Fireplaces have been the focal point of most households throughout human history, providing light, heat, hot food, and a central place to rest or entertain guests. In recent years, the options for homeowners have expanded dramatically to include a wide array of fuel-types, structures, visual effects, and other options.
Some fireplaces are appropriate to warm up a single room, for cozy special occasions, while others are efficient enough to heat a small house, and others are purely decorative, producing little to no heat. Fireplaces may be built into a large stone mantle or may be small enough to display on a coffee table. The variety may seem overwhelming, but determining the right kind of fireplace for your home will be easy when you consider a few key factors.
First and foremost, your choice of fireplaces will be determined by your choice of fuels, which determines the relative safety, convenience, efficiency, and cost. Even after choosing a fuel type, you will still have an abundance of factors to consider, such as the vent system you have in place (or plan to install), mounting and display options, and other factors. This guide will help you narrow down your choices to find the perfect fireplace for your home.
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Wood Burning Fireplace
For some people, particularly those who grew up in a home with a wood-burning fireplace, there is no substitute. Many people prefer a wood-burning fireplace based on aesthetic considerations, such as the aroma, crackling sound, and visual appeal of a “real” fire. Others genuinely enjoy splitting wood or have an abundance of free firewood at their disposal. Regardless, if you are a true wood-burning fireplace lover, no alternative will ever feel quite right.
Even so, there are a variety of downsides to burning wood that you should consider, including safety, efficiency, government regulations, and installation costs. However, if nothing but wood-burning will do, there are several different options for wood-burning fireplaces.
Open hearth fireplaces
An indoor open wood-burning fireplace, or “open hearth” fireplace, is the classic image of a fireplace throughout history.
How it works
Also known as a “masonry fireplace,” it is an open-faced fireproof box built into the wall of a house, typically made of brick or stone, with a chimney on top to vent out the wood smoke. The appeal of these fireplaces comes from the fact that the fire is visible, so the fire’s light, heat, sound, and aroma enter the room directly.
“Hearth” refers to the bottom wall of the firebox and the protective stone or brick foundation in front of them, which protects the floor from escaping embers. An open-hearth fireplace typically has a decorative exterior facade, called a mantle, which often includes a decorative shelf at the top. The mantle may be made of brick, stone, adobe, concrete, wood, or other materials.
Wood burning fireplaces are best used to burn seasoned (aged) hardwood, which burns longer, hotter, and causes less tar buildup in the flue than softwood. Manufactured options, such as wood bricks made of compressed wood chips and sawdust, can be a good alternative. For more information on wood fuel options, read our guide on types of firewood.
Open hearth fireplaces are rustic and very aesthetically pleasing to many people, but they are extremely inefficient and can be dangerous if left unattended, particularly if you have pets or children. The largest safety concerns are embers, creosote, and emissions.
Embers can shoot out from a crackling log like a projectile and start fires if they land on a nearby carpet or wood floor. To protect your house from embers, the open face of the hearth is typically shielded from the room by a metal mesh screen or by movable glass panel doors.
Additionally, burning wood releases creosote, which builds upon the inside of the chimney. Excessive creosote deposits can catch fire, and that fire can spread to your house, so wood-burning fireplaces should be professionally cleaned every year. Creosote can also build upon a fireplace’s glass doors. For help with cleaning glass fireplace doors, consult our guide on the subject.
Finally, open-hearth fireplaces release pollutants into your household. Although many people like the smell of smoke a fireplace creates, it will contaminate your home’s air to some extent. Woodfire emissions can include particulates, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants, depending on what you burn. For most people, the emissions do not cause any harm, but they can be a problem for those with pre-existing lung conditions.
Open hearth fireplaces are rarely practical to add to an existing, contemporary home without a hearth already in place, due to the extreme disruption and expense of constructing the hearth and chimney. Moreover, for safety and efficiency reasons, some states and local governments have restricted the building of new open-hearth fireplaces.
These fireplaces are typically used only occasionally and recreationally, rather than for heating a house. Although the installation of a new fireplace is very expensive, the cost of operating one is low, particularly if you have a free or inexpensive source of firewood. The only other major expense of operating an open-hearth fireplace is for annual maintenance. Hire a professional to inspect and clean your chimney annually to ensure its safety.
If an open-hearth fireplace is not practical for your home, however, there are other wood-burning options available.
