A prefabricated or factory built fireplace is a fireplace system designed and constructed off site in a factory and then shipped in pieces to a property to be installed. This type of system is most common in newer homes and were designed as a cost effective and time saving alternative to install a fireplace system.
The inside of a prefabricated fireplace is usually made of solid sheets of metals and can also have refractory panels which look like bricks. The refractory panels help to prevent the fire’s heat from penetrating and damaging the firebox. A prefabricated chimney is also made of metal and are often surrounded by a housing of siding or simulated brick. Factory built systems have better insulation than masonry fireplaces and are typically more efficient at heating a room. The combination of insulated walls, metal, blowers, glass doors and air cooled pipes efficiently move the fire’s heat into the room. In the timeline of the evolution of the fireplace factory built fireplaces gained popularity the 60s, during that time many people used the fireplace to heat a room and because of the better insulation the system even allowed for fireplaces to be installed closer to combustible materials if needed.
Unlike a masonry fireplace which is an architectural structure, a prefabricated fireplace system is an appliance and just like all appliances the system has parts that wear out and need to be replaced. A few things to look out for and consider with factory built fireplaces are installation, being cautious with changes, heavy use of the system and nesting birds.
Prefabricated fireplace systems are extensively factory tested for safety and therefore must be installed following the manufacturer’s exact instructions. Most manufacturers require specific clearance and if these instructions are not followed than any wood that is too close can undergo a process called pyrolysis which is thermal decomposition or even catch fire. It is important when installing a prefabricated to contact a trusted professional to ensure that installation is done precisely.
Since a factory built fireplace is an appliance the parts eventually wear out and need to be replaced. Sometimes exact replacement parts cannot be found and that deems the system obsolete because the fireplace and chimney are engineered and undergo safety tested to work together as a complete system. You must ensure any replacement parts or changes are made for your specific fireplace or risk a house fire.
Although more efficient at heating a room, prefabricated systems are tested and marketed as decorative heating appliance and therefore generally cannot withstand excessive heavy use. If a fire is too intense it can cause factory built models to warp therefore it is important to schedule annual maintenance and inspection to monitor any signs of overuse because severe over firing and chimney fires will often badly damage the unit.
Because prefabricated units have metal flues they are typically easier to clean than a brick chimney and less likely to acquire a dangerous creosote buildup but are more common to house another type of build up: Chimney Swifts or Nesting birds. These systems seem to be the preferred nesting site for birds in many areas. This presents an issue because the nesting material can catch fire or block critical air passageways between layers of the metal chimney pipe causing the chimney to overheat, both of these scenarios routinely cause house fires. Keeping up with annual maintenance and investing is a properly sized chase cover and chimney cap with screening will help prevent birds from making a home in your system.
Ultimately prefabricated fireplace systems wear out like all major home appliances. Even with regular upkeep and maintenance these systems have a lifespan of 20-30 years but if a model goes out of production or a manufacturer goes out of business this lifespan can decrease tremendously. While these systems will eventually need to be recycled they offer many homeowners a cost effective and time saving way to install a focal point and place of gathering in a home.