All posts by swedesweep

Dryer vent connector hose clogged with lint

What is a Dryer Vent Cleaning Kit?

With the perks of owning a home comes the responsibilities of home ownership–the long list of weekend “honey do’s.” At times, homeowners take short cuts, perhaps to save time or to save money. Many times, there are no problems with this, but on occasion, saving a dime can cost a lot of dollars. One of the tasks of home maintenance that should be left to the experts is dryer vent cleaning.

Why do you need a dryer vent cleaning?

The dryer is one of the most dangerous appliances in the home. As a Certified Dryer Exhaust Technician, I receive two to three phone calls a month from people whose dryer caught on fire.

According to a recent report from the National Fire Protection Association, the leading factor contributing to dryer fires was failure to clean the dryer vent and the inside of the dryer.

Fortunately, homeowners are becoming more educated toA dryer vent cleaning kit the dangers of dryer fires. According to the National Fire Protection Association, dryer vents should be cleaned once a year for the average family. More frequent dryer vent cleaning would also depend on the quantity of laundry you wash, how your dryer vent system is routed as well as how many pets you have with fur. Here are the signs that you need a dryer vent cleaned.

To save money from hiring a professional, some homeowners are using the dryer vent cleaning kits that you can buy from the big box hardware stores or through Amazon.

What is a dryer vent cleaning kit?

Dryer vent cleaning kits are composed of rods that are anywhere from 16″ to 24″ long as well as a four inch round brush. The kit may also include a drill bit to attach the rods to a drill for faster cleaning. The drill is not mandatory but makes the process faster, easier on the venting system, and less effort for the homeowner.

But homeowners need to know some important information before purchasing dryer vent cleaning kits.

Six problems with dryer vent cleaning kits

Here are six reasons why those DIY inexpensive dryer vent cleaning kits can result in expensive home repairs in the end.

* These kits are not intended for use with dryer vent systems with any 90 degree bends. Most dryer vent systems have multiple 90 degree bends. Although most rods in these kits are somewhat bendable and flexible, many times the rods will break or get stuck inside the vent in the attempt to go through the 90 degree bend.

* I’ve received more than a few phone calls from desperate homeowners who tried to do the dryer vent cleaning with these inferior tools and gotten the brush and rods stuck inside the system. A lot of times this happens because the homeowner reversed the drill, which detaches the rod and/or brush inside the vent. Once this happens, it is extremely difficult to retrieve the stuck brushes and rods. In many cases, the only way to resolve the issue is to tear open the wall to access the vent to remove the stuck brush and rods.

Dryer Vent Cleaning Brush Lint Remover

* Most dryer vents inside the walls are made from thin gauge galvanized metal. If a homeowner is attempting to go through a 90-degree bend with the rods, it is possible to puncture a hole in the thin metal vent. Even more important, as a result of the puncture, lint as well as condensation can get inside the wall cavity, creating a potential fire hazard and/or a mold issue. If it’s a gas dryer, gases are getting inside the wall cavity. With the puncture, the system is no longer pressurized and the venting will need to be replaced which can be very expensive.

* Many of the dryer vent cleaning kits only go a short distance, sometimes just twelve feet. Dryer vent systems are typically much longer than that so the brushes won’t go the full distance. We’ve seen situations where homeowners have gone into the system in one direction, then go in from the opposite direction, creating a blockage in the middle. They’ve now created a plugged-up system which is an even worse situation than before.

* If not done correctly, the brushes can catch at the vent pipe connections and cause a disconnection in the pipe. This may require opening up the walls to replace the pipe.

* Some dryer venting will go through the roof. This will require getting up on the roof where the vent exhausts out. Not all homeowners like to or should be on a tall ladder or roof to do the work on top.

How to find a Certified Dryer Exhaust Technician

To find a qualified dryer vent cleaning company, make sure to use a Certified Dryer Exhaust Technician. Go to the Chimney Safety Institute of America website, enter your zip code and it’ll give you a list of Certified Dryer Exhaust Technicians who service your zip code. Look for the logo for Certified Dryer Exhaust Technicians.

In conclusion….

These dryer vent cleaning kits may be useful for very short, straight dryer vents without any 90 degree bends. While I commend homeowners for trying to save money by doing their own dryer vent cleaning, if you don’t have the specific tools that professionals use plus the proper knowledge and training, you may create a very expensive repair in the end. Penny wise and a dollar foolish.

Gas key inside gas valve for fireplace serving artificial gas logs

How Do I Turn On Artificial Gas Logs?

Artificial gas logs on fire with glowing emberss below the grate. Enjoying a beautiful fire from your artificial gas logs is one of life’s simple pleasures. Not only do gas logs provide warmth but they also provide instant ambiance, coziness and even romance. Another benefit is that you can enjoy your artificial gas logs for just ten minutes in the morning as you savor a cup of coffee before starting off your day or a glass of wine in the evening when you return home from work.

Here in San Diego, the majority of homeowners who have artificial gas logs use a lighter and a key to start the fire. It’s referred to as “Match Lit.” Unfortunately many people are intimidated by the process of starting their gas logs. If you do it wrong, it can be a terrifying experience and even dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be a frightening process to start an artificial gas log fire, if you know a few simple tips.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to light the gas for gas logs to avoid a mini gas explosion in your fireplace.

Five Steps To Turning On Gas Logs The Right Way

Step 1: The fireplace gas valve will usually be located on either the right side or left side of the fireplace. In some rare cases, the valve may be in front of the fireplace in the hearth extension or in the floor in front of the fireplace. This valve, by code, must be readily accessible and visible. The valve cannot be hidden inside a cabinet. It should be within six feet of the fireplace opening. The gas valve should never be located inside the firebox! 

