The Good: It looked all right to start with (sort of), Heats fairly well
The Bad: Glass exploded (twice), Manual is contradictory, Firebricks eroded after one season, Warranty, CRAPPY Damper!
The Basics: This woodburning fireplace is a menace to the user and not a reliable source of heat; shell out for something better, even if the initial cost is a bit higher.
Four years ago, right around this time, my whole world fell apart. Actually, it fell apart, then it burned out a portion of what little remained. To cap off the worst year of my life, I had a house fire that destroyed a whole wall of my house and left it uninhabitable for months. Fortunately, my two cats were able to be rescued and I had a place to stay, but there's something very unsettling - beyond words - about having a gaping hole in ones house at the onset of winter. And there are the smells, the people tromping through in snow-covered boots on a rug you always took your shoes off to step on, the complete chaos.
My fire happened because I (apparently) had a chimney fire in my newly opened and inspected fireplace for which I had bought a new set of beautiful glass doors. The chimney sweep apparently had not done a great job of cleaning out the chimney and after a mere five fires, a creosote fire began along a crack that had gone undetected in the firebricks and boom, a whole portion of my house was gone in minutes.
As the repairs got underway, the contractor I had at the time (it ought to be noted that I might yet write two blogs to supplement this, one on choosing a contractor, the other on heating a house with wood) began to ask me about what kind of firebox I wanted and he didn't seem to understand that I loved the fireplace I had had before. It was an all-firebrick, giant hearth that stretched back and had an ash trap that dumped coal and dust to a pit that allowed them so safely smolder out until springtime when it could all be shoveled out from a little door on the outside. I loved that fireplace and after two years of living in my house, it was such a thrill to open it up and renovate it and get it looking so good.
Well, I had managed to land a job and my contractor decided to plug on ahead before I could go look at the fireboxes to pick out what I wanted. What I ended up with - very much without my input - was a Sovereign Woodburning Fireplace. I wish now I had had the guts the moment I saw it to tell my contractor it was not what I wanted and force him to redo the project right.
The Sovereign Woodburning Fireplace is one of the Majestic Fireplaces Royal Collection models. It comes in two possible sizes, models SC36A or SC42A. It is essentially the same thing as the models SR36A and SR42A (they share a common manual) save that the SC models, are heat circulating models, whereas the SRs are heat radiating. This means the SCs have a fan system and blow hot air out whereas the SRs simply radiate the heat without any help and are somewhat more limited as far as heating homes as opposed to making one room quite toasty.
The 36 and 42 refer to the two possible widths of the openings to the fireplace. This is an important place to point out the first misnomer a buyer might have; the 36 has an internal usable width of thirty-six inches, but the actual width of the unit at its opening is forty inches and it needs about an inch to clear, so it is ideal for replacing an existing fireplace at least forty inches wide. Similarly, the SC42A may have an internal width at its front of forty-two inches, but it requires a 47" opening to properly fit it.
The SC36A that was installed on me was a little fireplace with about half the internal space of what I was used to with my natural, mason-constructed fireplace that was now a pile of rubble near my gardens. The firebox - the inside of the fireplace, where the fire goes - is a trapezoid shape with its widest point at the mouth of the unit, where the doors to the fireplace are. The yard-long opening in front became confined to a twenty-two inch wide back about twenty-two inches from the front. The usable space inside the firebox is a consistent 22 3/4" high.
Here's the problem with looking at manuals or the site for the Sovereign; it gives great and precise measurements, but what it isn't telling you is that what you're seeing in the diagrams - and what I've just described with the measurements - are the specifications for the metal frame of the firebox. The firebox is lined with firebricks that are approximately two inches thick. So, with my original fireplace that had a usable interior that was square, almost thirty-six inches wide front to back, which was over two feet deep and over two feet high, I was replacing it with a firebox where the internal usable space was thirty-one and an eighth inches wide at its widest point, narrowing to a crummy nineteen and seven-eighths inches at the back, which was only a paltry fifteen and a half inches away! The usable height was, at best, twenty-one inches.
Yes, my first shock when looking at the Sovereign was "this is dinky!" My second thought was my stomach sinking as I realized I was going to have to recut a lot of wood! The effect of the firebox being so small with its installed firebricks was magnified by the fact that there was a raised grate installed into the unit where the wood would go. The grate was at least two inches off the floor of the fireplace, further adding to the sense of this being a diminished space for burning wood.
