Originally published in the September 2018 issue of Sweeping Magazine
Question: There are quite a few factory-built fireplaces in my service area. A variety of brands, in a variety of conditions. What is the life expectancy of one of these units?
by Mike Segerstrom
Great question! The key part of your question, and the answer to it, is life expectancy. Like many fixtures, components and appliances in a home, a factory built fireplace has a life expectancy, and won't last forever. The short answer, depending on a wide range of factors, is approximately 25 to 30 years.
The first place to look will be at the warranty of the fireplace system. Some brands specifically state 25 to 30 years on certain components. Other brands will cover parts of the system for 10 years, but indicate that it is expected to last longer when properly used and maintained.
Let's take a look at some of the other factors, and how they affect the lifespan of a factory built fireplace. Water exposure is probably the biggest consideration. If the chimney chase or adjacent construction of the home leaks and exposes the chimney pipe system and/or fireplace cabinet to extended periods or significant amounts of water, critical components of the system may fail prematurely. Critical component failure may result in potentially hazardous operating conditions. It's also important to understand that these failures may occur in concealed areas, before it is ever visible.
Another big factor in the life expectancy of a factory built fireplace, is use. We have all seen the homeowners that attempt to use these fireplaces as home or room heaters. While some homeowners may seem to achieve this, it is often not without a cost to the fireplace system. These fireplaces are generally not designed to be over filled with large fuel loads, or over fired with large fires. Over firing or misuse of these fireplaces over time may result in warping and failure of metal components. This type of failure may result in hazardous operating conditions, as significant heat or combustion byproducts may be able to travel outside the fireplace cabinet and chimney pipe system.
Another condition that will often cause the fireplace system or its components to fail or deteriorate before 25 or 30 year mark, is coastal environment installations. It can be very desirable to have a fireplace in a seasonal or permanent home near an ocean, even just for occasional use. But the salt content in the air and humidity can really take a toll on metal components, a leak or heavy use only ads to the deterioration.
There are a variety of other events that can occur, like chimney fires, lightning strikes, severe storms and wind that can damage a factory built fireplace system. But even without these events, factory-built fireplaces do have a life expectancy.
The best way to monitor the condition of a factory built fireplace and its useful life, is to follow the NFPA 211 and perform an annual inspection of the system. This provides an opportunity to perform preventive repairs and services as needed, but also for monitoring of any deterioration, and an opportunity to make the recommendation for replacement before a hazardous condition may result in a loss.