Examples of gas keys to turn on artificial gas logs in a fireplace
Examples of gas keys

In one hand, hold a long-stem lighter or a long match. In the other hand, place the gas key into the hole of the gas valve. You may have to wiggle the gas key around until you feel it “grab.”

Step 2: With your other hand, place the lit match or lighter near the gas tray/burner pan located underneath the grate.

Step 3: At the same time, very slightly turn the gas valve counter-clockwise.

Step 4: The gas will slowly enter into the burner tray and the flames will appear in the gas tray/burner pan under the artificial gas logs.

Step 5: Then, and only then, turn the gas valve counter-clockwise to whatever level you want the flames.

This is the same process used if you have a log lighter for starting a wood fire or for lighting your outdoor propane BBQ grill.

The Wrong Way To Start Your Artificial Gas Logs

Following the previous steps above is a full-proof way to safely start your gas logs. However, here’s an example of what happens if you do it the wrong way.

The WRONG WAY: You turn the gas valve all the way on. Then you take your time, going around the house, looking for a lighter or match. You finally find one. In the meantime, the fireplace is full of gas. You light the match or lighter under the grate and then POOF! You may experience a little mini explosion in your face with perhaps even some singed hair or eye brows.

My point is…slightly turn on the gas valve only AFTER placing the lit match or lit lighter to the burner tray.

A Few More Important Tips with Artificial Gas Logs

If you have children, don’t leave the key perched inside the valve. Kids Gas key inside gas valve for fireplace serving artificial gas logslove to play with the key. If your child turns the key, the gas will be turned on which would be extremely dangerous. In addition, for whatever reason, children love to poke small toys and crayons into the hole for the gas valve which may ruin the gas valve. We advise homeowners to cover the hole for the gas valve to prevent children from accessing the valve.

If you have glass doors in front of your fireplace, those glass doors must be fully open when the artificial gas logs are on. Closing the glass doors during an active fire creates a vacuum which may cause the glass in the glass doors to implode or explode. Here’s a video of Kelly Rippa, celebrity morning talk show host, who experienced this frightening event.  When you’re not using the fireplace, close the glass doors so you don’t have the heat loss from your home.

When a fireplace is plumbed for gas, the damper must be locked in a fully-open position.  This is like having an open window all the time and you will lose heat from your home during the winter. Glass doors will prevent the heat loss from the home.

Never have the artificial gas logs on at the same time as your central heater/furnace. Depending on how tight your house is, or how close the air intake is from your furnace to the fireplace may make your fireplace lose its draw so instead of the gases going up the pipe, those dangerous gases may be drawn into the room where you’re sitting in the living area.

In Conclusion….

Following these five very simple steps will give you an ABSOLUTELY FOOL-PROOF method to enjoy your artificial gas logs.


Photo credits: Rick Pocock

Fireplace Dampers – Throat Dampers vs Top-Mount Dampers

An open damper is like an open windowFireplace dampers are an important component of your fireplace system and are often overlooked. Dampers serve the critical purpose of closing off the chimney when the fireplace is not in use. It’s an energy efficiency device, saving you money by preventing the loss of heat during the winter and preventing the loss of air conditioning during the summer. An open or missing damper is like an open window.

What is a Fireplace Damper?

In simple terms, a damper is a metal plate that closes the chimney flue. Homeowners often get the terms “damper” and “flue” mixed up. They’re very different but they work together. Simply stated, the damper is a metal plate; the flue is the pipe.

What is a Throat Damper?

Dampers come in different types and styles. Most dampers that are part of the original construction are called “throat dampers” because they’re located in the throat of the fireplace, above the firebox (where you make the fire) and below the smoke chamber and flue pipe. Throat dampers come in various styles–pivot hatchets, poker, rotary, spiral, vestal, Allied/Donley, and Majestic.

Examples of Throat Dampers        Photo credit: Chimney Safety Institute of America

Different regions of the country have different kinds of dampers. Another interesting point is that many dampers on the East Coast are removable and replaceable. This makes it much easier for chimney sweeps to be able to do a thorough cleaning of the system, especially into the smoke shelf behind the damper, because they don’t have to fight around the damper plate.

Here in San Diego and most of the West Coast, dampers are not removable and replaceable. That means that once the damper is damaged beyond repair, the damper cannot be replaced in the throat of the chimney without tearing open the facade which would be cost-prohibitive. In that case, there’s another solution–a top-mount damper.

What is a Top-Mount Damper?

If a throat damper becomes damaged beyond repair and cannot be replaced, our industry has created a solution called a Top-Mount Damper, also known as a Top-Sealing Damper.

A bracket for a top sealing damper
The bracket that holds the chain on a top-mount damper

This damper is placed at the top of the chimney stack. Most of these types of dampers are operated by a cable that runs all the way down the flue pipe and into a bracket inside the firebox. To close the damper, you simply pull the chain down and lock it in the bracket. To open the damper, you unhook the cable from the bracket and it pops open at the top because it’s spring-activated.

Top-mount dampers come in different styles. Some of the top-mount dampers are referred to as “Ice breakers,” to be used in colder regions.

Heat loss from a chimney without a damper
Without a damper
A chimney with a top sealing damper
With a top-mount damper

Four advantages to Top-Mount Dampers:

* Top-Mount Dampers seal better which will save you money on utility bills. When the cable is pulled down, the damper plate seals against a rubber, silicone or rope gasket which gives it a tight seal. Throat dampers, on the other hand, never provide a complete seal, especially as they get older and the damper plate warps. Without the seal, there are gaps that allow heat loss during the winter. Top-mount dampers will increase energy efficiency in your home and save you money in heating during the winter and air conditioning during the summer.

