wood burning fireplace insert

mjlbFebruary 6, 2013

We finally decided to use our fireplace -- even for heat. So I've been looking at wood-burning inserts (gas not an option).

Our fireplace is quasi-structural to the house, so it is 8-ft wide and 11-ft high, and the house is contemporary, with vaulted cedar ceiling. The fireplace opening is 42-in. wide by 28-in. high, with a raised hearth.

We would really love an insert that was close to 42-in. wide, so there would be a large viewing area. But everything we've looked at has considerably smaller viewer areas, with the rest of the space taken up by black metal frame. Anyone know of a large viewing area wood insert?

Or possibly know anything about custom wood inserts? So far on the custom route (not my preferred route), the only thing I found is Canadian and may not be sold in the U.S.

Thanks for any comments!

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Annie Deighnaugh

At the old house we had a pipe that ran up to the chimney and was sealed there and we had a full woodstove sitting out front so the whole heat of the stove radiated into the room. You may have to alter your hearth some though to make it work.

For inserts, the more projection into the room, the better. And keep the power in mind for the fan to circulate the air....running an extension cord across the hearth is not the most attractive.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 1:55PM
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We used the Hampton wood burning stove insert in our previous house and were very pleased with the look and function of the insert. It did a great job of heating our main living area.

Here is a link that might be useful: Hampton Wood Insert

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 6:53PM
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Take a look at the Napoleon, we love ours.

Here is a link that might be useful: napoleon

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 1:57AM
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I don't have one but have heard Wittus products are very well thought of.

Here is a link that might be useful: wittus insert

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 2:45AM
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I second the idea of using a cast-iron or soapstone, wood-burning stove mounted in a large fireplace hearth. It can be tucked right in so it won't have some of the clearance-to-combustible-surfaces issues that free-standing stoves mounted in rooms have. Plus they are highly energy efficient and clean burning (well, as clean as wood burning ever is).

We heat our home in northern NY just south of the Adirondacks entirely with wood and wood pellets in two different stoves. Cord wood is a much nicer burn than pellets, (works during power outages, quiet, no air blower, doesn't require much energy in fuel production) but OTOH a pellet stove is highly automatic, largely self-feeding and can turned on and off easily with a clicker like a TV which is good at the beginning and end of the season when one wants some quick heat.

We burn about 5 cords of hardwood and 5 tons of pellets each winter. We harvest all the wood from our own woodlot and I process it into stove-sized pieces. We buy pellets from our local feed store.

Both wood and pellet stoves can be installed in hearths and existing chimneys. Both require some chimney modification to reduce the diameter of the flue for stoves. And the chimney stack needs to be sealed around the new chimney pipe.

But compared to open hearth burning which is a huge net energy waster, stoves provide excellent, reliable, renewable, largely carbon neutral, heat. Most woodstoves have glass fronts so you can see the flames and open to roast the odd hotdog or marshmallow. Pellet stoves must always be closed when running, some have glass fronts, though for fire viewing.

Some brands to look at: Harmon (pellet) and Vermont Castings and Jotul (wood stoves). We have burned our Vermont castings stove (Defiant Encore w/catalytic converter) for nearly 30 years. But it's time to replace it with a larger and cleaner-burning model. We have a Jotul Oslo waiting in the barn to be installed - thought it would happen last Fall before we started burning for the winter, but no joy, yet.

I have been a woodburner for my entire adult life - even before I married my DH more 30 years ago. There is no other source of heat in my old house, other than wood and pellets.

The downsides: well, burning wood is messy with bits of wood debris and ashes needing to be cleaned up daily. It's a lot of work to process the fuel (fell the tree, buck it into logs, draw it out of the woods, cut to length, split, stack, store for 2 to 4 years and then move to the house for burning.) But it is largely pleasant, comfortably strenuous work that if you don't let it get out of hand you can spread the work out in an easy way. And you have to clean (scrape insides with a big wire brush) the chimney periodically burning the burning season, and very thoroughly at the end of the season. This has to be done from the top of the chimney, on the roof. Our pellet stove is direct vented through the wall and only has a vent stack about 6 or 7 feet tall, so we clean it using just a step ladder. A bigger pain is cleaning the fly ash off the ribs in the burn chamber of the pellet stove, that is a messy job my DH does every three weeks or so.

