The temperature drops and your heart sinks with it. You clutch your heating bill with frozen fingers.
Moving South certainly has its appeal, but the more feasible way to cut heating costs for many winter-weary New Englanders may be to install a fireplace or insert. There are a number of options, so making the right choice for your home and needs requires a ton of research on cost, maintenance, frequency of use, fuel, installation, efficiency, etc.
Thanks to New England’s older housing stock — the second-oldest in the country by some accounts — many homes already have fireplaces, but maybe yours no longer works. One popular option is an insert — gas or wood-burning. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association’s biennial Hearth Market Report, the shipment of gas fireplaces and inserts far outpaced the shipment of wood-burning devices by nearly a 3-to-1 margin in the United States in 2016.
“A lot of people come in and say they want a fireplace, but what they really want is an insert to go into their existing fireplace,’’ said Bruce Keltie, who has owned Commonwealth Fireplace in Norwood for 18 years.
With all of the different possibilities (only some of which we delve into below), a fireplace or insert can be a very complex purchase.
“One of the reasons that I have a job is that things can get complicated,’’ Keltie said. “It’s not like buying a book on Amazon — there’s a lot more to it than that — but it’s an industry that’s doing well. People come in and say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and they find out that it’s either simpler or much more difficult than they thought.’’
To makes your search a little bit easier, we’ve done a roundup of five options, their cost, and pros and cons:
Convenient, cost-effective, and popular
Price range $2,000-$10,000-plus, depending on what you need to have installed and where
Gas fireplaces and inserts have grown more powerful in terms of heating a space, according to manufacturer Kozy Heat Fireplaces. Plus, you don’t have to clean out the ash from previous fires, and you can operate it via remote control. At Commonwealth Fireplace, gas is the top seller by far, according to Keltie. Gas fireplaces and inserts “have gotten so nice-looking that many people who wouldn’t have considered it in the past are now,’’ he said.
Pro No need for a chimney
Many gas fireplaces and inserts can be directly vented to the outside. They take in fresh air from the outside for the combustion system and expel the exhaust.
Con You need gas
If you don’t have a gas line, you’ll have to install one or get a propane tank setup outside the house.
Authentic, hot, and entertaining
Price range $1,500-$3,000
Wood stoves are very popular with homeowners who already have a chimney and an old fireplace and want to update them, Keltie said. Stoves are freestanding and contain an enclosed firebox in which the wood is burned and a stovepipe that sends exhaust out through the chimney. Because they are contained in this way, wood stoves are safer than traditional fireplaces, according to the nonprofit The Wood Heat Organization, and they tend to heat spaces more efficiently.
Pro It’s a real fire
Nothing beats a real wood fire. The smell, the crackling sound, and the color of the flame can make New England winters much more bearable. Gas units have real flames, but they’re about as exciting to watch as the burner on your gas range in the kitchen.
Con There’s a lot of extra work
Firewood needs to be either purchased or cut, stored, and carried. Fires need to be lighted and maintained, as does the enclosed firebox.
The wood stove’s hotter cousin
Price range $1,500-$5,000
Pellet stoves are similar to wood stoves in many ways, but they use electricity and a different fuel. Pellets are produced from wood waste like sawdust that has been mixed with water, shaped, and then put under pressure to remove all of the water. This results in a denser, purer product that burns very hot and clean because there are no impurities like saps and moisture, according to manufacturer woodpellets.com.
Pro Very effective heater
Pellet stoves can heat large spaces with ease. They often have built-in convection fans that blow the hot air around the home. “You can load a pellet stove and get the same constant heat out of it, not a fluctuation of heat, and it can go for double the time’’ of a wood stove, said Scott Williamson, owner of Pellet Stove Service in Rehoboth. “As soon as fire is established and heat is stabilized in the firebox, you can control how much heat you want, [and] you can run it on a household thermostat if you want it to . . . Freestanding stoves are more prevalent than the inserts. When people buy an insert, there aren’t as many options available, so many people invest more money in inserts. . . . They’re still very popular for people who want to convert a chimney into something halfway efficient.’’
Con Requires electricity
Pellet stoves operate differently than wood stoves. They rely on a feeder that connects to an auger, which consistently dumps the pellets into a burn pot.
Very convenient, not very realistic
Price range $1,000-$3,000
Electric fireplaces have gained popularity over the past few years, particularly with people living in condos without gas hookups or chimneys. They have no real flame, but a screen display of one and a small heating element. Many electric fireplaces are built into furniture, such as TV stands.
Electric fireplaces can be placed anywhere near a power outlet and require minimal setup.
Con Limited heat
Electric fireplaces have a nice look, but can’t heat the room they’re in most of the time, let alone a house.
It’s the real deal, but you won’t find many deals
Price range Greatly depends on what renovations you’ll need to do and can easily top $10,000 if a new chimney is required
If you want to go all out, an open-hearth fireplace is the classic answer. Ventilated through a chimney, these brick-lined fireplaces are usually custom-built.
Looks-wise, built-in fireplaces are the best of the bunch. The glow of the flame off the bricks, coupled with the crackling sound of a real wood fire, is tough to match.
Con Low efficiency
Built-in fireplaces are great for heating one room but don’t have the power to heat large sections of a house like a wood stove can. “Open fireplaces are inefficient heaters because of the uncontrolled combustion cycle that allows much of the heat to go up the flue, whereas the controlled combustion of wood stoves radiates most of the heat into the room,’’ Keltie said.
If you are going to install a heating device, make sure to get your building permit, have the system inspected, and follow the instructions for proper use and clearance. You can find the state Department of Fire Services’ brochure on chimney and wood stove safety at www.mass.gov/files/2017-07/chimney-woodstove-2015.pdf.
Whether your desire is a warmer house or a cozier environment, one of these modern advances may be just the solution you’re looking for. It certainly beats packing a moving truck for Florida.