* For cold climate areas, the top-mount dampers keep the warm air inside the flue, helping the draft and reducing the likelihood of smoke coming into the room.

* If you don’t have a chimney cap, rodents and birds can come down the chimney and enter the house. The top-mount damper closes the chimney at the top, making it impossible for critters to get in.

* Here in San Diego and other parts of Southern California, we have a serious problem with aggressive Africanized Bees. Bees like to build their hives in chimneys. With a typical throat damper, the bees have free access to build their hive in the flue. A chimney cap isn’t enough to prevent the bees from entering the flue. With a top-mount damper, the flue is completely closed off at the top, making it almost impossible for bees to enter the flue.

One caveat…

Top-mount dampers can only be installed on masonry chimneys with open fireplaces. They cannot be installed in prefab fireplaces, free-standing stoves or Rampart General Pre-Cast systems due to the U.L. listing. The top-mount dampers also cannot be installed with windcaps.

In addition, top-mount dampers cannot be installed for a fireplace that has artificial gas logs or a log lighter because the damper must be locked fully open.

If you need your existing throat damper repaired or you’re in the market for a top-mount damper, contact a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep.

How to clean your dryer’s lint screen

Lint screen for a clothes dryerOne of the simplest yet most neglected maintenance tasks in the home has to do with your clothes dryer. Failing to do this simple task can sometimes have deadly results.

Dangerous dryer fires are extremely common. In fact, in my job as a Certified Dryer Exhaust Technician, I speak to two or three people a month who have called me because their dryer caught on fire. In most cases, these fires were totally preventable.

Dryers are the second most dangerous appliance in the house. The first is the stove. But let’s face it, in many homes, the dryer gets far more use than the stove.

Cleaning and washing the lint screen in your clothes dryer can help avoid dangerous dryer fires!

What is a lint screen?

Every dryer has a lint screen. Some are located at the top of the dryer. Some are located just inside the door of the dryer. Here are examples of each.

A lint screen removed from top of clothes dryer

Lint screen inside dryer door





If you still don’t know where your lint screen is, check your dryer’s instruction manual.

Don’t ever use your clothes dryer with a damaged or missing lint screen.

Cleaning your lint screen

Before each load of laundry, pull out the lint screen and remove any lint. Simply use your fingers to remove the lint from the screen and throw away the lint.

Some of the more sophisticated clothes dryers have an alert if the dryer senses that the screen is full. Don’t depend on the alert. It’s best to get in the habit of removing the lint before every load of laundry.

Not cleaning your screen before each load creates extra wear and tear on your dryer, resulting in expensive appliance repairs. In addition, your clothes won’t dry as quickly, creating more expensive utility bills.

Washing your lint screen

In addition to cleaning your screen before each load of laundry, washing your screen is extremely important. Residue from laundry detergent, fabric softener, and dryer pads collects on the screening material. This residue can plug up the screen which makes your dryer harder to “breathe.” Screens should be washed every few months, depending on your family’s laundry habits.

Washing a lint screen is very simple:

1) Remove the screen and clean off any lint as you normally do before each load. Never use water to wash off the lint.

2) Run hot water over each side of the screen.

3) Wet a soft bristle brush or old toothbrush and scrub both sides of the screen.

4) Rinse both sides of the screen with hot water to remove the soap.

5) Repeat as needed until the screen is clean and there’s no more soap residue.

6) Inspect the screen to make sure no soap residue remains as well as the condition of the screen.

7) Dry the screen with a clean towel or allow to air dry.

8) Re-install the clean screen before using the dryer.

CAUTION: Don’t apply too much pressure to the screen. Damaging or tearing the somewhat fragile screening material will result in having to buy a new lint screen.

Of course, cleaning your screen is only one way to avoid dryer fires. Having an appliance technician clean out the lint from inside the dryer under the drum should be done once or twice a year.  In addition, having a Certified Dryer Technician clean out your dryer vent system once a year is also extremely important. Here are some important tips on how to avoid a dangerous dryer fire.

Dryer fires are easily avoidable with just these simple tasks.

How high should my fireplace mantel be?

Fireplace mantelIt is said that the eyes are the window to the soul.  I would say that the fireplace is the soul of the home. Homeowners make a statement by what important items they place on the fireplace mantel.

As chimney sweeps, one of the common problems we see during a chimney inspection has to do with the fireplace mantel. In most cases, the fireplace mantel is too close to the firebox opening. This is a potential safety issue.

What is a fireplace mantel?

Throughout history, the fireplace was the centerpiece of homes, not only for creating warmth from cold winters but also for cooking.

Up until the twelfth century, fires were made in the middle of the home, many times with simply a hole in the roof to vent the smoke from the room. Of course, this meant the home was always filled with smoke. Fireplaces became more popular once the concept of chimneys was developed.

Ancient fireplace mantel
The smoke canopy–A precursor to fireplace mantels. Photo credit: Wikipedia

By the 12th century, fireplaces were moved to an exterior wall where a chimney was incorporated to vent the smoke. Smoke “canopies” were developed to help with the inherent smoking problems that these fireplaces had. In time, fireplace mantels developed from the smoke canopies.

Carved fireplace mantels became fundamental pieces of elaborate art, especially in European castles, mansions, and historic grand buildings. Some of these beautiful mantels can still be found on display in museums.

