Fireplaces vs. Wood Stoves vs. Zero-Clearance Inserts

2010 March 14
by Otto

We always wanted to have a fireplace. There is a strong emotional component to having a central hearth, and watching wood burn on a cold winter’s night is wonderful.

Our original plan had it on the staircase wall, like this:

original location of fireplace

original location of fireplace

and in elevation:

original fireplace location in elevation

original fireplace location in elevation

It seemed so cool. We imagined a floating, wall-mounted sideboard that happened to have a fireplace in it, very modern and chic. We thought that we’d build a half wall over the staircase so that the stovepipe could run up it. In short, we spent so long planning it and discussing it that we were pretty blindered to reality by the time building happened.

As the wall was being built, we quickly realized that there simply wasn’t room for a big, horizontal, sideboard-type fireplace. I looked around and found a small stove that would fit. I took a photo of the wall and Photoshopped in the stove to scale:

The Rais stove photoshopped in to the staircase wall

The Rais stove photoshopped in to the staircase wall

We had lost our sideboard idea. We also realized that we liked the light coming down from the upstairs windows, and didn’t want to build the half-wall for the stovepipe. So the pipe would have to run in midair all the way to the upstairs ceiling. Less than ideal. But it still wasn’t enough to make us reconsider.

Our “the emperor has no clothes” moment happened when our friend Beth Cochran stopped by. “Why aren’t you putting the fireplace against that wall?” she asked, with all the guilelessness and innocence of someone who hadn’t spent months obsessing over the house in paper form.

We had our various rehearsed arguments we had thought of over the months when the entire project had been theoretical, but in the end we conceded she had a great point. We looked at it this way and that. I remember at one point thinking that both locations had their pros and cons, and that it probably didn’t make too big a difference in the end.

We played with little pieces of paper that represented the furniture on the living room blueprints to see how we might use the room differently. We realized that our main fear – that the room would become too narrow for the couches if the fireplace was against the wall – was essentially unfounded.

We moved the stove.

Here a few photos of what it looked like as it came to life:

The new fireplace framing

The new fireplace framing

Once the stove was in:

The BIS Nova stove installed

The BIS Nova stove installed

fireplace with taped drywall

fireplace with taped drywall

The psychological change since that switch has been enormous. Now we can’t imagine having put the stove on the other wall. It seems like the entire heart of the house would have been missing if we’d left it on the staircase wall.

The move of the fireplace was interesting not for the facts of the case, but for the process of decision-making. I think it happens more often than you’d care to think: decisions that don’t get made as much as hardened as they accrete sufficient history, time, and effort. At some point there is just so much investment in the path taken that it is incredibly hard to look at the facts anew. Even when the facts are obviously in contradiction with the chosen course.

A few more notes regarding fireplaces that I learned while doing the research:

1. Traditional fireplaces are well-known to be a terrible idea from a heating perspective. When you light an open fireplace, you’re essentially creating a draft that pulls warm air up and out of the house. The fire radiates only a little heat into the room when it is lit, and at all other times the (typically metal, typically ill-fitting) damper allows heat to rise out of the chimney.

2. I was confused by the categories: wood stoves (applies to any wood-burning unit other than a traditional fireplace, but typically means a freestanding cast iron unit), fireplace inserts (designed to be inserted into an existing masonry fireplace), and zero-clearance fireplace insert (does not require an existing masonry fireplace, but still has fairly strict regulations regarding proximity to combustible materials.

3. Wood stove design has been completely overhauled since 1990 due to EPA regulations limiting the amount of smoke to 7.5 grams of smoke per hour. The best get down to about 1 gram/hour and can have efficiencies of 78%. They are typically free-standing pellet stoves. (See the whole EPA list as of Jan 10, 2010). Our zero-clearance insert is rated at at 4.8 gm/hr and 63% efficiency, ratings that are about standard for the style of stove.

4. Some of the higher-rated stoves have catalytic converters, which in theory are a great idea. Rising smoke travels through a honey-combed, catalyst-coated grid. The catalysts reignite the smoke, burning particulates and releasing heat. In practice, apparently, they tend to soot up quite quickly and require regular replacement. The other way of achieving reduced particulates and higher efficiency is to raise the temperature of the fire, which can be done through design and clever use of insulating materials.