The main consideration (and this is for both pellet, but orders of magnitude greater for the wood stove) is that you can never, ever, forget that you've got live fire penned up in a metal box. It's completely indifferent to whether it burns its designated fuel, or starts in on you and your stuff. You can't be casual about burning solid fuel, you've got to keep your mind on the task. I am a former volunteer fire fighter who has been to my share of house fires orginating in stoves, some with fatalities. 'Nuff said.

(All stoves are probably safer than open hearth burning, but they tend to be run for more hours and often at night or when you are not at home, something that rarely happens with an open hearth. For that reason they pose an elevated risk compared to occasional woodfires where you are awake and attending to for the entire burn.)

A very important thing to make sure of when installing a solid fuel burner is that it is connected to "outside combustion air" and not drawing from the room for air to burn and exhaust up the chimney. This largely isolates your entire stove's entire air pathway, removing back draft, make-up air and reducing chances a stove can draw cumbustion gases into your room air from other appliances. I would never have a stove without an outside air connection. It's a little complicated retrofitting the outside air connection through most hearths but, IMO, it is essential for safety, comfort, and energy efficiency.



Here is a link that might be useful: Link to Jotul wood stoves and insert for fireplaces

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 3:22AM
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Lirio, I think my DH would fall in love with you! lol. He does all the wood while I help him bring it indoors. You're lucky, we haven't even gone through a rick of wood yet because our winter has been so mild.

Have you heard of Rumford fireplaces? We had one custom built..big opening, and it heats the whole front of the house. I may have to come over to enjoy your fire's!

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 6:17AM
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Annie Deighnaugh

Lirio, I agree with you about the wood stove...sounds like my life...we've been burning wood since I was a child. We don't have a pellet stove. (And I hate splitting wood. )

Only disagreement I would have is on the outside air source for a wood stove...we investigated it and went round and round on it including with the building inspector, especially since our house was built so tight with closed cell insulation....we chose against the outside air source. There have been instances where backdrafting has caused hot coals into the air intake leading to house fires. We do have a large open area to feed the stove air and we have an air recirc system on the house. I believe Canada used to require outside venting and have since dropped the requirement. The amount of air drawn by a wood stove is small..maybe 10-15 cfm for a high efficiency stove...nothing like the draw from a fireplace at 400-600 cfm or your range hood which can be 900 cfm.

Here is a link that might be useful: Outdoor air myth

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 8:11AM
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Wow - thank you all so much! I have to work today, but I'm looking forward to reading this all closely this evening!

I love the soapstone stoves, or even central masonry heaters from soapstone. And Oly - Wittus has been my first choice all along, but the larger model (more common for new construction) may not fit in our opening.

We all have our odd preferences, and my husband absolutely rules out any insert or stove with an arched top, saying it looks like a crematorium door. Oh boy, the things one rules out for a loved one!

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 9:35AM
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@Annie: Thank you for the link, it's from a reliable source so I am considering carefully what it says. Both of our stoves are connected to outside air and have been for decades. The inlets are on the typically upwind side of the house. Except of course, when we're having a Nor'easter.

This house was built before the Civil War and has no insulation in its wall cavities (and none is possible due to the contruction of the wall assembly). So it defines a "leaky house". No problems here with "sick-building" issues related to being too tightly sealed. Sometimes I think we might as well be living outside! When we installed the O/A inlets it made an immediate difference in the draftiness of the rooms so I would be reluctant to go back, but fire safety is a paramount concern for us so I will be talking to my husband about this. We have no other combustion stacks (obviously no furnace or boiler, and our DHW is electric) so we have no carbon monoxide risks with or withhut the OCA. But I am planning on installing powerful vent fan in the current kitchen which is where the wood-burning stove is. (I'm moving the kitchen to another room to get away from the woodstove, but it will still close enough to be affected by the fan's power, I think.)