Today, fireplace mantels no longer serve so much a practical purpose but more of a decorative one. Even in the 21st century, fireplaces with decorative mantels serve as a beautiful centerpiece and focal point to the modern home. These mantels serve to create a unique decorating statement to the room.

Fireplace Mantel clearances

Mantels can be beautiful but it’s important that they also be safe. For safety reasons, there are code requirements that dictate the distance between the top of the fireplace opening and the bottom of the mantel. Your local CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep should know the code requirements and clearances to combustibles for your fireplace mantel.

As an example, here in San Diego, the California Residential Code is the code that my city has adopted. For the sake of this post, the clearances discussed here are based on this code.

The distance is determined by measuring from the top of the fireplace opening to the bottom or underside of the mantel. If the mantel has a combustible support or bracket made from wood, then the measurement must be taken at the bottom of the support because that’s the closest point to the top of the fireplace.  If the bracket is a metal support for the mantel, since it’s a non-combustible material, then the measurement would be from the bottom of the mantel.

Absolutely no combustible material can be within six inches above the top of the fireplace!

Our fireplace mantel
Our own Fireplace Mantel

To determine where the mantel is to be installed will depend upon how far the mantel protrudes from the wall. The further the mantel protrudes, the further above the fireplace opening the mantel needs to be.

The 2016 California Residential Code R1001.11 states: “Exposed combustible mantels or trim may be placed directly on the masonry fireplace front surrounding a fireplace opening providing such combustible materials are not placed within six inches of the fireplace opening. Combustible material within 12 inches of the fireplace opening should not project more than 1/8 inch for each 1″ distance from such an opening.”

Complicated? Maybe, but here is a cheat sheet that will help you.

Projection of Fireplace Mantel from the wall Minimum distance from the top of firebox to the bottom of the mantel
.75 inch 6 inches
1 inch 8 inches
1.5 inches 12 inches
More than 1.5 inches Unlimited

Any mantel or supports that are more than 12 inches above the fireplace opening has no limit as to how far it can protrude from the wall.

In simple terms: If the mantel or supports for the mantel are a combustible material such as wood, they need to be more than 12″ above the fireplace opening if they protrude more than 1.5 inches.

IMPORTANT: It’s critical to know that these clearances are for brick and mortar masonry systems only. Prefab fireplaces and stove inserts have their own clearances to combustibles. In those cases, the clearances will be listed on an identification tag or plate on the system or in the installation instructions.

A fireplace mantel adds incredible beauty to the centerpiece of your home. Just make sure that you have a safe distance from the top of the fireplace to the mantel above.

How To Avoid a Dangerous Dryer Fire

Man looking into dryerA dryer fire is much more common than you think. The National Fire Protection Association found that from 2010-2014, U.S. fire departments estimated 15,970 fires involving washers and dryers, resulted in 13 deaths, 440 injuries and $238 million in property damage. Out of all those fires, 92% were due to dryer fires.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the second most dangerous appliance in the home is the clothes dryer. The first most dangerous appliance is the kitchen stove. In most homes, the clothes dryer is used far more often than the stove.

As one of the few women Certified Dryer Exhaust Technicians in California, I speak to many people about their dryers. On average, I receive 2-3 calls a month from people who have experienced a terrifying dryer fire.

Simple, easy-to-do tips you can do to prevent a dryer fire

Lint screen•  Clean out the lint screen after every load of laundry.

•  Never use your dryer without a lint screen.

•  Always check pockets before doing your laundry. Paper products like Kleenex, cocktail napkins, shopping lists, and receipts get past the lint screen and land inside the dryer along with lint which creates the fuel for a dryer fire. These products also clog the dryer vent which makes the dryer run hotter, setting yourself up for a dangerous dryer fire.

•  If you use fabric softener in your washer or dryer sheets in the dryer, we recommend washing the lint screen every few months, using water, liquid soap, and a toothbrush. Fabric softener and dryer sheets leave a chemical film that clogs the lint screen, causing your dryer to overheat.

•  Don’t overload your dryer. This can also cause the dryer to overheat, potentially causing a dryer fire.

•  If your dryer is located in a laundry room or laundry closet, the doors to the room or closet must be open when the dryer is on. A dryer needs 100 square inches of oxygen, the equivalent of a 10″ x 10″ window. If the dryer doesn’t have this make-up air, it can overheat.

•  If you have an exhaust fan in your laundry room, keep it off while the dryer is running, especially if the laundry room or laundry closet doors are closed. The exhaust fan removes air from the room. The dryer needs that oxygen in order to ventilate properly.

Clogged dryer vent exhaust•  Never have a screen where the dryer vent exhausts out. The screen will prevent animals from entering the dryer vent but the screen plugs up easily with lint. Instead, use a dryer damper or flapper.

•  The dryer needs at least 18″ of clearance in front of it. The dryer pulls air from underneath the dryer. If a laundry basket or other objects are in front of the dryer, it makes it harder for the dryer to pull the air in, causing the dryer to overheat.

•  The flexible connector hose between the back of the dryer and the wall must be shiny aluminum, not white plastic or vinyl. Some dryer manufacturers require rigid venting behind the dryer. Check the dryer’s manufacturer’s instructions for the proper transition between the back of the dryer and the wall.

•  Don’t push the dryer too close to the wall behind it. This may kink, crush or collapse the flexible connector hose which may prevent the dryer from exhausting properly. This connector hose must be as short as possible and never longer than eight feet. It should only be long enough to go from the back of the dryer to the wall with just a little slack so that it still stays connected if you pull the dryer out.  Here’s a link to several options for dryer vent hoses for tight spaces.

