The Difference Between Fireplaces and Fireplace Inserts

What’s the difference between Fireplaces and Fireplace Inserts?

There is a lot of confusion about these terms. After all, a “fireplace” ought to be any place you can have a fire, right? Yep, but there is a difference anyway and today I’ll lay it out for everyone.

Open Fireplace example

An Example of an Open Fireplace


What is a fireplace?

When folks talk about a “fireplace” they generally mean an open fireplace. This usually means an opening in the wall with a flue above it so you can have a fire indoors. The key here is that it’s open. To confuse the matter more, a lot of fireplaces have glass doors on the front. You might point out that it’s not open anymore, and you’d be right, but it’s still “a fireplace.”

Types of Fireplaces

Fireplaces can be either masonry fireplaces or factory-built fireplaces (also called prefabricated or “prefabs.)

Masonry Fireplace

A masonry fireplace is almost always built of bricks. There are some specialty types that are more exotic and use refractory materials, but 99.9% of them are made with bricks.

Factory Built Fireplace

A factory-built fireplace is a metal box with refractory bricks inside manufactured to be framed into a house, without masonry. Sometimes they are gas fireplaces, but they are often for burning wood. These are perfectly safe when installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

The Heatalator

There’s also sort of “an in-between” situation, commonly called the Heatalator. Heatalator is a brand name which is applied to products which are generally like it. Just as all tissues aren’t Kleenex brand, it’s pretty common to just ask for a Kleenex and everybody understands. The same is true with Heatalator. It’s a metal firebox which is built into a masonry structure. Even though it was built in a factory, this is still considered a masonry fireplace. This is because of clearance and heat transfer requirements etc. Too much information? Suffice to say Heatalators are also fireplaces.

Fireplace Inserts

regency alterra CI1250-ASo what’s a fireplace insert? In a word, it’s a stove. Either gas or wood, it’s a stove which is inserted into an open fireplace.

Fireplace inserts are almost exclusively installed into masonry fireplaces, though there are a few very special models which are listed to be installed into prefabricated fireplaces, such as the Regency Alltera CI1250.

A fireplace insert must always be installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions and listings or you’ll put your house in serious jeopardy. Following these two bits of advice will go a long way toward keeping you and your family warm and safe at the same time!

  • Insist that your stove have a properly-sized liner all the way from the top of the stove out of the top of the existing chimney. Click here for more information about chimney liners.
  • Insist on knowing that any insert you buy is listed for installation into your fireplace.

8 thoughts on "The Difference Between Fireplaces and Fireplace Inserts"

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Chris Chernes says:

I had my fireplace insert cleaned by you about 13 years ago. I understand that you should have it cleaned after burning a cord of wood. I barely use mine. So , my question is , do I need to clean it anyway? And I’d there any danger if metal fatigue w inserts ?

Dale Howard says:

A very astute question. Yes, the metal does wear out eventually, even without fire. That’s not to say it has happened to you, but you do have to keep an eye on metal fireplaces. If it’s a factory built fireplace you are less likely to have a fatigue problem than a masonry fireplace with a metal firebox (Heatalator is a major brand of those, and generally descriptive of that type). The problem the metal fireboxes with masonry chimneys can have is that that they often never get to dry out and are subject to rust from behind (especially ones below grade). It’s an invisible problem but way more common that most folks imagine. It comes to light when the firebox is being removed for some other reason, and lo and behold- the metal is so thin it’d take your breath away. Very common even if mostly unknown.

As to cleaning; you’ll likely profit more from the inspection than the cleaning itself I think. Get a certified sweep out there to look it over, sweep it if necessary, and maybe show him this note with my suggestion to pay special attention to the firebox.

Good luck and stay warm!

T.L. Lawrence says:

I have a question. When we bought our house (it was built in the 1950s, we bought it in 2004), the main fireplace in the living room had mortar missing from between the bricks in the firebox. We figured we just needed to calk in some more fireplace mortar, but then we discovered the bricks had actually shifted and would probably need to be rebuilt completely (WAAAAY out of budget until Publishers Clearinghouse shows up).

My question is this: could we simply put a steel liner in the firebox? Or would we be better off to just seal up the chimney to prevent heat loss and get a little electric flame for effect?

High's Chimney Service Inc. says:

You’re asking the right questions. Yes, I think you need to just hold
for now. If the thing is basically falling apart, just close the damper
and use the electric heater for now.

I don’t think sealing a chimney up is ever a great idea. They get moist
and stay moist, which is bad. Better to just close the damper and know
you will have a little heat loss – which will be good for the chimney.

One other thought. If you are getting “I need Ed McMahon to show up at
my door to pay for this prices” to rebuild the firebox, call around for
more prices. That job shouldn’t cost *that* much. A hint: in March,
which is right between heating season and the start of masonry season
(ie about as slow as it gets) you may be able to get your best price.
Gather some estimates and then call in February and dicker on a price
for March. It’ll work out for both you and the company you do business

Good luck and stay warm!

T.L. Lawrence says:

Thank you very much. LOL, trouble is, even the best price I could find is still likely in Ed McMahon territory right now. But that’s okay. Knowing to just close the fool thing up and go with decorative “fire” only means the matter is closed for the foreseeable future. One more project down! TLL, Provo, Utah

Leah says:

Hi! I have a question. We are having our fireplace redone. After we purchased the house, we found out when they tiled over the masonry fireplace , they used wood behind the tile (causing a fire hazard). Anyway, it is being redone in brick and we are told the chimney is in good condition. Anyway, there is a gas line in the firebox and it had ceramic wood piled in there. My question is, it is safe to have a wood burning fire in there with the gas line? I think it is more than just a starter….there is a metal tray that the ceramic logs were sitting in. I asked the guy redoing the brick and he said, “It should be fine”. I kind if want a more definitive answer than “should”. Thanks!

High's Chimney Service Inc. says:

Dear Leah,

That ceramic wood is gas logs. Nothing wrong with gas logs, but no you do not want a gas line inside a wood burning fireplace. The guy who says “it should be fine”… I have no idea what he’s thinking.

I am aware that some people have had gas starters in wood fireplaces in the past, but not anymore. It was always a terrible idea: get that gas line out of there!

And enjoy your new fireplace!

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