Drolet Fireplace Insert: Energy Cost Savings and Installation Techniques

Oil heat is common in the American Northeast. During the 50s, it was advertised as clean, inexpensive and safe. It is still clean and safe, but it is no longer cheap. We bought oil three times in the minimum purchase 160 gallon lot and paid prices ranging from $4.23 per gallon to $3.59 per gallon within a six-week time period. That’s a lot more expensive than the $2.39 per gallon price I paid last year. It may sound like penny-pinching, but with such price volatility, it made sense to buy oil in increments, in the same way that people buy stocks through “dollar cost averaging.”

Estimating a use of 1000 gallons per annum, I calculated we would save an amount ranging from $1000 to $2000 per year. Another advantage provided by the purchase of a wood stove or insert is that it provides insurance against power outages. Ice storms are frequent in our area of Pennsylvania, and so are power outages. Part of the calculated savings at our house is based on cutting the firewood myself. The 1,000 gallon estimated use is based on an unusually warm Pennsylvania heating season last year, and a relatively efficient oil burning system. The Farmer’s Almanac predicts a harsher winter this year.

It was quite an experience shopping for an alternative heating source. The possibilities are endless. You have to choose between pellet stoves, wood stoves, fireplace inserts, outdoor wood burners, decorative soapstone stoves, and a variety of “alternatives” that were merely decorative. Pellet stoves are expensive and pay for the ease of use because you can buy bagged pellets, currently sold at Lowe’s and Home Depot for about $6.50 for a 40 lb. bag. Outdoor wood burners are expensive, do not have aesthetic qualities, but they produce massive amounts of heat. Soapstone is beautiful and radiates heat evenly but these units are expensive and still occupy space.

What worked best for us is a fireplace insert. We already had a lovely fireplace, but it was inefficient and wasteful, useful only to provide atmosphere during the Christmas holidays. There is a wide variety of choices in fireplace inserts: Quadrafire, Lopi, Napoleon, Vermont Castings, Regency, and many others. Many of them were very expensive, requiring a long period before the cost would be recouped through savings on fuel cost. Cost and quality were foremost for us in buying a fireplace insert. Why spend more when the object is to spend less? We disregarded the bells and whistles of many fireplace inserts and bought a good quality insert with a simple, unadorned design. The Drolet 1400I fireplace insert is manufactured in the cold weather country of French Canada.

While many people encouraged me to install the fireplace insert myself, I made the right choice in buying the unit installation package from Spring Hill Chimney Service in Moscow, Pa. I chose that company because they were full service, specialized in Drolet, and are manufacturers of good quality chimney liners. There were no slick salespeople to deal with; personnel of Spring Hill Chimney Service were down to earth and direct in their dealings with us. Spring Hill Chimney Service is full service; other wood heating retail outlets charge higher prices for chimney liners because they sell them as separate “kits.”

The chief concerns in installing a wood stove or fireplace insert are safety, capacity, location, and output. Translated, this means that the unit must be properly installed, be sufficient to heat the area you want to heat, and properly located to do so. Unless you are completely certain of what you are buying, I would recommend that you don’t buy a used or second-hand unit. Used units may not meet modern regulatory requirements for emissions, nor for operating efficiency. It is important to have an EPA approved non-catalytic unit.

Units are often rated by BTU output; this is a guideline only. BTU output is impacted by the type of wood you use and whether or not it is properly seasoned. The chimney or venting system is one of the most important considerations. Too wide an existing chimney, as ours was, will require that you install a liner, preferably made of stainless steel reinforced with titanium. The one we used was “3/8th stainless steel TI.” “TI” refers to the titanium alloy of metals comprising the stainless steel chimney liner. The fireplace insert chimney liner must also be wrapped in a fiberglass insulator.

Researching and choosing a unit only begins to describe the process of installing an alternative heating source. There is the practical side of doing it. In retrospect, it would have been a Herculean task for me to accomplish that myself. It is recommended that your chimney receive a thorough cleaning and inspection before you begin.

Removing the firebrick and carrying the 300 plus pound unit into the house and setting it in place is the next consideration. Spring Hill Chimney Service sent two amiable and strong individuals named Les and Keith.

The chimney liner must be unrolled from its packaging and stretched. While Les did that job, Keith sprayed a glue along the length of the liner in preparation for the fiberglass insulating wrap. Then, both men positioned the insulating wrapper around the liner and fastened it.

The next step requires getting on the roof of the house, removing any obstructing chimney caps, and positioning the liner. The assembled chimney liner is dropped through the chimney to the place where the insert stove is located. The liner is attached with clips and metal screws. At the top of the chimney, it is fitted with a collar.

Back inside the house, Les installed the faceplate. Be aware that some companies sell the faceplates as separate units at additional cost. This was so at two sellers I checked: Amazon and Northern Tool Company. The faceplate, sold separately by these companies, must be assembled with metal screws, trim, and then positioned around the unit. Faceplates and stove doors are sold separately in some cases, because some people prefer to buy decorative options. Be that as it may, we liked the Drolet simplicity of design. We did not like the artificially scrolled and expensive (about $300.00) faceplates which other people may prefer. It was the same with the door which came with the Drolet: simple elegance in flat black.

And voila!… but not exactly. In spite of the summer heat on that day, installers Leslie and Keith informed me that their procedure required them to start a fire before they could leave. They asked me to get some “starter wood.” While the air-tight combustion chamber and outside weather made the fire slow starting, the very small fire (three or four sticks of kindling) we made soon turned the living room into a sauna that continued to throw heat long after the installation technicians had left.

So what is my assessment of the Drolet 1400I fireplace insert purchase and installation now? Well, the weather has turned cooler in the mornings and I’ve made a few fires. Les and Keith, the installers, advised me to make a few small fires first to “condition” the firebrick. I’m very happy with the purchase and installation. I had been worried about the capacity of the smaller fireplace insert unit, a Drolet 1400I, but those worries were groundless.

Firing an airtight modern unit is a slower process in the beginning but the heating capacity is more than adequate in heating the most often used rooms of our seven room rancher. The Drolet 1400I comes equipped with a quiet blower operated by its own thermostat. The simple, plain style of the unit has an Early American appeal. The efficiency is somewhat astounding, even for fall weather conditions; two or three dry sticks of seasoned hardwood lasts for hours and the unit keeps putting out heat long after the fire is out.

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