Indoor Dryer Vent Kit
Photo Credit: Amazon

•  Building code requires that the dryer vent to the outside of the house. Indoor dryer vent kits do not meet that requirement and could create a potentially dangerous situation, especially for venting a gas dryer.

•  Dryer vents cannot vent into garages, attics, basements or crawl spaces. For every load of clothes you dry, the dryer vents a half of a gallon in condensation, creating a sauna in the room. This moisture can create mold in enclosed areas.

•  The dryer vent going into or through any enclosed area (garages, attics, basements or crawl spaces) must be the rigid dryer vent pipe. The flexible connector hose can only be used for the short distance between the back of the dryer and the wall, never inside an enclosed area.

•  A plugged up dryer vent will prevent carbon monoxide from venting to the outside. It will also overheat the dryer. Here are signs that you may have a plugged up dryer vent.

•  Always have an ABC-type of fire extinguisher close to or inside the laundry room in case of a dryer fire.

C-Det logo for dryer vent technicians•  Have your dryer vent cleaned once a year by a professional Certified Dryer Exhaust Technician. Most people don’t realize that it’s typically chimney sweeps who do dryer vent cleaning. This is because the chimney industry has developed the proper tools and equipment specifically for dryer vents. If the dryer vent is not cleaned correctly, the dryer vent can get disconnected inside the walls or completely plugged up, making for a very expensive repair.

•  Make sure to ask how the dryer vent cleaning professional cleans the dryer vent. Professional dryer exhaust technicians will use a brushing method to scrub the dryer vent clean from beginning to end. These brushes have rods that go through the multiple 90 degree bends that most dryer vent systems have. Many companies who are not professional will only use vacuums or air pressure that just remove the loose lint accumulation and not the caked-on, paper-mache’ buildup inside a dryer vent.

•  Professional dryer exhaust technicians also have special tools, either a Magnehelic Gage or Vane Anemometer, to measure the airflow of the dryer. After a thorough dryer vent cleaning is done, we test the pressure at the termination. If the system doesn’t have air pressure, then we know that either the dryer needs a repair or there’s a disconnected vent inside the wall. Here’s how to find a professional Certified Dryer Exhaust Technician.

Dryer fire•  Cleaning out your dryer vent is only one side of the issue. A dryer fire can also be caused by the clothes dryer itself. The paper and lint accumulation inside the dryer under the drum is typically where the dryer fire occurs. For that reason, hire a professional appliance technician to clean out the inside of the dryer once or twice a year, depending on your laundry habits. Simply cleaning the lint screen isn’t enough because the paper and lint can get past the lint screen and land inside the dryer. The only way to remove that lint is to open up the dryer.

•  The most important piece of advice I have: Never go to bed with the dryer on and don’t leave the house either!! You want to be home and you want to be awake in case of a dryer fire. This is especially true when your dryer is located in an attached garage. Building code requires a one-hour fire-rated door between the garage and the house. Your garage would be completely gone before you would even know you had a fire. In this case, it’s especially dangerous if you have a bedroom above the garage.

Cleaning out your dryer vent as well as inside the dryer itself will save you money on utility bills, create less wear and tear on the dryer, reduce expensive appliance repairs and will reduce the chance of a dryer fire.

Proper maintenance of your dryer vent, as well as your dryer, can give you peace of mind from a potential dryer fire.

Three Reasons NEVER To Remove A Fireplace Lintel

FireplaceAs professional chimney sweeps, there’s a common issue that we’ve been running into more and more during the past few years.

Contractors, interior designers, and do-it-yourself homeowners are removing the fireplace lintel. Perhaps this is to create, in their minds, a more aesthetically-pleasing fireplace by making a taller firebox opening. However, removing the lintel can create some major issues for the fireplace.

Many times, the removal of the lintel isn’t discovered until the homeowner calls a trained chimney professional to do a chimney sweeping or when a home inspector discovers it in the middle of escrow during a home inspection.

What Is A Fireplace Lintel?

Fireplace Lintel Bar
Photo Credit RCP Block & Brick

The fireplace lintel is typically a metal L-shaped bar or a flat steel beam that supports the bricks and masonry above the firebox opening. The lintel runs the full width of the firebox opening and, by code, extends into each side by at least four inches. The purpose of the lintel is to support the masonry above the fireplace opening.

According to California Residential Code R1001.7 – Lintel and throat: “Masonry over a fireplace opening shall be supported by a lintel of noncombustible material. The minimum required bearing length on each end of the fireplace opening shall be four inches. The fireplace throat or damper shall be located not less than eight inches above the lintel.”

Keep in mind that this code pertains to San Diego and may be different in other parts of the state and country. You will need to check with your local jurisdiction to see what the code requirements are in your area.

There are three important reasons why a fireplace lintel should never be removed.

Structural Issues

The purpose of the fireplace lintel is to serve as structural support for the area above the firebox opening.

Mortar joints between bricks can deteriorate over time and become like sand or dust.

The vibration of power tools used in power chimney sweeping may collapse already loosened bricks above the firebox opening. This creates a potentially dangerous situation for a chimney sweep who may be inside the firebox when the bricks above the firebox crash down.

In addition, without a lintel, the firebox opening can collapse during an earthquake.

Safety Issues

With or without heat exposure, cracks may develop in concealed areas that can allow heat and combustion byproducts to travel outside the fireplace during use. This may expose adjacent combustibles to excessive heat.

Heat exposure from fireplace use may cause or accelerate crack formation in the now unsupported masonry above the firebox.

Smoking Issues

The most common reason for removing a fireplace lintel is to make the firebox taller. However, fireboxes that are taller than they are wide are more prone to smoking problems.