5. We installed a hose for dedicated fresh air intake so our stove won’t backdraft.

6. Fans to blow air around the stove and into the room are a great idea. Make sure the model you choose has one.

7. There comes a point when you have to pull the plug on research. We were generally horrified by the curlicued, bad-bed-and-breakfast design of most wood stoves, and really liked the simple, clean lines of the BIS Nova. We also wanted a wood stove, not one built for pellets. And we’re not going to use this for primary heating; to a significant degree our stove will be for the ambiance.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Danielle permalink
    August 18, 2010

    Hi – great blog! Just checking to see how the BIS Nova is working for you. We are in the market for a high efficiency wood burning fireplace for our new home and also like the lines of the Nova. Thanks, Danielle

  2. Otto permalink*
    August 19, 2010

    To be honest, we haven’t fired up the stove yet. We haven’t lived here during winter yet! But it looks real nice in the wall. The one thing I can add is that shortly after they installed the unit it was really cold outside and I could feel cold air coming in through the fresh-air intake vent and pouring out in the little gap at the top of the stove, where the hot air would normally come out during use. It remembered that a friend of mine had a similar wood stove and had a similar problem like that. He had to cut a felt pad to stuff into the gap. So since i still had my walls open I had the wood stove installer come back and add a duct flap inside the fresh air intake duct. It has a little handle that i can use to open and close the intake vent, so when I’m not using the fireplace I’m not faced with cold air coming in. Something to think about.

  3. December 9, 2010

    We are building a house and want to know the pros and cons of zero clearance, vs masonry
    other than cost. What type of maintenance is necessary? Is the firebox lined with masonry if it is a hearth type opening. Can the opening size vary? If you want the traditional masonry look, how would you acheive that?

  4. Otto permalink*
    December 9, 2010

    I’m no expert at this, but this is what I believe: A zero clearance box doesn’t need masonry to keep it from burning down the house, it has its own masonry/fire protection built in. But it doesn’t give you very good heat production. For that, you need a wood stove like the BIS Nova. A masonry fireplace is a traditional fireplace. Beautiful, but extremely inefficient and very expensive.

  5. Lisa permalink
    December 10, 2010

    Hi-did you install a hearth in the floor in front of the fireplace? If you did what material did you use? It looks like you have something on the floor but I can’t tell if it’s a hearth or a mat. Also, have you used the BIS Nova yet and if so how is it working out for you?

  6. Otto permalink*
    December 10, 2010

    We used a piece of marble that we had left over from the kitchen counters in the floor as a hearth. And yes, we have used the BIS Nova, and it worked great. The one thing I haven’t perfected yet is keeping the window from sooting up. The manual claims that if you burn the fire hot enough you don’t have any problems with the glass getting a brown film on it, but I haven’t gotten good at that yet. But the trick to cleaning the glass is to take a a piece of newspaper, make it wet, dip it in the ashes in the fireplace, and then clean the glass. Cleans right up.

  7. Brittany permalink
    April 3, 2012

    So is the BIS Nova safe to use in a zero clearance built fireplace? And where are some of the places that carry it?

  8. Otto permalink*
    April 4, 2012

    I believe that is correct, all you need is a zero-clearance fireplace. Not sure about the distributors…but Mr. Google will surely be able to help.

  9. April 24, 2012

    I too have purchased the BIS nova, and thanks for the detail install pictures.
    I’ve fired this up for a week straight, before closing it in. Great stove for the price.

    Wouldn’t mind an updated picture of your install. I’m still in process of deciding how to face it, and to tile or build a mantle.

  10. December 30, 2012

    Hi Otto,

    We are building a house in Bozeman and are also using the BIS NOVA. Did you face around the fireplace with drywall, or was it some other type of non combustible material. We really like the integrated look without having to face with tile or brick if possible. Any advice you can give would be appreciated. Thanks

  11. Otto permalink*
    January 1, 2013

    I believe we just used regular drywall (the wall doesn’t get very warm at all even when the fire is raging in the BIS Nova), but general building codes will provide the answer. Potentially we used some kind of special non-combustible drywall, but that’s readily available and your contractor can obtain it. In any case, the finished look is completely integrated–the BIS Nova is built right into the wall with painted wall going right up to the firebox on all four sides. We did need to insert a stone hearth into our wood floor so that stray sparks don’t start a fire–again, simply following city building codes. I strongly recommend you install and use the fan that blows around the firebox and into the room. It massively speeds up heat distribution.

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