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I have a single-story 1400 sq/ft house (4 bedroom). Here's a VERY rough sketch of the layout:

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The house has blown-in insulation on the exterior walls but no insulation on the interior walls. Windows are single-pane aluminum (we're getting ready to systematically replace these this year).

At the current time, we don't have any heating (the fireplace that's there is a standard masonry fireplace but we haven't used it (there's a gas line hookup nearby but it's not connected).

At this point, we're considering a couple options:

1) Get a gas-powered fireplace insert

2) Get central heating.

The fireplace salesman naturally said that his solution is the best (citing something about fireplace inserts offering better energy/heat transference efficiency than central heating).

I like the idea of a thermostat-controlled fireplace insert but I'm skeptical that something like this could heat an entire house.

So my questions are:

1) Is it remotely possible for a fireplace insert to heat an entire house? Especially considering the rough dimensions of my house?

2) Are Fireplaces truly more heat/energy efficient?

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2  
It can heat a single room, but anything else will be very imbalanced (one room hot, the others will be cold). A central system allows you to direct heat to each room and control it by dampers in the vents. – BMitch Jan 15 '13 at 1:48
    
Heating a single room with a fireplace is fine if it is supported by either minisplits or a ducted system to keep other spaces at certain base temperature. That might be a good option here, especially if you like cool (not cold) bedrooms but a warm living space. – Evan Johnson Apr 18 '13 at 16:37

There is no way that a simple fireplace insert can heat a house the same way that a central air system that pipes the heated air into each room.

It is possible to have a fireplace built that has a heat exchanger built into it that feeds into an air circulation system such that the warmed air is moved around to other parts of the house. However I doubt that your existing fireplace has this heat exchanger system built into it...then yet the ducting to an air curculation system into the rest of the house.

I'm glad to see that you seem to have it in mind that the advice that you get from the fireplace salesman will always be biased toward what he is trying to sell you!!

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The answer will depend on how much you need to heat the house. Are you talking about taking the chill off on a 50°F morning or keeping the pipes from freezing when it is 20°F outside?

If you need to heat your home to keep it from freezing, then looking at the floor plan I would opt for central heating. In my experience area heaters will comfortably heat the room they are in and any directly adjacent rooms. To get the rooms at the extreme ends comfortable, the room with the heater will be really warm. This can eased some what with fans to circulate the heat but this doesn't work well if the doors are closed for any length of time.

When salesmen make statements about efficiency they may be giving you some of the truth. Electric heat is very efficient, none of the heat it generates goes up the flue. However it may not be cost effective if your kilowatt rate is very high. You have to compare apples to apples.

A gas insert may be more fuel efficient than an oil fired furnace. That means that less of the heat from burning the fuel goes up the flue. This doesn't mean it is the best way to heat your house.

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It won't heat a house as evenly, but a direct vent gas fireplace with a good blower can be fairly efficient and can definitely heat 1400 square feet (provided you size the insert correctly).

I see two drawbacks:

1) You'll need a blower on it. Blowers can be noisy. Probably won't be able to watch TV if it's sitting next to the fireplace.

2) You're probably not going to get even heat in that floor plan. Bedroom 3 will be a lot colder than the room with the fireplace.

You can possibly remedy issue #2 by installing ceiling fans in several rooms. That will keep air moving throughout the house. (you could just use floor fans too, though that's a little cumbersom).

All that said, maybe #2 isn't all that big of a problem. If you're mainly in the bedrooms to sleep, a handful of blankets might be all you need to even things out. (some folks prefer cold bedrooms anyways (I do)).

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Thanks. Yeah, the unit we're looking at has a blower in it. – Mike B Jan 15 '13 at 4:10

I have an Empire brand 65,000 btu input free standing stove with blower that heats my house (about 1,000 sq.ft.) and it heats it quite well during our sometimes extremely cold northern Michigan winters. We're talking some -20 plus wind chill days where it runs every 10 minutes but it does the job. Now this is an old house which has been insulated but there are enough drafts to remind you it's not July. The bathroom which is furthest from the heat source gets to about 65. I've thought of getting two small vent free heaters to put in the kitchen and living room which are at opposite ends of the house to more evenly heat the place and thus not tax any one unit by having it run so often.

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I grew up for a time in a house smaller than yours, 1000ft with two bedrooms, in the Pacific Northwest. Insulation was pretty much non existant. We did heat the entire house with a woodstove. It wasn't a huge unit, and you could certainly get an insert with a lot more heat. I believe you could (depending on where you live) heat your house with a gas insert, but it is a very different way of living to central heat.

There are two requirements to doing this. You have to keep the stove hot almost all the time, and you have to install some kind of circulation system.

With a woodstove you can control the burn rate, so you would want a variable gas insert, especially to keep it from cycling too often. You won't be able to bring the house up to temperature faster than a couple hours, so you have to make sure to keep it from getting too low.

The second requiremnt is circulation. You will absolutely want to move air out of the heated space and into the bedroom, otherwise they may never heat. We installed small fans in several closets and hung a fan in the hallway leading back to the bedrooms.

It will almost certainly be cheaper and more pleasant to install central air. My advice is: Keep the fireplace as an accent piece and for the pleasance of the fire itself.

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