I know how inefficient fireplaces are. My glass doors and the firebox convection vents almost make it work like an insert already. With the doors closed I can control the draft, and get a lot of heat out of the vents, plus residual radiant heat from the thermal mass.
Indeed. The efficiency can depend dramatically upon the design. Some older fireplaces can actually be reasonably-efficient, and some newer woodstoves may actually not.
For another example, there was a third-party test done on outdoor wood boilers, which one would imagine are engineered for some level of efficiency. They found that the actual efficiency varied from about 80%, down to 15%. The median was around 60%. There are fireplaces which are that efficient...
With a bit of trickeration, I think I could make the current glass doors work like a true insert, without the flue cleaning difficulties. And I know I can get a lot more hot air out of it. I might even add a thermostatic intake damper.
Depends upon the insert, whether there's any flue cleaning difficulty. Some use a pretty straight shot with a flex liner, meaning the ash dumps straight into the firebox. Some may have a "cleaning mode" lever, which opens a flap to create that straight shot, even if it's not present during normal operation.
The first thing the house needs is better weatherizing and insulation. That will be our big project after I sell the Texas house and move up here full time.
Yup. Insulation, weather stripping, and the like, is the best bang for the buck. A quality energy audit is often the best first step... it's not just a matter of identifying where work is needed, but classifying them by how much impact each one has, and how much it will cost to fix. For example, I know someone who found that a quarter of the air leakage into his house was due to one particular door, which he had not actually suspected was a significant problem. He had originally planned on re-insulating some walls where he knew the insulation was lacking, which would have cost thousands of dollars. Instead, he was able to attain the same impact on his overall energy use, with a few dollars spent on weatherstripping. An audit probably costs $400-500, but it usually saves far more than that, by allowing you to prioritize which projects you tackle first, to get the most bang for your buck.