Wood burning stoves
How it works
A wood-burning stove is a free-standing, solid steel or cast-iron box, with a metal stove pipe to vent the smoke. They are much more efficient than open-hearth fireplaces and are regulated and labeled for efficiency by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although wood-burning stoves are not technically fireplaces, they are an alternative that preserves much of the romance of burning wood while offering several advantages over open-hearth fireplaces.
For example, wood-burning stoves are much more efficient than open-hearth fireplaces, requiring less firewood to produce more usable heat. Wood stoves are, in fact, a viable way to meet the daily heating needs for homes of up to several thousand square feet, even in the harshest climates.
Most wood-burning stoves are non-catalytic, while some upscale models are catalytic, meaning that the latter have a honeycomb-like element inside called a catalyst, made of coated ceramics. When the stove is in use, smoke, gasses, and particles enter the honeycomb and burn up, thus increasing these stoves’ efficiency, and allowing them to maintain a more consistent level of heat output.
Wood burning stoves are safer than open fireplaces. The embers are contained, and the firebox latches closed to keep it secure from curious children and pets. Moreover, because they release substantially less smoke, due to their efficiency, and because they are fully enclosed, they emit substantially less air pollution into your home.
Like open hearth fireplaces, all wood-burning stoves must be inspected and cleaned regularly, and the catalyst (if any) must be replaced every few years, for safety. Catalytic wood stoves are more difficult to maintain than the simpler non-catalytic stoves.
The installation costs may range anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the size and type you choose, and whether you need to remodel to accommodate the stovepipe flue. However, with access to an inexpensive source of firewood, wood stoves can be a cost-effective way to heat your home all winter.
Enclosed zero clearance fireplace
How it works
An indoor enclosed wood-burning fireplace, also called a “zero clearance manufactured fireplace,” is a fully-enclosed metal firebox, like a wood stove, that is built directly into the wall of a house, like an open-hearth fireplace. Many have glass fronts, like an insert, but because they are framed into the house directly they can be much larger than inserts, which have to fit inside an existing firebox. The name of this type of fireplace is derived from its almost zero clearance to the combustible surface.
You can get a zero clearance fireplace that burns wood, wood pellets, or gas.
Zero clearance fireplaces offer the safety and efficiency advantages of a wood stove.
Like open hearth fireplaces, it is typically cost-prohibitive and impractical to add zero clearance fireplaces, so they are typically limited to new construction. They typically range from $1,000-$5,000, before installation. Their operation costs depend on the type of fuel used. They should be serviced yearly.
Wood-burning fireplace inserts
A fireplace insert is a great option if you already have an open-hearth fireplace in your home, but you want to improve its heat-generating capacity, efficiency, and safety.
How it works
A fireplace insert is a closed-combustion firebox (similar to a woodstove or enclosed fireplace) that is inserted into the masonry firebox of an open-hearth fireplace. It uses an electric blower to improve efficiency and heat distribution. They are made of cast-iron or steel, but typically have a glass door on the front so the fire inside is partially visible.
Different types of fireplace inserts are available depending on the fuel type you want to use, including gas or electric inserts. However, many homeowners choose to preserve the rustic appeal of their fireplace by burning wood or wood pellets. This is a great option if you are committed to using wood or wood products, but want to improve your fireplace’s efficiency, especially if you want to use it for routine home-heating.
Using an insert substantially improves the safety of a wood-burning fireplace, both in terms of embers and air pollution.
The cost of adding an insert can vary substantially. It may cost $5,000 for professional installation of a high-end model including a chimney liner, or as little as $2,000 for a low-budget DIY version with no chimney modification required.
Gas-fueled inserts for wood-burning fireplaces
How it works
Gas-burning inserts are the most popular type of fireplace insert as they are the most efficient, they eliminate the need for wood, and their heat-generation level can be adjusted easily using a remote control. However, many are not functional during a power outage or require batteries.
One of the primary factors in choosing a gas insert is deciding what sort of venting system will work best for your home.
The most common option by far is a “direct vent” gas insert. These use air from outside the house for combustion and vent to the outside through the existing fireplace’s chimney. Because they do not draw air from inside the house, they are ultra-efficient and safe, preserving your indoor air quality. Direct vent gas inserts typically have a more visually appealing flame, which more closely resembles a wood-burning fire, compared to other types of gas inserts.
Alternatively, you can get a “ventless” or “vent-free” gas insert. As their name suggests, these inserts do not require venting emissions out of the house through the chimney flue. Instead, the emissions pass through a series of filters to remove pollutants, and then the air is vented directly into the home. This increases their efficiency because no heat is lost through the chimney vent. However, vent-free inserts are less aesthetically appealing, producing a less realistic-looking flame than the alternatives.