A masonry chimney is built to a very specific formula. In simplistic terms, the formula has to do with the height and width of the firebox opening, the height of the chimney and the diameter of the flue pipe, among other specifications. If any of those are changed, your fireplace will be more prone to smoking problems. Making the firebox taller will likely affect the performance of the chimney.

Installing A Fireplace Lintel

Here are photos showing how a fireplace lintel is installed.

Fireplace Lintel

Fireplace Lintel

Before remodeling your fireplace, including a new facade, have your chimney inspected by a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep. He or she will be able to inform you of the local building codes in your area for specifications on the fireplace lintel.

[Photo Credits: Jim Crawford of Authentic Fireplace Services unless otherwise stated]

Frequently Asked Questions about Prefab Fireplaces

What is a prefab fireplace?

A prefabricated fireplace goes by several names–a “prefab” or “factory-built fireplace.” Another term would be “decorative heating appliance.”

These fireplace systems are manufactured in a factory, assembled at the customer’s home and installed into the wood framing of the chimney structure.

This type of fireplace is tested to the U.L. 127 Standard in the Underwriters Laboratory or other approved agency. This approval is called a “listing.”

The system is comprised of a metal firebox with either refractory panels or metal panels, a metal pipe, a metal chase cover, and a chimney cap, all housed in a chimney structure. Outside the home and above the roofline, the chimney structure (also referred to as a “chase”) is nothing more than wood framing and stucco. The metal pipe is inside the chase. In some cases, the pipe will be exposed above the roof.

Here in San Diego, prefab fireplaces have been around since the late 1960s or early 1970s. Because of the high cost of labor for building masonry fireplaces, contractors started installing prefabricated fireplace systems. Most tract homes built since the 1980s have prefab fireplaces.

Home builders and contractors make a prefab fireplace look like a masonry fireplace. Most homeowners cannot tell the difference and don’t even realize that it’s not a masonry fireplace.

What is a U.L. listing and why is that important?

The manufacturer goes through expensive and extensive testing through the Underwriters Laboratory or other approved agency. The approval, or “listing,” involves testing the system with the specific components of the system.

This is important to know because if any of the components are changed out with a component not tested with the system, it voids out the listing on the entire system. That means that if there’s ever damage caused by the fireplace due to a non-manufacturer’s component, the liability is removed from the manufacturer. The fireplace professional who installed the non-manufacturer’s part may then be held liable.

For safety and liability reasons, these prefab fireplace systems should not be modified against the manufacturer’s specifications!

What is the difference between a prefab fireplace and a masonry fireplace?

There’s a big difference between these two types of fireplace systems.

A masonry system is built on-site, brick by brick. These are well-built systems made with bricks and mortar. Masonry fireplace systems built after the 1940s also have a pipe known as a flue lining.

Here in San Diego, the pipe in masonry chimneys is typically made from terra cotta (clay) or pumice. If masonry chimneys are maintained properly, they can last more than a hundred years.

How can I tell if I have a prefab fireplace?

A graphic of what a prefab fireplace is, listing all the parts to the systemThe exterior chimney structure is typically made of stucco or siding. A masonry chimney will usually have bricks and mortar.

The flue pipe in a prefab is made from metal, either a double wall or triple wall pipe. Looking from the prefab firebox up into the flue, the smooth metal pipe can be seen.

The average homeowner cannot tell if they have a masonry or prefab fireplace. A qualified chimney professional trained in prefab fireplaces or a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep will be able to inform the homeowner what type of system it is.

How can I know what the manufacturer and model are of my prefab fireplace?

The tag which lists the manufacturer and model of a prefab fireplacePrefab fireplaces will have what we refer to as a “tag.” This is a metal plate, sometimes the size of a business card, and it will be placed somewhere inside the firebox. The tag will list the name of the manufacturer and the model number.The tag which lists the manufacturer and model of a prefab fireplace

In new homes, the contractor may have left the operating/installation instructions for the new homeowner that will list the manufacturer and model number. Homeowners should keep track of this important information.

How do I use my prefab fireplace?

Most prefab fireplaces can be used with artificial gas logs, prefabricated logs (such as Duraflames) or well-seasoned wood. Reading the operating instructions is helpful for homeowners to know how to safely operate their fireplace.

Also, prefab fireplaces cannot have big fires or very hot fires in them. If you do, you can crack the fragile refractory panels inside the firebox and those panels can be very expensive to replace. For that reason, we recommend that prefab fireplaces should be limited to small fires. Certainly, you can burn wood in most prefabs but never any larger or hotter than what you would get if you’re burning just one Duraflame log.

What is a refractory panel?

Refractory panels inside a prefab fireplaceIn most prefab fireboxes, the systems will have four refractory panels–two sides, a back, and the floor–inside the firebox where you make the fire. These panels stand up about two feet tall. They are made from refractory cement, stamped to look like bricks but they’re not really bricks.

These panels protect the metal firebox by lowering the temperature to the metal. Behind the metal firebox is the wooden structure of the chimney chase.

Without refractory panels or with damaged panels, too much heat can get to the metal firebox behind the panels.  This can then heat the wood framing behind the firebox. In addition, if the metal firebox gets too hot, the metal firebox may warp and new refractory panels will no longer fit.

Burning too hot of a fire will crack the refractory panels.

Burned out and cracked refractory panelsUsually, the back and floor panels get cracked first because they get most of the heat of the fire. Hairline cracks should be monitored. The panels must be replaced if any cracks are wider than what you could fit the edge of a dime into.

Cracks in the refractory panels cause a potentially dangerous situation since they have lost their insulating ability and may allow the transfer of heat to combustible materials.

