Category Archives: Fireplace

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.

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.

An open fireplace damper is like an open window

Money flying out of walletDuring these dog days of summer, many homeowners are making a very expensive mistake. Here in San Diego, homeowners are opening their SDG&E envelopes and getting sticker shock with astronomically high utility bills. What homeowners don’t realize is that by making a very simple change, they can save a great deal of money.



What is a flue and what is a damper?

These terms are not interchangeable.

The flue is the vent pipe that allows gases, smoke, and heat to exhaust out of the home. The damper is a metal plate that opens and closes off the flue. When the fireplace is not in use, the damper should be closed in order to close off the flue.

Dampers are typically located at the bottom of the flue pipe, just above the firebox in the throat of the system.

Dampers typically have a rod or handle that you can push forward or backward. Other dampers move side to side, while others pull down or push up. It all depends on the type of fireplace you have.

In some cases, dampers can be located at the very top of the flue pipe with a chain that comes down and hooks in a bracket inside the firebox. These are called “top-mount” dampers. To close these dampers, you pull the chain down and hook it in the bracket. To open, you unhook the chain from the bracket and the damper plate pops open at the top because it’s spring activated.

Not all fireplaces have dampers but most do.

Why it’s important to close dampers

Here in San Diego, because our weather is typically very mild, many homeowners leave their dampers open all the time, not realizing that by doing so, their air conditioner is working overtime, costing the homeowner unnecessary money.

When the air conditioner is on and the damper is open, hot air from the outside is being drawn down the chimney and into the room. You’re actually sucking the hot air into your house. It totally defeats the whole purpose of using your air conditioner. In addition, if your chimney is dirty, you’re also sucking particulates of soot, which is a carcinogen, into the home. This is another reason to keep your chimney clean and your damper closed when the chimney is not in use.

It’s not just summertime that open dampers create problems. During winter time, when it’s cold outside, if your damper is open and you turn on your furnace, all you’re doing is sucking cold air into the home. This totally defeats the whole purpose of having your furnace turned on. So keep the damper closed during the winter time when you’re not using your fireplace.

How to tell if dampers are open

It’s not always easy to tell if your damper is open or closed. In fact, this is the #1 question when homeowners call me about their chimney. Unfortunately, because dampers open differently based on what type of system you have, I can’t give a conclusive answer over the phone. Here are several ways to tell if your throat damper is open or closed:

1) It’s actually easier to tell during the daytime than at night. One way you’re going to see more light from the sun than the other way. Keep in mind that because chimneys are not built straight up and down, you’ll rarely ever be able to see blue sky but one way you’ll be able to see more light than the other.

2) With a flashlight, look up from the firebox into the flue pipe. You should be able to see the metal damper plate in the throat of the system. When it’s open, you’ll actually feel more air movement than when it’s closed.

3) Light a match and blow it out. Immediately place the match close to the damper. The smoke from the blown-out match will indicate if the damper is open or closed.

4) Of course, there’s always the method that many homeowners use. Light the fire on a wing and a prayer. If it smokes out your house, then you know your damper is closed. We do not recommend this method due to the smoke damage to your home and to your lungs!

Here are examples of open and closed dampers.  This is looking from the firebox (where you make the fire) up the flue pipe:

Closed damper for masonry
Closed Damper for Masonry Chimney
Closed Damper for Pre-Fab Chimney
Open Damper for Masonry chimney
Open Damper for Masonry Chimney
Open Damper for Prefab Chimney

An Important Tip to Remember about Dampers

It’s not easy to remember, from season to season, which way the damper is open and which way is closed. To help me, I made a label and stuck it to the underside of the mantle which tells me which way to open. If I forget, I know where to look to find out easily.  Here’s the label I had on the underside of my own mantel:

Damper label

Not all dampers open this way so find out which way yours is open and make a label to place on the underside of your mantel.

Damper clamps

If your firebox is plumbed for gas, either for gas logs or a log lighter for burning with wood, then the damper has to be locked in a fully-open position with a clamp. You will not be able to close your damper. This is required by code in most areas of the United States. In this case, you may consider glass doors on the front of the fireplace.

Open window with curtainsRemember, an open damper is the same as an open window. Would you leave a window open when your air conditioning or furnace is on? Then why would you leave your fireplace damper open?

A gas valve inside a fireplace is dangerous!

Gas valve located inside a fireplaceThis occurs more often than you think. Upon inspection of a fireplace, we find the gas valve for the fireplace is located INSIDE the firebox.  The fact of the matter is, if the valve is located inside the firebox, then the valve has to be removed, capped off and relocated.