The Sovereign has two folding glass doors that open as panels on a track. Pulling them open at the middle folds two panels open to the left and two panels open to the right. To start with there were no problems with opening or closing the doors. Instantly, I had a problem with this system because I had made it quite clear to my contractor that I did not want my house (or me) smelling like smoke. Thus, when I noticed the gaps between the glass panels (about a half inch between each of the four panels!) of the door, I had some serious trepidations about its effectiveness at keeping smoke out of the house.
The doors have a nice chain link screen behind them that may be pulled closed to help protect rugs, cats or anything else directly in front of the fireplace from being hit with sparks or ash.
At the top and the bottom of the unit are grates for sucking cold air in (to feed the fire) and blowing hot air out from the ventilation system in order to heat the house. There is no ash trap to magically remove ash, coals and debris.
Installing the Sovereign is - quite seriously - the work of a trained contractor. All sorts of warranties are voided by improper installation of the Sovereign; the installation manual is 23 pages long! There are all sorts of specifications and codes needed to install this unit properly and without training and experience, in addition to violating warranties, home insurance provisions (in many cases), and local building codes, there is an increased risk of actually burning down your house. Besides, honestly, with the firebox assembly, the fan installation and the construction of the chimney array, most of us common people do not even have the tools or materials needed to accomplish this task!
Leave installation to a professional (but be REAL picky about who you choose for the work! And don't pay them until you're satisfied!). Because this might require indoor and outdoor work with potential alterations to the foundation of a house, professional installation cannot be under-recommended once you've chosen a Sovereign (if you insist on doing that!).
Operating the Sovereign is a revelation into bad design. The poorly designed firebox begins with the damper. The damper is a little metal flap, round in shape, that covers the opening to the flue, the access to the chimney. The flue is where the smoke goes when the unit is working properly. In order to operate the Sovereign, the damper has to be opened. I'm not going to review the entire eighteen page operations manual, but there are some basics that explain why this model is a terrible choice for most people who want to heat their homes with wood.
The damper is a cheap piece of crap. This is a disc attached to a metal rod that one needs to pull down to open. This means that when the unit is active, the only method of closing the flue off is being licked by flames. Yup, if one has a chimney fire with the Sovereign you must make the unenviable choice of burning your hands completely to seal off the flue and cut off the air supply to the chimney or lose an entire wall.
In practical terms this means two other very important things: 1. the Sovereign is not going to allow you to sleep and 2. Whenever you have severe weather or cold, your fire is in serious jeopardy. The damper cannot be closed at the end of the night, which means that if you have a nice fire going and you want to go to sleep, you can, but when you wake up, your fire will be out, your firebox will be cold and whatever rooms you were heating with said fire will as cold as the outside (or on their way there!). Whatever forces you believe in help you if you fall asleep with the fan on! You'll be blowing cold air into your home! The second problem comes because the metal disc is pretty simple and it is held up by attaching the lever that opens the damper to two prongs. The thing is, the lever and prongs get bent very easily so after a month's use, I quickly found the damper was no longer flush!
This means that whenever there is no fire in your fireplace, cold air is coming down the chimney, into your fireplace (and as we'll see later, into the house in my experience!). If you get windy weather, this model is absolutely terrible for a backdraft. I had the constant fear something was going to simply fly down my flue into my fireplace (a very real concern as I have bats on the back porch!).
So, you open the damper and light a fire in the fireplace using dry wood, a firestarter to start it all with and matches or a lighter. With fires inside the home, one does not use lighter fluid of any kind. After the fire gets going, close the doors, turn on the fan an voile! You have heat.
You also have burnt hands and exploding glass in my experience.
Yeah, there are a couple wonderful reasons to pass on the Sovereign.
First, the small firebox makes for a real prohibitive experience as far as the size of wood that may be used. The fire can get hot, but with good dry wood and the fan running the fire hot, the entire contents of the firebox will be burned through in less than an hour! That means restocking frequently.
Second, it's always recommended you have a pair of gloves for use with one of these outfits, but with the Sovereign, it's especially important for those who like the aesthetics of watching a fire. Why? The chain link screens. Sure they look great, but they get wicked hot and it only takes grabbing the knob that closes them once to teach one to never try closing the screens without gloves!