Most manufacturers state that if there are cracks in the panels, the panels cannot be repaired or patched. The panels have to be replaced.

These refractory panels are the Achilles Heel of the system but with proper usage, by not having large fires, you can prevent cracks from occurring. Cracked refractory panels should only be replaced with manufacturer’s panels. Using after-market parts (also known as “universal panels” or “non-factory parts” or “cut-to-fit panels”) may void out the U.L. listing on the prefab system.

Remember, these systems are not intended for heating your home. Only ambiance. In fact, if you’re getting a lot of heat out of your prefab fireplace, then you’re probably having too large of a fire.

What is a chase cover?

A chase cover on a prefab fireplaceThe chase cover sits on top of the chase (chimney structure). It is a flat, horizontal piece of sheet metal that sits on top of the chimney structure. The chase cover has a large hole in it where the pipe comes through the cover and attaches to the chimney cap.

It’s not uncommon for chase covers to rust when rainwater pools on top of the cover. The rust eats through the metal chase cover, creating a hole. Rainwater can then enter the chase, landing on top of the firebox which will rust out the entire system. At that point in time, the entire system will need to be replaced.

Why do I hear water dripping when it rains?

When you hear water dripping on metal, call a chimney professional immediately. That sound is likely where water is coming through a rusted-out chase cover. If you wait too long, the water landing on the firebox inside the chase will rust out the system, creating a very expensive replacement of the entire prefab system.

Having the prefab fireplace inspected on an annual basis by a qualified chimney professional will prevent this issue, ultimately saving you money by fixing the problems before damage occurs.

What are the common problems with prefab fireplaces?

The most common problems we see with prefab fireplaces are cracked refractory panels, leaking chase covers, rusted out fireboxes and rusted out caps.

Preventing these issues is easy by having smaller fires and having your chimney inspected on an annual basis by a qualified chimney professional to prevent problems before they happen.

I don’t use my fireplace. Do I still have to have it inspected every year?

A prefab fireplace that is never used can still deteriorate.

We find that here, in San Diego County, prefab fireplaces in homes near the ocean deteriorate much faster than in other areas of the county. The salt air from the ocean, even as much as 5-10 miles inland, can rust out a prefab fireplace. The lifespan of a prefab fireplace can be cut in half because of its proximity to the ocean.

This makes it even more critical to have a prefab chimney inspected on an annual basis to catch problems with the system before the problem gets too extensive and the entire system has to be replaced.

Where can I find parts for my prefab fireplace?

Most manufacturers of prefab fireplaces only sell parts to chimney professionals and not directly to homeowners. After determining the manufacturer and model of the system, a chimney professional can contact the manufacturer for replacement parts such as refractory panels, fireplace glass doors, and chimney caps. Installing components that are not from the manufacturer will void out the listing on the system and, in the event of fire damage caused by the fireplace, it can create liability issues because the installer modified the system against the manufacturer’s specification and the listing.

How long do prefab fireplaces last?

There’s a wide variation of professional opinions on how long prefab fireplaces last.

Certain factors can decrease the life span, such as not maintaining the system, the proximity to the ocean, weather conditions or over-firing the system. Having the prefab system inspected on an annual basis, whether the system is or isn’t used, is the best way to extend the life span of a prefab fireplace.

A rusted-out chase cover on a prefab fireplaceMany manufacturers and chimney professionals will say that prefab fireplaces can last between 20-30 years. In our professional experience, here in San Diego, we’ve seen some systems needing replacement after only 15 years while at the same time, we’ve seen well-maintained systems that are over 40 years old and still operational.

How do I replace my prefab fireplace?

Replacing a prefab fireplace is not something the average homeowner should attempt. In fact, we advise only a licensed chimney professional specifically trained in prefabs should replace the system. If a prefab fireplace is not installed properly, it can create an extremely dangerous and deadly situation for the homeowner.

When a prefab fireplace needs to be replaced, the existing chimney chase (the chimney structure) can still be used. Only the “innards” of the prefab system need to be replaced–firebox, flue pipe, chase cover, and cap.

Unfortunately, the firebox opening for the new system won’t necessarily be the same size opening as the old system which means that the facade may be affected around the firebox opening.

In most cases, the facade must be removed first so that the prefab system can be removed and replaced. For this reason, we recommend that the prefab fireplace be replaced at the same time as updating the facade.

Can I burn gas logs in my prefab fireplace?

The best way to know what you can and cannot burn in your prefab fireplace is to read the manufacturer’s operating instructions for your specific manufacturer and model of your system. In most cases, you can burn wood, prefabricated logs (such as Duraflame logs) or artificial gas logs.

Sometimes the tag will also indicate what types of fuel can be burned.

Glass doors open or glass doors closed?

Glass doors must be in a fully OPEN position when you have a fire in the fireplace.

If glass doors are partially open, the gases and smoke may be drawn into the room through a “secondary chimney effect” so keep the doors fully open.

If you close the glass doors while you have an active fire, the glass can implode or explode.  Here’s a youtube video from Kelly Ripa, a morning talk show host, whose glass doors exploded on her because they had the doors closed:


Of course, before you go to bed at night, once the fire has died down, close the glass doors.  This will prevent embers from coming into the room while you’re sleeping.

Glass doors serve the purpose of preventing heat loss from your home especially when you have your damper locked open as in the case of artificial gas logs. Unfortunately, in some cases, glass doors are no longer available, especially in a case where you have an older prefab fireplace.  In that case, do not put on any glass doors other than the doors specifically listed for the manufacturer and model of your prefab system.  IMPORTANT: Putting on any other glass doors may block the air-cooling louvers and overheat the system.