According to the California International Residential Code and National Fire Protection Association 54 (also referred to as the National Fuel Gas Code), the “appliance shutoff valves…shall serve a single appliance and shall be installed within six feet of the appliance it serves, and shall be readily accessible and permanently identified.”

In addition, “…appliance shutoff valves installed in fireplaces shall be removed and the piping capped gastight…..”

If you think about it, having a gas valve inside a firebox is not a good idea. Who wants to turn off a valve by having to stick your hand inside the firebox while a fire is going?

Another key point to this issue is “readily accessible.” The gas valve must be where it can be easily seen and within view. It should not be located in a crawl space, inside a cabinet or around the corner in a hall.

If you have a gas valve located inside your firebox, contact a licensed plumber who specializes in gas to cap off the gas pipe and relocate the gas valve.

10 Things to Never Burn in a Fireplace

Gas can pouring gas inside fireplaceTrue story: When I was growing up, we lived next door to some wonderful neighbors. John (not his real name) was a California Highway Patrolman and we highly respected him. His wife became best friends with my mother. My brothers and I became friends with their four sons. One winter, John was trying to get a fire started with green wood. Because the wood had a high moisture content, he couldn’t get the fire started. John went and got a gas can and poured some gas on the wood, not knowing that there was smoldering wood below the grate from the previous night’s fire. The fire instantly exploded. John jumped back and spilled the gas can on top of himself which instantly lit him on fire. John was burned over 75% of his body and almost died. He was in the hospital for months recovering and he suffered a great deal of pain from those burns for the remaining 45 years of his life. This event had a major impact on me and every time I see or hear about someone pouring gas on a fire to get it started, I instantly think of John. If this doesn’t inspire you to be careful and watch out with gas cans, I don’t think anything will.

Burning a fire in your fireplace is one of the simple pleasures in life but there are certain items that should never be burned in your fireplace.


Rolled up newspaper used in priming the flueJunk mail, newspapers, magazines, and trash (such as cardboard, pizza boxes and Styrofoam) may contain plastic, chemicals, glues as well as ink that can be toxic when burned.

Identity fraud is rampant, leading people to burn credit card statements and other documents that could create a nightmare if it gets in the wrong hands. Buy a paper shredder instead. Fly-away embers from burning paper can plug up a chimney cap or, even worse, if a cap isn’t present, these embers can land on your roof or on your neighbor’s roof. Using a few pages of newspaper to start a fire is fine but avoid using the colored advertising slicks.

Green wood

Wood should be aged at least six months, but better a year. To get around this, order your wood from the wood seller in the spring, have it split and stacked ready to go for when the cold season starts. Don’t trust the wood lot when they say that the wood has been aged. The moisture content in the wood should be between 15%-20%. Green wood will give you a smokier fire, will smell bad and will create more creosote build-up in the flue, setting you up for a dangerous flue fire.

Fuel Accelerants – Gasoline, lighter fluid, kerosene

In addition to the reason demonstrated above, accelerant fluids can produce a fire that can quickly get out of control and will produce a toxic odor that can damage your lungs.

Pressure-treated wood

Construction scraps or wood that has been chemically treated, painted or stained such as plywood, paneling or particleboard can be toxic when burned. This also includes furniture and the old wood from that deck or fence you removed from the backyard last summer.

Christmas trees

While the Christmas tree may seem like it’s dried out, it contains resins that may explode when burned. It can quickly create a fire that is out of control.

Christmas wrapping paper

The ink from Christmas wrapping paper can be toxic when burned. Also, the flyaway embers can either clog up the chimney cap if you have a chimney cap, or if you don’t have a cap, the embers can land on your roof or your neighbor’s roof and start a fire.


Burning plastic can create cancer-causing dioxins, a highly toxic chemical that builds up in human tissue. It also produces fumes that are harmful to your throat and lungs. The smoke can create damage to the environment.

Synthetic fabrics

For the same reason as burning plastic, synthetic fabrics should not be burned due to the toxic chemicals produced.

Coal or charcoal products

These products are only intended for outside use because of charcoal-induced carbon monoxide poisoning that can be caused. Leave the charcoal to your outside barbecue.

Certain Plants

Smoke from plants that contain urushiol, such as poison oak, poison ivy or poison sumac, can create a serious allergic reaction to the nasal passages, throat and lungs if the smoke is inhaled.