Learn more: The Pros and cons of vent free fireplaces
Vent-free gas inserts have several major downsides compared to direct vent inserts. There is some controversy over the safety of the emissions from vent-free gas inserts. They can introduce odors of gasoline or soot into the house, which could bother people with respiratory illness. Moreover, they can create humidity due to condensation, so it is important to monitor your home for mold and mildew. Finally, because it draws air from inside the house, a vent free insert must have an oxygen sensor that automatically turns the unit off if oxygen levels in the room fall below a certain level. Because of these safety concerns, some states regulate or restrict the use of ventless inserts.
Direct vent gas inserts are generally more expensive than vent-free inserts ($3,000-$8,000 compared to $1,000-$5,000), including installation costs. Operating a gas insert requires a line delivering natural gas or propane to the insert, so gas is the primary ongoing expense once installed, other than periodic inspection and cleaning.
Outdoor fireplaces and fire pits
Although indoor fireplaces are most common, there is no reason to restrict your wood-burning activity inside your house. An outdoor fireplace or fire pit creates a cozy focal point for outdoor gatherings, making them perfect for entertaining guests while Covid puts a damper on indoor gatherings. If you are determined to add a wood-burning fireplace to your home, outdoors may be the ideal location.
Building an outdoor fireplace is less expensive than building a new indoor fireplace. Moreover, building an outdoor fireplace is legal in some jurisdictions where the construction of new indoor fireplaces is limited. However, you should check local ordinances before beginning construction.
How it works
There are a wide variety of options for outdoor wood burning. Built-in outdoor fireplaces are substantial construction, much like an indoor open hearth, and are meant to stay in one place permanently. They can be constructed from scratch or using a kit.
A fire pit is a simpler option. A fire pit can be either a literal pit or platform on the ground on which to build an open fire or a free-standing metal-bowl-like container for the fire that is elevated off the ground.
Another option is a portable outdoor fireplace, which is an enclosed, moveable fire container, like a fire pit/wood stove hybrid. Similarly, “chimeneas” are round-bellied terracotta fireplaces with an opening on one side, topped with narrow chimneys, which are often used for cooking. Finally, some fireplace inserts can be used outdoors.
Outdoor fireplaces have a variety of uses beyond simply providing warmth, ambiance, and the opportunity to roast marshmallows. They can be constructed to allow for a variety of cooking options. For example, you can integrate a grill or a wood-fired pizza oven.
If you are particularly adventurous, you can burn wood to heat a zero-electricity hot tub, using the principle of thermosiphon to warm the water using a woodstove. An outdoor wood burning heater can also be used to heat a sauna.
Burning wood outdoors removes safety concerns like airborne particulates or fire-starting escaped embers. However, they should be carefully supervised. Homeowners must be aware of local burn-bans, particularly in summer months.
The cost of installing an outdoor system may range from thousands of dollars for a masonry fireplace to less than a hundred dollars for a simple fire-pit, or free if you build one yourself.
Although less natural and aesthetically pleasing than a wood-burning fireplace, gas fireplaces are increasingly popular, particularly in new construction, due to their efficiency, safety, and lower installation costs.
How it works
Like fireplace inserts, gas fireplaces may run on either natural gas or propane. Also like inserts, gas fireplaces may use a direct vent or vent-free exhaust system, and a few use a third option called a B-vent.
Direct vent gas fireplace
Direct vent systems draw their air and release their exhaust directly to the outside using a stove pipe. Because they do not draw air from inside the house, they are the most suitable option for extremely well-sealed high-efficiency homes.
B-vent gas fireplace
B-vent fireplaces resemble wood-burning fireplaces, both in terms of appearance and operation. They are open to the room like open-hearth fireplaces but use a gas burner and valve system to produce heat. The term B-vent refers to the natural vent piping these fireplaces use in lieu of a chimney. While visually appealing, they do not produce a substantial amount of heat, so they are nice options for warmer climates where the decorative aspect is more important than the heating capacity.
Vent-free gas fireplace
Vent-free or “ventless” systems are often open to the room, like a B-vent or open-hearth fireplace. They are extremely popular due to their easy installation. They are also extremely efficient, but because of their output limitations, they are not suitable for primary home heating needs.