Finally, the glass on my Sovereign exploded. Twice. Two different panels, without wood touching them, without any warning or provocation, on two separate occasions, they exploded. This just means they were cheap, poorly constructed doors, but the thing is this: they are supposed to be made of ceramic glass. In the manual, the Sovereign owner is advised to use the fireplace with the doors either fully open or fully closed. With my aversion to smoke, it was always going to be fully closed.
Now, when I say "explode," I don't want my readers to get the wrong idea. I'm not talking that the glass cracked or even just shattered in a way that left glass on the hearth and in the fireplace. I mean that I heard a thunderclap, ran into the room and from twenty feet from the hearth I was stepping on glass from only one of the four panels! Furious, I called my contractor, who replaced it with much complaining after two weeks. I didn't use the Sovereign the rest of the season. The next Fall, I had fires and after five nights of fires BOOM! A different panel went. My contractor was long gone.
So, I called Majestic. The warranty on the glass is for 90 days from the time the doors are installed. They refused to replace them. I had two freaked out cats (they had been laying in front of the fire!), a carpet full of glass and a home full of smoke and a house that I had to either make more smoky or freeze in (I chose smoky and warm over cold and ideal lung transplant donor). This is a crappy warranty and word to the wise for anyone considering buying this against my advice; purchase it and have it installed in the autumn in a time right before you'll use it! Having it installed late winter/spring or summer when contractors might love the work but your usage is likely to be less will allow some of the warranties to slip by without being honored!
As the unit was used, I came to loathe the doors on it. My house fire had raged to temperatures over 3000 degrees, yet the new doors I had installed on that fireplace survived! Indeed, they were fused open where the rubber wheels had melted, the glass was in perfect condition! The doors on the Sovereign ran on tracks that were always collecting ash, dirt and annoying coals, making it difficult to open and close them and often making it impossible to fully clean the tracks (because the doors opened outward).
Wow, I miss my ash trap! Cleaning the Sovereign requires either a hand broom and dustpan or an ash vac. I wish I had had an ash vac when I owned the Sovereign - the Cheetah II is a wonderful ash vacuum - but I toughed it out with a handbroom and dustpan. The ash vac would have been nice because of how inefficiently this system burns wood, when it was consumed by morning there were no live embers. As a result, everything could have simply been vacuumed up.
As for the glass, what remained of it could easily be cleaned with Speedy White ceramic glass cleaner. Cleaning the unit was not much of a chore, but it did require somewhere to dispose of ashes until springtime and often the process of cleaning out the Sovereign led to ash and dust getting into the adjacent room.
That was annoying.
Because of the broken glass - though I'm not entirely convinced with the gaps in it that the doors wouldn't have leaked a lot of smoke anyway - my whole house ended up smelling like smoke. Not a subtle smoky scent, either, full-blown "You've been sitting in a smoke lodge" scent.
As with most all woodburning fireplaces, usage of the Sovereign compels one to have their chimney swept at least once a year.
I suffered through the Sovereign for two winters, which was long enough for me to realize that I would be damned if I was suffering through a third with it! It burns wood with remarkable inefficiency, is very high maintenance and the customer service attached to it is dubious at best. But more than that, this is a cheap piece of equipment.
I say that because after two winters, wherein I burnt approximately eight face cords of wood, the firebricks on the sides and rear of the unit were already showing severe wear and cracks. The firebricks were under warranty, part of either the five, ten or thirty year warranty (the manuals is remarkably opaque on some of the warranty conditions) but I decided not to pursue fixing up this poor fireplace as opposed to replacing it.
The Sovereign was nothing but a disappointment for me, from the first moment I had trouble closing the flue to the first explosion of a door to the moment I decided this was one of life's great write-offs that I was going to have to pay through the nose to fix. My saving grace for this is that perhaps my experience will prevent anyone else from suffering a similar fate.
For other appliances, please check out my reviews of:
Samsung Stainless Steel Microwave
Whirlpool WGD5200 Gas Dryer
Kidde Carbon Monoxide And Smoke Detector
For other home and garden reviews, please visit my index page for a neat listing!
© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.