I'm picturing in my mind the pathway of the combustion air within our stove and trying to decide if I have a risk of drawing super-heated air or coals back down into the combustion inlet piping (which is utterly unshielded along its entire length as it lies slap up against the wood sheathing of the wood room) if the system was depressurized, and I think not. But this is particular to my stove, and model, and not true for many other stoves that would simply feed the air directly into the firebox.

I really appreciate the heads up and will ponder it some more, especially as we are slowly getting around to installing the new stove (which likely has an intake air pathway that is completely different.)

@mjlb: LOL at your DH's association to arched doors and a crematorium. Fortunately the woodburning stoves like the Jotul, while perhaps slightly arched on top have lovely glass doors that don't seem like crematoria, at least to me.

Soapstone (or other masonry) thermal mass stoves are fab, but not really the same fire-appreciation sense as any fire place or regular woodstove. They are intended to burn much smaller, hotter fires, often only a couple of times per day. They also are not really retrofitable into an existing hearth and chimney stack since they require different stack pathways and massing. Plus they are extremely heavy and must have a substantial foundation. I love them though, and am considering converting from woodstoves to masonry as we age in place. Woodstoves require such constant vigilance for safety and a considerable amount of physical activity to attend (even leaving aside processing the fuel from tree to firewood) that I can see it may be a problem at some point. We're in our 60's now. With no other source of heat if we couldn't burn wood we'd have to leave the house. My late MIL in the last year or two before she died had issues around her wood heating and cooking arrangements. Her cognition was becoming muzzy enough that I had decided she couldn't live alone there another heating season. Plus as she became frailer just loading the logs into her stove started to become a problem. I remember one miserable day when I split her entire winter's wood down into smaller pieces because she was forbidden to pick up anything more than 2 lbs. She wept the whole time I did it, and I felt so sad for her.

A masonry stove since it is fired only two, or at most three times a day could be managed by someone paid to come in and attend to it. The rest of the day it just radiates heat, mildly enough so that you can sit on it safely.

I considered getting a soapstone-walled woodstove before choosing the cast-iron Jotul. The soapstone walls are NOT safer to touch than cast-iron (unlike a masonry heater made of soapstone which relies on thermal mass). And having looked at several in the shop being repaired (cracking) we decided to stick with the familar cast-iron.

There is one nagging issue for me around wood-burning: it can contribute to diminshed air quality from particulates in the smoke. When you get a whiff of a wood-burn, it usually smells quite pleasant, but in truth you are inhaling particulates and smoke, even in the cleanest, most efficient burning ones. One wood-stove is a trivial air degradation, but wood-burners in every household is a community problem. In many parts of the UK (and some cities here in the US) wood-burning, not to mention coal which is even worse air-quality-wise, is illegal. Stilll this is a harsh climate and some form of heat is necessary. As we have the woods (and generally only use thinnings and blow-downs), and process it on the farm, it seems environmentally better than oil or worse, fracked gas. But it is not totally environmentally benign. We have installed more solar panels to make power, and will add more to provide some electric heating capacity as well. There are no free lunches when it comes to heating in a cold climate.


    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 11:21AM
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Annie Deighnaugh

We looked into a masonry heater and there are a few things to consider. One is the size of the foundation required as they are so heavy. The other is, neighbors of ours bought a house that had one. They found out that one of the passage ways inside has cracked and leaks so they can no longer use it as is, but they can't afford the cost to repair it which is almost as much as the cost to install in the first place, so they are stuck with a useless monster in their house that takes up a lot of space.

We looked at kakelugns which are smaller, but I think at the time there were UL ratings issues or something, as well as the expense. So we ended up with a traditional wood stove.

As far as the arch top, we have it on our jotul and love it as it looks like the broken arch shape which is a theme we have running through the house. Never associated it with a crematorium!

    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 5:15PM
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