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Saturday, January 19, 2019

How to Choose a Hearth Appliance

High-efficiency fireplace by Regency
Since there are so many options for hearth appliances, it can sometimes be difficult to make a decision.  There are many choices available now from old school open fireplaces that actually take heat from the house, to high-tech hybrid masonry heaters that heat an entire house with very little wood. Both gas and wood-burning appliances are available, and making the right choice can mean the difference between thoroughly enjoying a fire or regretting the day you decided to make a purchase. 

First and foremost, it is critical to purchase a quality appliance from a reputable hearth dealer or chimney sweep, and that the installer is certified by the National Fireplace Institute and/or the Chimney Safety Institute of America (preferably both). These Certifications show that the installer is trained in their field. Also be sure to find out if the dealer is properly licensed by the local contractor agency and pulls a permit from the city codes department if required by your city. Professional dealers carry quality products. 

Buying from a big box store or local farm store may be tempting because of the low prices. The price reflects the quality, workmanship, and the warranty of the appliance, and that is why these types of stores sell the cheaper items. The metal is not as thick, the welds may not be as strong, and some stores even continue to sell non-EPA approved appliances which are not legal. You may also find non U.L. listed products online or in stores and that is a big problem since your local codes likely don't allow them. There is a reason - these appliances are inferior and could be a fire hazard in the near future. We've actually seen cheap stoves burn out in one season. 

Another problem with box store hearth appliances (other than electric units which are OK) is that they don't provide a qualified installer to install it. Gas and wood-burning stoves and fireplace inserts should only be installed by a qualified professional,  and the manual likely states that or the warranty is voided. There is a reason for this, too - there are too many mistakes that could be made that can cause a fire or Carbon Monoxide hazard.

Below is a chart I made to help people choose the appliance that is right for them: 
If you can't read the small print, go to our website at and you'll find this same page under appliances. 

Things never to buy: 
  • Non-U.L. Listed appliances
  • Barrel-stove kits (unsafe and not U. L. listed)
  • Non-EPA approved appliances
  • Older appliances that were made prior to 1989 (f you have one, get rid of it unless it is a rare early EPA approved and U.L. listed product)
And do not sell your old appliance - have it hauled to the dump. It is illegal to install a non-approved appliance in most jurisdictions. 

Remember that your local jurisdiction may REQUIRE a professional to do the installation, including the chimney or flue liner and connecting pipe, components, chimney cover, wall and floor protection, etc. and won't let homeowners DIY. 


House fire 
Let me repeat that - this is not a DIY project. I don't care how handy you are, if you are an engineer, contractor, or genius -if you are not a hearth or chimney professional you will miss something important!

After all, we are talking about FIRE in your house! 

I don't suggest using non-venting gas logs (see my article To Vent or Not to Vent on this blog for more info), or pellet stoves. Pellet stoves require weekly maintenance by the homeowner, which they never do, and then the stove stops working. There are also times when in the middle of winter it is impossible to find pellets. So for this reason I say stay away from pellet heating appliances. Pellet grills and smokers, on the other hand, are very easy and fun to use and you can always get pellets in the spring.  

Keep in mind that the newer the appliance the cleaner burning it is. The Environmental Protection Agency has come down hard on wood-burning appliance manufacturers and they've really stepped up and are now making super clean burning products. Some wood-burning stoves and inserts are hybrids, which means that a catalytic combustor is installed along with a secondary burn chamber. 

Custom masonry heater
by Gene Padgitt
So what is my favorite heating appliance?  Masonry heaters, of course. Masonry heaters use 1/3 the wood of a new clean- burning wood stove to produce the same amount of heat. They also retain the heat for long periods of time then emit this in the form of radiant heat throughout the day or evening, and only require loading twice per day. And no fan is required. The hybrid ECCO stove/masonry heater is also a very good choice. If you prefer gas, go with a direct vent gas insert that will provide ambiance and heating and is easy to use with a remote control! 

If you are considering a fireplace insert because your chimney is damaged by a chimney fire or rain water, remember to ask your chimney sweep to remove the creosote in the flue and chamber first. Creosote can cause bad odors, but more importantly can catch on fire when exposed to heat from the flue liner that comes with the stove. 

I know, this is a lot to consider, but hopefully I've made your job a bit easier. 

Marge Padgitt is a veteran chimney specialist in Kansas City, Missouri. She is a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep and NFI Certified Gas Specialist. Contact her at

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