Throughout history, fire has been crucial to human existence. Primitive people relied on fire to cook their food, to keep them warm and to provide light. Although we no longer depend on fire in quite the same way, images of children around campfires and holiday gatherings around an open fireplace abound. Our use of fire has changed over the centuries, so too have fireplaces and heating appliances that contain the fire and make it useful. Classical Greek and Roman homes contained simple fire pits. In Medieval Europe, simple masonry fireplaces were developed. In the 1800’s a nobleman, Count Rumford improved masonry fireplace design.
As in the past, masonry fireplace and chimneys are constructed onsite as the house is built. The performance of the fireplace was often dependent upon proper construction. Today, there are factory-built fireplaces, which are manufactured according to an engineered design. Proper installation, however, is still a critical factor in the safe operation of these units.
Q. What is a factory-built fireplace?
Unlike traditional site-built masonry fireplaces, most factory-built fireplaces are made of metal and may use a combination of insulated walls, glass doors, air-cooled pipe and blowers to circulate the heat produced by the fire. The factory-built fireplace and chimney are a complete system engineered to work safely and efficiently together. Both units (fireplace and chimney) undergo testing together, and are then are listed specifically for use with one another. In other words, a factory-built fireplace has a specific chimney that is appropriate for use with that specific fireplace.
Although models vary, factory-built fireplaces generally generate heat for the house in one of two ways. With the standard radiant heat method, the heat produced by the fire radiates from the fireplace into the room. This system is limited as to the amount of heat it will return to the house. The circulating air method uses louvers and at least one blower to force air along the hot walls, picking up heat and forcing it back into the living space.
Q. How is a factory-built fireplace different from a traditional fireplace?
Because a factory-built unit is so much lighter than masonry fireplaces, these fireplaces do not require the concrete foundation necessary for masonry. The insulation and/or cooling spaces built into these systems allow the back of the fireplace to be placed closer to combustible materials than their masonry counterparts.
Although most units are metal, pre-manufactured, modular, masonry fireplaces are also available. These masonry models incorporate special engineering techniques that are not used in most field constructed fireplaces, including a listed venting system. Like metal factory-built fireplaces, pre-manufactured masonry fireplaces reduce the clearance to combustibles and increase the amount of heat produced by the fireplace. These advantages, coupled with the lasting nature of masonry, make pre-cast refractory fireplaces and other modular masonry fireplace systems an attractive, but somewhat more expensive, alternative to the relatively inexpensive materials and construction of the mass-produced factory-built fireplace.
Q. What’s the safest way to use a factory-built fireplace?
Proper use is critical to safe and efficient operation of factory-built fireplaces. When you light a fire, keep in mind the following considerations:
- The damper must be fully open before starting a fire and left open until the fire is out. If a source for outside combustion air exists, be sure that it is open before you light the fire.
- Don’t overload the fireplace. If you do, burning logs could roll out. Never use wet or green wood.
- Be sure to close the screen to prevent sparks from flying out into your living room. Close the glass doors to reduce heat loss from the room into the chimney only when your fire is almost out. Glass doors on a factory- built fireplace must be tested and listed for that particular fireplace. It can be dangerous to use the wrong set of glass doors on your fireplace.
- Never start a fire with liquid fire starters, i.e. gasoline, kerosene, etc.
- Do not burn Christmas trees or a lot of paper in your fireplace. This type of fire, which gets very hot really quickly, can cause the joints of the chimney to separate or the metal to warp.
- Do not install a wood stove – whether free-standing or insert style – into a factory-built fireplace and chimney system, unless the insert you are using has been tested and listed for use with the fireplace and approved by the manufacturer of the chimney system (not the stove manufacturer alone). Installing an insert into a fireplace system that is not designed for either the weight of the unit or the intense heat the insert or stove produces could result in a house fire and will also void any warranty issued by the fireplace manufacturer.
- Annual inspection and sweeping, when required, of your fireplace and chimney is recommended by the National Fire Protection Association and the Chimney Safety Institute of America.
Q. How long will a factory-built fireplace last?
Factory-built fireplaces are decorative heating appliances. They are engineered with specific components that, when properly installed, will give you years of enjoyable use. Regular service and maintenance will help owners keep a step ahead of potential problems.
A factory-built unit will reach the end of its useful life when repair of the unit is no longer possible, particularly if the components that are necessary to maintain the listing are no longer available.
Q. How can I be sure the factory-built fireplace is installed correctly?
A factory-built fireplace is the only built-in home appliance which is not easily removed for inspection. It is important to take out a building permit before installing a factory built fireplace. The building inspector will conduct an examination to confirm that the system was installed according to code.
As always, reputable chimney professionals should be used when these units are purchased and installed. Local codes and the manufacturer’s installation instructions should be followed to the letter.
Q. Where can I install a factory-built fireplace?
Because metal factory-built units are relatively lightweight and do not require a footing. The reduced clearance between the fireplace and combustible materials, affords homeowners a wide range of design and placement choices.
Q. What if the lining of my firebox is cracked?
Most factory-built fireplace manufacturers require replacement of the refractory panels of the firebox when a nickel, on end, can be inserted into the crack or when the surface of the refractory panel has abraded more than 1/4″ from the original surface. Replacement of the refractory panels should be completed by a qualified professional familiar with factory-built fireplaces and the panel replacement procedures.
Q. What does a factory-built fireplace look like?
Factory-built fireplaces are available in styles as varied as housing styles around the world.
They can be finished with practically any material, allowing many design options. A homeowner may choose to finish the area surrounding the fireplace with a traditional full-surround mantle, painted or stained, in plain design or intricate scroll- work designs. They may choose to use a simple rough-hewn mantle of cedar or they may use stonework. The front face of the fireplace can be finished with a variety of materials, including tile or marble. Most factory-built fireplaces come in a black finish, although many manufacturers offer them dressed with brass trim.
Q. Can I have a gas log set installed in my factory built fireplace?
Yes, as long as the fireplace has a knock-out to allow the installation of a gas log lighter bar. Further it must be listed for use with solid fuel, and the listing cannot specifically exclude the installation of gas log sets. Unless the manufacturer of the fireplace specifically allows it, the installation of “vent-free” gas log sets are NOT allowed. When allowed, the damper is blocked completely open and they are treated as a fully vented gas log set.