplace, they don’t produce nearly as much heat. The style of the system has a significant impact on the power, and most inserts in this range have blower fans to help distribute heat.
Wood Burning Fireplace Inserts
The biggest problem with an older fireplace is that it loses efficiency. Even with routine maintenance, they will still lose heat by design, but a new insert can alleviate those issues. Adding a new sealed firebox to your existing fireplace will greatly increase its efficiency, but that isn’t the only benefit it brings to the table.
If you live in an area where power outages are a common occurrence, a wood burning fireplace will be your best friend. It’s also impossible to replicate the warmth and ambiance they add to a room, regardless of how high-tech or fancy the alternate insert is. Want to change the look of your old masonry fireplace? Well, a new wood-burning insert can certainly do that.
Wood Pellet Fireplace Inserts
While not new, fireplace inserts that burn wood pellets are becoming increasingly popular with homeowners. That’s due in part to how they work as they provide the warmth of a traditional wood burning fireplace without some of the headaches that come along with it.
The fires in these inserts are usually fed automatically with pellets from a hopper. The feed system varies but could leave you in a lurch during power failures if it doesn’t have a backup. The wood pellets are made from various materials but are eco-friendly through the use of wood by-products like sawdust.
These environmentally-friendly inserts won’t need to be tended as much as a wood-burning fireplace, and the fuel pellets are designed to burn far more efficiently than wood. That said, they can be quite expensive, and you are going to be limited when it comes to styles and the overall selection.
Measuring your Fireplace for an Insert
This is an area where many homeowners can find themselves in a tough spot. A fireplace insert of any kind is large and can weigh hundreds of pounds in some cases. While there are dozens of online retailers that will ship them for free, return shipping can cost a fortune if your measurements are off.
You can address some problems during installation, but 2-3 inches can have a major impact on the price of installation as well. If you have a fireplace insert already picked out, the best advice we can give you is to follow the manufacturer’s directions for measuring your space.
That’s a foolproof way to ensure your new insert will fit, and going straight to the manufacturer's website is the best choice when that’s an option. If you’re considering an insert or haven’t decided on a type, you can still get the sizing with a few simple steps.
With a tape measure and an assistant, measure the front opening of your fireplace. That includes both the height and width in the front. Considering fireplaces can come in various shapes and sizes, the measurements in the back are equally as important. While they can be difficult to get in smaller fireplaces, measure the back from top to bottom and side to side as well.
The last measurement you’ll need to know is the depth, which is measured from the back to the front of your fireplace. Remember to keep the overall size of the firebox insert in mind if you are going to burn logs and plan on downsizing to a smaller insert. That will affect the size of the logs you can use, which can lead to a lot of work if you have a pile of large logs.
This is also where you will need to consider the mantel and the area around your fireplace. Changing systems can greatly increase the heat coming from your fireplace, which can adversely affect the mantel. It can also cause some paints to peel, so plan carefully, or you could end up with a minor remodeling project on your hands.
Fireplace Insert Installation
Despite the name, these inserts aren’t necessarily something you can slide into an existing fireplace. That means most homeowners will need to rely on a professional to have on installed. Electric fireplace inserts are an exception as they simply plug into a power outlet and don’t require venting like a fireplace that burns wood, natural gas, or propane.
If you intend to tackle the job yourself, our main piece of advice is to clear your schedule, take your time, and prepare to make a trip to the hardware store. It’s rare that any fireplace insert will fit “perfectly” inside your fireplace, so you may need to purchase matching flashing or a new surround at a minimum.
With a gas-powered fireplace insert, professional installation is required. Even if you already have a gas line running to your home, do you really want to chance a leak?
Forgoing a professional installation can also void your warranty with any natural gas or propane fireplace insert as well. That can be a costly mistake for a variety of reasons. Wood burning and wood pellet inserts can be easier to install, but still, something where a small mistake can lead to a multitude of problems.
On average, you can expect to pay anywhere between $500 to $2,000 or more to have a fireplace insert installed as it all boils down to the condition of your fireplace and the type of insert you buy. If you’re interested in getting a quote from a local contractor in your area on a fireplace insert installation, our quote tool will help point you in the right direction.
