The surround is more than an attractive frame for your fireplace. It's a barrier to protect your home from the heat, sparks and flame in the fire pit. When updating or installing a fireplace, redecorating the hearth and surround, or adding a mantel, know the safety rules that reduce the risk for property damage, personal injury or even loss of life. A masonry, metal pre-fab or gas fireplace gets hot -- the surround shouldn't be affected by that heat.
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Each locality and state has its own rules for fire safety and surround materials, measurements and construction. Local codes, which vary nationwide, always come before any other regulations, including national codes. But, if your locality doesn't have a fire safety code that spells out fireplace regulations, follow those developed for the National Standard Building Code or the National Fire Code.
National Fire Code: All combustible material must be at least 6 inches from the opening of the firebox. Combustible material includes all wood trim, framing, mantels and anything else that can ignite and burn. Each 1/8 inch that trim or another combustible material protrudes requires an extra inch of clearance. (see reference 1)
National Standard Building Code: Combustible materials and trim must be at least 6 inches from the firebox opening. Mantel corbels and brackets attached along the sides of the opening must have additional clearance if they project more than 1 1/2 inches out from the face of the fireplace. The extra clearance must match the measurement, in inches, of the portion of the projection that exceeds 1 1/2 inches from the face. Any parts of the mantel that stick out more than 1 1/2 inches from the face of the wall over the opening must be at least 12 inches from the top of the firebox opening. Those rules apply to custom work, whether a homeowner or a contractor performs it. For a pre-made fireplace, the owner's manual includes installation and safety instructions, based on national standards, that must be followed by the installer. (see reference 1)
The legs of decorative mantels often extend to the floor in the form of Greek half-columns or rough-hewn lumber and other flammable material. Some trim, legs and support for the mantel shelf can be as close as 6 inches to the firebox opening if it projects lass than 1.5 inches past the opening. Pay attention to seasonal decor to minimize hazards. Draped garlands or those stocking hung by the chimney with care might be too close to the open firebox -- and they are flammable. Consider hanging stockings on a staircase, a cabinet exterior or a windowsill if the fireplace will be in use. Keep the very combustible tree in the opposite corner, far from the flames and heat.
The slip materials are non-combustible stone and ceramic set into the surround directly around the opening of the firebox. Sometimes they extend to the hearth, the floor of the fireplace and the area in front of it, an apron set into the floor or built up as a low platform. Marble is elegant and marble panels are a contemporary, sleek design with flush-to-the-wall gas fireplaces in minimalist decor. Old wood-burning fireplaces may have decorative colored marble -- or more ornate panels of malachite or lapis lazuli -- surrounding the opening. Slate pavers or mortared stones are another stone choice -- a rustic mortared stone fireplace might extend all the wall up the wall, over the chimney breast, and enclose the firebox. Brick is a traditional material that often covers the surround under the mantel and continues to form the hearth. Glazed tile allows for some artistic license -- it can set a decor color for the room or contribute a mosaic pattern or a painted tile scene in traditional or Mediterranean decor.