To many homeowners, a hand-built, wood-burning, masonry fireplace is the gold standard of fireplaces. But the economy and ease of prefabricated units that burn wood, wood pellets, or gas make the assembled units ideal for other homeowners, because they can cost up to 80 percent less than a masonry model.
Prefabricated fireboxes are made of steel and look like masonry. If you're considering including one in your project, consider these questions: 1. How Much Heat Do You Need? 2. What Fuel Will You Burn? 3. Do You Want A Chimney? 4. What Maintenance Is Required? 5. What Will It Cost?
See our tips for each topic on the following pages.
To gauge the heat a prefabricated unit produces, check the fireplace's label for its BTU output. Standard models produce 25,000-50,000 BTUs. A fireplace that burns at 35,000 BTUs can heat a 1,500-square-foot space, depending on where you live.
Gas fireplaces are the most effective heaters; they burn at 75-80 percent efficiency. These units come in a wide range of BTU outputs, and the hotter models can be adjusted for significantly more or less heat, depending on the weather or your own comfort level. Direct-vent and vent-free gas fireplaces are among the most efficient of all.
If you plan to heat your home with a fireplace, check with a hearth retailer before you buy. The location of the unit and of circulating fans in your home determine how well heat is distributed. Also compare the energy-efficiency of different models.
You can choose among units that burn wood, wood pellets, or gas.
Wood is the choice of many traditionalists who like to hear the crackle of a fire.
Wood pellets, however, require much less storage space than a cord of firewood. They are available at many large grocery and discount stores in 40-pound bags, which burn for about eight hours. Pellets are less expensive than propane or wood, but a little more costly than natural gas.
Gas fireplaces appeal to homeowners because of their convenience.
If you don't like the look of a chimney -- or if your house doesn't have one -- you can consider a direct-vent or vent-free unit.
Direct-vent gas or wood-pellet models, for instance, vent their exhaust through an outside wall, much like a clothes dryer.
Vent-free fireplaces, as the name implies, require no outside vent at all. That allows them to be installed in unlimited locations. These natural gas and propane units burn at 99 percent efficiency; neither heat nor byproducts are vented out of the room.
Prefabricated fireplaces need regular annual maintenance and cleaning to operate safely and efficiently. Check regularly for rust, and every few years, repaint the inside with oven paint.
While they are built to last, prefabricated units are not as indestructible as masonry models. Overfiring can cause extensive damage, as can burning garbage. Burn only clean, dry wood.
Most fireplaces today feature pre-fabricated fireboxes for either gas or wood/wood pellet fuels. A gas-fired unit that vents up the chimney begins around $1,000.
If you enjoy the aroma of a wood-burning fireplace, you can expect to pay somewhat more than a gas unit, particularly at the top-end of the cost spectrum. These fireplaces average $950 to $2,000. Direct-vent fireplaces have an average cost of about $1,500.