Fireplace Insert Cost
The cost of a fireplace insert is another thing that varies depending on the style, although size, branding, and several other factors have to be taken into account as well. With that in mind, an electric fireplace insert is by far the most affordable style.
You can pick up an off-brand electric fireplace insert for a few hundred dollars, and there are no shortage of options to choose from. Most of these systems are around 28” to 36” and come with features like timers, remote controls, and sound effects that mimic a crackling wood fire.
That said, the more features, the higher the cost of an electric fireplace insert, so you can find models close to $1,000 as well. There is little to no upkeep, however, aside from cleaning the glass. You may still need to pay a contractor to install these inserts and should keep the length of the warranty in mind as well.
Gas and Propane
If you plan on using a gas or propane-based fireplace insert, you can expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 or more. These units have a higher heat rating than electric inserts and can usually produce between 20000 to 50000 BTUs, which is more than for a small to medium-sized room.
The cost of this type of fireplace insert relies on features and the design. There are vented and vent-free systems with different price points, and if they have a blower, they will also use a measure of electricity. The cost to run these inserts varies depending on where you live and the time of year, but the cost to install them can raise the overall price significantly.
With propane inserts, you have to consider the cost of propane along with deliveries depending on your setup. For inserts that burn natural gas, the installation cost will be more unless you already have a gas line in your fireplace. Keep the cost of ceramic logs in mind as well with either style of insert.
Overall, we feel propane inserts are slightly cheaper than ones that use natural gas, even if you can find systems with similar price points. The installation cost puts gas-based inserts over the top, even if they are more affordable to run long term.
A wood burning fireplace can produce between 60,000 BTUs or more and be relatively inexpensive to purchase depending on your needs. A simple insert can increase your burn time without breaking the bank, but there are dozens of models that cost between $1,200 to $3,500 as well.
While ideal for larger rooms, the installation cost can also raise these units' price, and the same goes for wood pellet fireplace inserts. They are considerably more efficient than your standard wood-burning insert but can bet 2-3 times the price.
Upkeep on any wood burning fireplace insert will be seasonal, and you have to take the cost of fuel into account. Good firewood can be difficult to find in some regions unless you chop it and dry it yourself. Pellet-based fuel is sold by the bag, cheaper to burn, and easier to deal with.
The type of liner used with a wood burning fireplace is another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. Cheaper lines have crimp joints and are thinner but won’t hold up as long as a more expensive liner with welded seams.
Given the cost of fireplace inserts and the nature of their design, it’s a good idea to learn all you can about these systems before choosing a model for your home. Safety should always be at the forefront as well, especially if you’re converting a wood-burning fireplace into a gas-based system.
Fireplace Insert FAQ
Q: What’s the best type of venting to use for a pellet-burning fireplace insert?
A: Most professionals recommend using a flexible stainless steel vent, but you need to check with the owner’s manual for your system, along with building codes and temperature ratings.
Q: Will an electric fireplace insert get hot enough to warm up a room?
A: That all depends on the size of the room and the BTU rating. These systems are fairly underwhelming when it comes to power and are known more for their looks than their ability to produce a lot of heat.
Q: How often should I have the chimney swept in a wood-burning fireplace?
A: At least once a year. Failure to do so can potentially cause a fire in your flue and leads to heavy soot build-up.
Q: What type of fireplace insert is the safest for pets?
A: An electric insert or one that uses gas or propane for fuel. While gas-based inserts produce more heat, they don’t put as or embers in your home. Regardless of the style, makes sure to use a good fireplace screen to keep pets and children at bay unless it’s a glass-encased system.
Q: Can I burn regular firewood in a pellet fireplace insert?
A: No. These systems are specifically designed to work with pellet-based fuel, not traditional firewood or artificial logs.
Q: Is it possible to convert a natural gas fireplace insert to propane?
A: That all depends on the manufacturer's style of the system. While there are plenty of companies that sell conversion kits, it’s not possible with every type of gas-powered insert.