Remember that your fireplace is not an incinerator. Buy a shredder for your paperwork and dispose of your garbage and any processed or treated wood properly. Have fires in the fireplace in a responsible way for the safety of you, your family and the environment, and stick to burning properly-aged wood in your fireplace. Don’t take unnecessary chances!

Fireplace Safety Tips Around the Holidays

Young mother and her two little daughters sitting by a fireplace in a cozy dark living room on Christmas eve

Christmas is a special time of year for friends and family to gather around the fireplace. More than at any other time of the year, the fireplace is the focal point of holiday celebrations. Read these simple tips to make sure you don’t ruin the festivities by having a visit from the fire department!

Fireplace Safety Tips

  • Feel free to hang the stockings from the mantel when you’re not using the fireplace, but remember to remove the stockings when having a fire. Have an alternate location to hang the stockings. I can guarantee you that Santa will still be able to find them!
  • Nothing should be hanging over the edge of the mantel including garland, tinsel, or Christmas lights. Heat from your fireplace rises and having combustible materials above the fireplace opening is asking for trouble.
  • Christmas trees should be a minimum of three feet from the fireplace, Christmas stockingpreferably as much to the side of the fireplace as possible.
  • Keep combustible items off the exterior hearth (the area in front of and to the sides of the fireplace opening). This includes wicker baskets with decorative pine cones, ribbons, and pine tree boughs. Also, don’t ever store your firewood and newspapers on the hearth either.
  • The firescreen should be closed during an active fire, otherwise embers can catch that Christmas tree or your carpet on fire.
  • Time your fires so that the fire is completely out before going to bed. If you have glass doors, close the glass doors before going to bed.
  • Don’t burn the Christmas wrapping paper in your fireplace. The ink in the wrapping paper can be toxic when burned, and the fly-away embers can plug up a chimney cap or, if you don’t have a cap, can catch a roof or nearby trees on fire.
  • If your Christmas tree is dried out and dropping needles, it’s time to take it down. Growing up as a child, our family tradition was to leave the Christmas tree up until after the Epiphany (January 6). By then the Christmas tree was completely dried out and a fire hazard to be sure.
  • Don’t look at that Christmas tree as a source of firewood after the holidays. The sap from the trees can literally explode when put into a fireplace. Instead, put your tree to good use and recycle it at the local recycling location in your area.

According to a report by the National Fire Protection Association, from 2013 to 2017, an average of 160 reported home structure fires per year were caused by Christmas trees, resulting in an annual average of three deaths, 15 injuries, and $10 million in property damage.

By following these simple rules, you can be guaranteed of special memories, sitting around your fireplace during the holidays.

50 Tips For Enjoying Your Fireplace

There’s nothing better than a warm fireplace on a cold evening. If you haven’t got one yet you are most definitely missing out!  Here are 50 quick and simple tips that will help you safely enjoy that cozy fire even more.


1. For an open fireplace, the glass doors must be in a fully open position. Once the fire has died out, close the glass doors before you go to bed at night.

2. Always make sure that the fire screen in front of the fireplace is closed when the fireplace is in use. Even when the fireplace is not in use, keep the fire screen closed to discourage pets from going into the firebox. (Cats have been known to use the fireplace as a litter box.)

3. Never leave a fire in the fireplace unattended, especially when children and pets are present.

Carbon monoxide detector4. Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your home, especially close to the fireplace as well as near bedrooms and in the kitchen. Make sure to test them at least twice a year.

5. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, homes should have a minimum of two 5 lb ABC fire extinguishers. There should be one fire extinguisher per floor of a house and the fire extinguishers should be visible and accessible. A fire extinguisher should be close at hand when the fireplace is in use.

6. Never use kerosene, lighter fluid or gasoline to start your fire.

7. Keep combustible materials (like knickknacks, newspapers, firewood and Christmas trees) away from the firebox opening. This includes items hung from the mantel, like Christmas stockings and garland.

8. Inspect your landscaping near the chimney. Trees and vines should be kept a minimum of 10 feet away from the top of the chimney.


9. Be sure your firewood is aged and kept dry from the rain or snow.

Pile of firewood10. Hardwoods should be aged a minimum of one year while softwoods should be aged a minimum of six months. The moisture in firewood should be between 15%-20%. Aged and dried wood will provide you with more efficient fires, fewer smoking problems, and less flammable creosote build-up in the chimney.