How can I remodel my prefab fireplace?

We are finding that many homeowners who remodel the fireplace by installing a new facade don’t realize that the prefab fireplace may already be at the end of its life span. These facades can be very expensive.

When the prefab fireplace has to be replaced, the facade may have to be removed. For that reason, we recommend timing the remodel of a new facade at the same time that a new prefab fireplace is installed.

First things first, always have your prefab fireplace inspected and maintained by a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep on an annual basis so you can safely enjoy your fireplace and get the most amount of life span out of your system.

Special thanks to Pat and Bernie Lopez of Burnie’s Fireplace Services, nationally-renowned experts in factory-built fireplaces, for their valuable input in this blog post.

How NOT to Burn Down Your House!

Fire damages from hot ashesI had an interesting conversation with a caller recently. She had emptied her ashes from her fireplace, placed them in her outside trash can and left to run some errands. What she hadn’t realized was that the embers were still hot even though it had been a few days since her last fire. A neighbor happened to drive by and saw the entire fence was on fire.  He called the fire department who miraculously saved the house.

Her house suffered the loss of her fence and her pool filter and of course, completely disintegrated the trash cans. Because of an observant neighbor’s fast action, she didn’t lose her house.

The homeowner provided me with a photo of the damage. For obvious reasons, she wished to remain anonymous but wanted to spread the word on what can happen if you’re not careful.

Here are tips to properly dispose of fireplace ashes

Even days after having a fire, the ashes can contain embers that are hot enough to ignite combustible materials.

•  Before emptying the ashes from your fireplace, spread the ashes out for a period of time to help cool them off more.

•  Never dump ashes into combustible materials such as paper bags, cardboard boxes or plastic containers.

Bucket to hold fireplace ashes•  Ash buckets specifically designed for this purpose can be purchased from Amazon, big box hardware stores or from your local fireplace store. The ash bucket should be made out of metal, have a tight-fitting lid with a carrying handle and ideally should have a double bottom. Many come with an ash shovel.

•  Put the lid on the ash bucket while moving the ashes from your fireplace to the exterior of your home. You don’t want any fly-away embers and ashes to land on your carpeting or couches.

•  Do not place the full ash bucket on a wood deck or inside a garage. True story: We saw a house completely burn down to the ground because they put the hot ash bucket on their wood deck. Instead, place the ash bucket outside and away from the house.

•  Never place the ash bucket near flammable liquids.

After the fireplace ashes have cooled

•  Avoid spreading the ashes on a windy day. They may not be cooled off and can then spread to a combustible material or vegetation.

•  Don’t spread the cooled-off ashes near flammable vegetation.

•  There are many practical uses for your fireplace ashes. Don’t just throw them away. Gardening, composting, and deterring insects are just a few of those uses.

•  Keep in mind that in some jurisdictions, homeowners may be held financially liable for any damage incurred due to not properly disposing of fireplaces ashes.

Here’s another example of an apartment building near Dulles Airport that almost burned down due to improperly discarding the fireplace ashes.

During the winters, it’s not uncommon to hear news stories about houses being burned down to the ground due to fireplaces–homeowners displaced and lives sadly and tragically lost. Enjoy your fireplace but keep these important points in mind when dealing with the ashes after a fire in your fireplace.

A Wind Cap vs A Chimney Cap

Wind cap
A Wind Cap

Enjoying a warm fire on a cold evening is one of the simple pleasures in life, but not when that beautiful crackling fire is accompanied by the eye-burning smell of smoke.

There are a number of causes for fireplace smoking problems, many of which are easily remedied.

If you live in areas prone to wind, such as the coastal or mountain region, or even off of a canyon or hillside, there is a very simple solution–a chimney wind cap.


The difference between a Wind Cap and a standard Chimney Cap

Chimney cap
A Standard Chimney Cap

A standard chimney cap serves several important purposes:
* Prevents embers from landing on the roof;
* Prevents animals and other critters from entering the home through the chimney;
* Prevents rain from going into the chimney system; and
* Prevents debris, leaves and pine needles from entering the chimney.

A standard cap, however, will not prevent wind-induced downdrafts.

What is a Wind Cap?

Wind caps have the same benefits as standard chimney caps but due to the design, wind caps have the added benefit of preventing wind from going down the flue which can cause smoking problems in your home.

Wind caps work on the same premise as weather vanes.  They rotate on a turret, turning their back to the wind while allowing the smoke to exit the flue pipe. The wind currents flow over the cap, instead of going down the pipe. The air current going past the wind cap creates a venturi effect (partial vacuum) in the pipe, helping to prevent the downdraft that creates the smoking problem. The hood of the wind cap also prevents horizontal rain from entering the flue pipe.

Where to find a Wind Cap

Unlike universal standard chimney caps, wind caps must be custom sized to fit the flue pipe. This requires taking accurate measurements of the inside and outside diameter of the flue pipe as well as the shape of the chimney flue pipe. The measurements can be tricky, especially for the odd-sized or odd-shaped flue pipe. Wind caps have to be special ordered to fit properly. It is recommended to hire a professional chimney sweep to measure, order and install a wind cap. To find a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep, go to the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s website.

One precaution with a wind cap

Please be aware that a wind cap cannot be installed on a pre-fabricated fireplace system due to the U.L. listing on the pre-fab fireplace. A wind cap can be installed on a masonry chimney and the pipe of some freestanding wood stoves and stove inserts.

Fireplace smoking problems may be easily resolved. Don’t just accept a fireplace smoking problem. Nothing should take you away from enjoying one of the simple pleasures in life.