In the last 25 years, prefab fireplaces, also known as manufactured or zero clearance fireplaces, have gained increasing popularity. They are a durable and economical alternative to the traditional stone/brick masonry fireplaces. What gives prefab fireplaces an edge over their masonry counterparts is that they are much easier and cheaper to install, can be safely mounted near flammable objects (e.g. wood flooring), facilitate maintenance procedures, and offer a greater variety in styles and decorative elements.

What is the difference between a Masonry and a Prefab Fireplace?

Masonry

Masonry fireplaces and chimneys are part of the house’s original plan, built on-site by masons, usually when the house is constructed. The interior of the fireplace is made of brick or stone, and the chimney is also brick. Generally, masonry fireplaces are found in older homes. Doors can be either an inside mount or overlap mount.

Factory Built

Prefab fireplaces are made in a factory and are most common in newer homes. They first became popular in the 1960s. The inside of a factory-built fireplace is usually made from solid sheets of metal. They can also have refractory panels inside, which look like bricks, and serves to prevent the fire’s heat from penetrating and damaging the firebox.

Factory-built fireplaces have chimneys extending through the roof. Sometimes these are encased by a housing of siding or simulated brick. A chase cover, which resembles a shoe box lid, may perch atop the chimney.

Prefab fireplaces are extensively factory-tested for safety. However, they must be installed correctly to be safe in your home. You must be sure that replacement parts are made for your specific fireplace, or risk a house fire.

Some prefab fireplaces burn wood, some gas, some both. Be sure to only burn the correct fuel in your prefab fireplace box.

Cost

A beautiful fireplace built by skilled mason is not cheap. Having a masonry fireplace designed and custom-fitted to your home is a worthy investment that will last for years before needing maintenance and can really add value to your home.

Prefabricated fireplaces are more affordable but don’t come with near as much flexibility in regards to customization of size and design.

The average fireplace installation cost is $2,500 to $5,000, although an authentic brick fireplace constructed by a mason could cost up to $10,000 or more.  Installing a prefabricated brick fireplace costs $2,000 to $3,000. A mason-built brick fireplace costs $3,500 to $5,000.  Your best bet is to get an estimate from a professional installer as there are many variables to consider.

Durability and Maintenance

Masonry fireplaces are built to last a lifetime. Prefabricated fireplaces are appliances. Parts eventually wear out. Sometimes an exact replacement part can’t be found, rendering the fireplace obsolete. Expect your prefab fireplace to last for up to 15 years.

Brick mason-built fireplaces stand up to more intense heat than factory-built models, which can warp if the fire is too intense.

However, prefab fireplaces have metal flues, which are often simpler to clean than brick chimneys. Also, a metal flue is less likely to acquire a dangerous creosote buildup. Stainless steel chimney liners usually come with a lifetime warranty.

The old bricks and mortar of masonry chimneys need to be regularly coated with water repellent to avoid crumbling.  If they are properly cared for, they will last forever.

Insulation

For heating a room, factory-built fireplaces are usually more efficient. Prefab units have better insulation than masonry fireplaces. In fact, factory-built fireplaces are so well insulated that usually they can be installed very close to combustible materials (hence, the zero clearance attribution). Their combination of insulated walls, metal, blowers, glass doors and air-cooled pipes efficiently move the heat into the room.

Inserts

If you have a masonry fireplace, you can preserve the aesthetics but increase your efficiency by adding a fireplace insert. You can’t do this with factory-built units, unless the manufacturer specifically designed an insert to be compatible with a prefab model, and there are very few out there.

Word of Advice on Installation

When installing a wood-burning fireplace, follow closely the manufacturer’s instructions. Pay particular attention to the requirements for a clearance between the fireplace (both firebox and chimney) and the house wall in order to avoid any unintentional life-endangering combustion.

Final Thoughts on Prefab Wood Burning versus Gas-Only

Prefab Wood-Burning Fireplace

This type of fireplace resembles traditional heating units in that it provides heat to the house by burning wood logs.

In general, prefabricated wood-burning fireplaces are more expensive to install than the gas-only prefabs since they require the construction of an additional venting unit. This allows the fireplace to use outdoor air for combustion and ventilation and thus increases the efficiency of the fireplace during the wood-burning. At the same time, the venting will add to the overall cost of the fireplace.

Despite its higher installation price, a wood fireplace will be a huge advantage to any house as it not only fills the room with pleasant, relaxing warmth, but will also add an extra touch of coziness and romance with its soft fire light.

Prefab Gas-Only Fireplaces

Typically, manufactured gas burning fireplaces do not require the installation of a venting unit. They use, instead, a simple gas line installed near the fireplace which allows the burnt gas to leave the house.

The fireboxes of gas fireplaces are usually decorated with artificial logs made of ceramic or some other fireproof material. The only element that burns is the gas fuel. You can control its supply, the ignition process and the intensity of the produced heat.

The material that coats the outside of the fireplace will not affect its efficiency. Depending on your personal preferences, the fireplace façade may be decorated with ceramic tiles or, for a more natural effect, with stone or brick masonry.