Vent-free fireplaces are best suited to large, high-ceilinged rooms with plenty of space for the carbon dioxide and humidity they emit to dissipate. They produce a blue flame, unlike the direct vent option which produces a yellow flame that more closely resembles a natural fire.
Gas fireplaces, if not functioning correctly, could create an increased risk of excess carbon monoxide in your home, so you should install carbon monoxide detectors on every floor of your home.
Another safety precaution for gas fireplaces is to install an oxygen-depletion sensor. This device, sometimes referred to as a “safety pilot,” automatically shuts off the gas if the fireplace gets too cold or too much carbon monoxide builds up. While these are most essential with vent-free systems, they can be used with any gas fireplace.
Operating costs of a gas fireplace include the gas, maintaining carbon monoxide detectors, and the cost of routine inspection and cleaning. Gas fireplaces do not produce ash and soot, and release less creosote than wood-burning fires, making their maintenance easier than their wood-fired counterparts. However, as with any fireplace, they should be inspected and cleaned annually.
The cost of installing a gas fireplace varies substantially, based on the fireplace style, vent type, and whether you need to install a new gas line or can connect to an existing source of natural gas or propane. Most B-vent fireplaces use a traditional style (a rectangular opening, a screen or glass doors, and a fake log set). However, many direct vent and vent free gas stoves are available in a more linear model, with a low, wide opening and a wide but shallow burner that creates a “ribbon” of flame. Some offer the option of displaying glass or other art objects in place of fake logs. Hybrid types are also available, creating a wide range of aesthetic options for your home.
An electric fireplace is the most cost-effective and easy-to-install option when adding a fireplace to your home.
How it works
An electric fireplace plugs into the wall — not unlike a large, decorative space heater —which allows for greater flexibility than most of the other fireplace options as it can be moved from room to room at any time.
Rather than containing an actual flame, electric fireplaces use LED lights to project realistic-looking simulated flames onto a screen. Some offer owners the option of adjusting the appearance of the flame (such as changing its color) or selecting other visual effects to compliment the room’s décor. Although early models of electric fireplaces were less aesthetically pleasing, modern versions are much more attractive, and some are designed to realistically resemble a wood-burning fireplace. Some newer models even connect to Wi-Fi, or to Bluetooth speakers.
Electric fireplaces can be adjusted using a remote control, and some come with built-in thermostats. Many offer the option of turning the heating element off but maintaining the visual fireplace-like ambiance, which may be appealing in warmer climates. Most are capable of heating an area up to 500 square feet, and some hardwired models can heat up to 1000 square feet. They are ideal for reducing your heating bills using zone-heating.
Related Post: Gas vs Electric Fireplace – which is best?
Standard electric fireplaces
Electric fireplaces have a variety of mounting/display options. Mantel electric fireplaces are built to resemble wood-burning fireplaces, in that they appear to be built into the wall with an attractive façade, but they can be operated without the need for any kind of vent or chimney. Other electric fireplaces are freestanding, like a wood stove. Some are meant to be mounted on a wall. Finally, some electric fireplaces are enclosed within a piece of furniture, such as an entertainment center. Electric inserts for open-hearth fireplaces are also available, although they are less common than wood-burning or gas inserts.
For assistance selecting a particular model of electric fireplace, consult our buying guide which compares and contrasts many popular models.
One new type of electric fireplace to consider is an infrared fireplace. They differ from traditional electric fireplaces in that they use quartz heating technology. This is a form of radiant heating that uses infrared to heat the surface of objects, similar to an infrared sauna.
Like other electric fireplaces, many infrared models allow you to choose from a variety of visual effects, and a thermostat allows you to vary the heat or run it without emitting heat at all.
Electric fireplaces have additional advantages. They create no mess or exhaust, so not only do they not require professional inspection and cleaning annually like other fireplaces, they have no maintenance requirements at all. LED lights consume little energy and therefore may last 50,000+ hours before they need to be replaced.
These fireplaces are also quite safe, in that they do not emit pollutants into your home, do not produce fire-spreading embers, and are enclosed and cool to the touch, making them very safe to use around pets and small children.
Although an electric fireplace plugs into an ordinary electrical outlet, it should be an outlet connected to a dedicated circuit breaker or fuse rather than adding them to a circuit that is already being used by other outlets or light fixtures, and they should never be plugged into an extension cord.
