What can we do to combat the perception that a fake masonry fireplace is as good as the real thing? Take a good look at prefabricated fireplaces. Then take a look at parts that make a real masonry fireplace easier to build and more efficient to use. Every fireplace needs a few nonmasonry parts to make it work: dampers, vents, doors, log grates, andirons, ash dumps, and clean-out doors. There also are special parts available for unusual designs, such as fireplaces that are open on more than one side or where the owner wants to use the fireplace as a significant heat source for the living space.
Three major companies manufacture throat dampers in the United States, Vestal Manufacturing; Allied Dealers Supply, Cleveland, Tenn.; and K&W Manufacturing, Corona, Calif. Vestal makes both cast-iron and steel dampers, Allied makes only cast iron dampers, and K&W makes only steel dampers. The cost, reliability, and life expectancies of the dampers are similar. Masons typically select dampers they're most comfortable with. Cast iron is the material of choice in the eastern United States. Steel dampers are much more popular in the western part of the country. Cast-iron dampers won't warp, but steel dampers never crack. Stainless steel dampers, are a good choice for houses near the ocean, where salt spray could rust a carbon-steel damper. Dampers manufactured today include the chimney throat, reducing the number of components and, thus, the installation labor. Dampers may also include a steel smoke chamber and even the smoke shelf.
There are three options for controlling the operation of a damper: a rotary control that extends through the front of the fireplace, a poker control, or chain pulls. Special multi-opening fireplace dampers also are available. Another option, a chimney-top damper, seals the chimney, keeping out rain, snow, birds, and animals, and prevents heat loss when the fireplace is not in use. Fresh-air vents provide combustion air and prevent the fireplace from drawing warm air from the living space.A circulating fireplace, a metal fireplace liner (firebox, damper, and smoke chamber) with masonry laid around, can improve heat output and recirculate heated air. It requires less skill and time to construct.
Another way to increase the efficiency of a masonry fireplace is with a heat shield (or fireback). This steel or cast-iron sheet stands in the firebox across the back face and radiates heat into the living space. Many other accessories improve the functioning of a fireplace or make it easier for the homeowner to use: a smoke guard and a gas log lighter, for example. With innovative products and aggressive marketing, real masonry fireplaces will not be a thing of the past.Included is a list of fireplace accessory manufacturers and an internet information source list.