Electric fireplaces are very affordable compared to other options, with most units priced at under $1,000 and many choices under $300. Installation of an electric fireplace is free and easy to do yourself. Simply plug it in and turn it on. The operating costs, too, are typically low, depending on your local electricity rates.
Infrared fireplaces are particularly efficient compared to other electric heating sources. They are relatively inexpensive, with options under $200, and they are just as easy to install and maintain as other electric fireplaces.
Pellet burning options
If gas and electric fireplaces do not appeal to you, but you don’t have a good firewood source, you might consider wood pellets as a fuel source for your fire-based heating. Pellet-burning options include fireplace inserts and enclosed zero-clearance fireplaces, as well as pellet stoves.
How it works
Pellet-burning systems require a specialized venting system, which adds to the installation cost, but it is not as difficult as installing a chimney or stovepipe. They must be plugged into a standard electrical socket to run the adjustment, ignition, and ventilation systems.
Some pellet stoves are manually loaded, like a woodstove, while others have automated loading systems. Many can run constantly if loaded once or twice a day. Depending on the model you choose, it may come with a thermostat, and some models are programmable. Many use remote control, and some can even be controlled using your cell phone via a mobile app.
Wood pellets burn much more efficiently than wood and even gas, with as little as 10% of their heat escaping through the vent of the most efficient stoves (in contrast to 40-50% for traditional open hearth fireplaces), so pellet heating can be a fraction of the cost of wood or gas-based alternatives.
Pellet-based systems are also very eco-friendly, as they are typically made from wood byproducts (like sawdust or bark) or other forms of biomass, such as corn, soybeans, nutshells, grains (like barley or wheat), fruit pits, vegetable pulp, sunflowers, and other natural products that might otherwise be discarded as waste. Burning wood pellets is cleaner than burning wood logs, but does emit more particulate pollution than gas or electric options.
However, pellet stoves do require more substantial maintenance than other types of fireplaces. The ignition chamber should be vacuumed weekly, and it should be professionally cleaned and inspected annually. With proper cleaning, pellet stoves pose an extremely minimal fire hazard.
Taking into consideration the need to install proper venting, typically a pellet stove can be purchased and installed for $3,000-$5,000. The pellets are generally inexpensive if purchased in bulk.
If you are interested in a pellet stove, you read our guide to choosing the best pellet stove for your needs.
Alternative fuel-burning fireplaces
In recent years, two new fuel options have expanded the range of fireplace choices available for your home: ethanol burning fireplaces and alcohol gel burning fireplaces.
How it works
Ethanol-burning fireplaces are all ventless, so they are convenient and easy to install. Often they are small and portable, so you can move them from room to room as desired.
Contemporary in design, ethanol fireplaces are decorative only. While they do display a real flame, which dances like a candle, they do not produce substantial heat. The enclosed burner enables you to turn the temperature up or down, but they are not efficient enough to heat a house.
Ethanol-burning fireplaces are available as fireplace inserts, wall-mounted units or tabletop units.
Alcohol gel fireplaces
Alcohol gel burning fireplaces are, similarly, an exciting new addition to the range of fireplace options. Because they are self-contained and lightweight, they can easily be moved from room to room or mounted on a wall. They are attractive, contemporary, and burn a real flame that is somewhat denser and less flickering than the flame from an ethanol-burning fire.
Gel fireplaces do not produce substantial heat. Unlike ethanol burning fireplaces, their temperature cannot be adjusted.
Ethanol-burning fireplaces do not emit substantial amounts of smoke, odors, or other pollutants compared to other types of fireplaces. Alcohol gel fireplaces give off no smoke at all. Because of their fuel, these fireplaces should not be left unattended, particularly around pets that might knock them over, creating a fire hazard.
Like ethanol-burning fireplaces, Alcohol gel fireplaces are very easy and inexpensive to install as they do not require venting, an electrical line, or any other hook-up. The units themselves come in a wide variety of sizes and styles, but can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars.
Ethanol fuel canisters must be refilled with denatured ethanol relatively frequently (typically after no more than five hours of use), making them expensive to operate. Likewise, canisters of gel fuel, which have only a few hours of burn time, can be expensive over time.
Choosing your fireplace
The process of choosing a fireplace will be easier if you narrow down your search to a preferred fuel type, and then consider factors such as whether its purpose will be primarily decorative or for home heating, whether it will be fixed in place (due to a vent or chimney) or portable, and how much you are willing to spend for installation, fuel, and servicing. However, with so many options to choose from, you are sure to find a fireplace option that is perfect for your home.