11. Do not burn construction scraps or wood that have been chemically treated, such as plywood, paneling or particleboard. In addition, don’t burn paper with colored ink, cardboard, Christmas wrapping paper, plastics, fabrics made from synthetic materials, or junk mail. The chemicals can be toxic when burned.

12. To easily start a fire, use fat wood or fire starters if you don’t have a log lighter.

13. Buy your wood in the spring or summer to allow it to dry out before the burning season.

14. A cord of wood is 4 feet x 4 feet x 8 feet. A rick of wood is one third the volume of a cord of wood. A truck-load of wood would be dependent on the size of the truck bed and is not an easy way to determine how much wood you’re actually buying. A truck-load could mean anything from a short-bed pick-up truck holding 1/5 cord to a pulpwood truck that can hold four cords.

15. A cord of wood is a legal unit of measure. If you buy a cord of wood, have the wood cut to burning length, split and stacked and not just dumped in your driveway. Although you may pay more, you will know for certain that you weren’t cheated and that the wood will be aged in time for the burning season.

16. Stack wood on top of a pallet instead of directly on the ground to avoid pests and mold in your firewood.

Duraflame log and firestarter17. If you’re burning artificial fire logs (like Duraflame), do not place wood on top or below the artificial fire log.

18. Never poke or break open an artificial fire log while it’s burning.

19. Only burn one artificial fire log at a time.

20. Do not cook food over artificial fire logs because of the chemicals in this product.

21. Never burn artificial fire logs in free-standing stoves or stove inserts.


22. During cold weather, always prime your flue before lighting your fire to prevent smoking problems, especially if you commonly have a smoking problem at the beginning of a fire.

23. Airtight homes are more prone to smoking problems. This is especially true in newer homes or homes that have been retrofitted with new windows. If this is the case, crack open a window close to the fireplace.

24. Avoid having the heater/furnace or air conditioning on at the same time as the fireplace especially if the air intake register for the furnace is close to or in the same room as the fireplace. During a fire, you may lose the draw on the fireplace because the furnace can pull smoke and gases down the chimney and back into the living area.

25. Always use a fire grate in the fireplace. This allows airflow under the fire to help in the combustion process and will give you a better fire.

26. Place your firewood on the fire grate close to the back wall to prevent smoking problems.


27. Always check to make sure your damper is fully open before you light the fire.

28. Do you always forget which way your damper is open? Put a note on the underside of your mantel that says which way the damper is open. If you don’t remember which way the damper opens, you’ll remember where to look to find out!

29. Close your damper when you’re not using your fireplace so you won’t lose heat during the winter and air conditioning during the summer. An open damper is like having an open window.

30. If your existing damper is broken or non-existent, and if you burn wood, consider installing a top sealing damper to prevent heat loss from the home.

31. If you have gas logs in an open fireplace, the damper must be locked in a fully open position.


32. You don’t have to clean out the fireplace after every use. In fact, a healthy bed of ashes below the grate can actually be beneficial. Once the ashes reach the bottom of the grate, the ashes should be spread out or removed since it’s important to have good airflow from under the grate.

33. Wait at least 72 hours after your last fire before cleaning out the ashes in your firebox.

34. When you’re cleaning out the ash and debris from the fireplace, spread slightly damp, used coffee grounds over the ashes before you clean it out. It’ll prevent the ash from becoming airborne and make it easier to clean out.

35. Wear a mask while cleaning out the firebox to avoid breathing fly-away soot and ash.

36. Don’t use your home vacuum cleaner to vacuum the ashes from your fireplace. You stand the chance of ruining your vacuum cleaner. Also, household vacuum cleaners and shop vacs don’t have good enough filters so you run the risk of “dusting” your living room.  Instead, use a small whisk broom and dustpan to remove the ashes from the fireplace.

37. Place ashes in a metal can with a lid. Make sure the can is not placed on a wood deck or patio afterward.

38. If you have artificial gas logs, it’s common to have a light sooting on the logs where the flames lick up over the logs. This is not a safety issue and is totally natural. Simply use a soft bristle brush (like a paintbrush) to dust off the soot. Never wash or scrub the artificial gas logs or you will remove the paint from the logs.

39. Don’t throw away used ashes. They have many beneficial uses, such as: providing necessary nutrients to gardens, composting, insect deterrents (snails and slugs), de-skunking a pet, shining your silver, controlling pond algae, melting ice, and even making soap.


black chimney cap40. A chimney cap serves three main purposes: 1) will prevent embers from landing on your roof, your neighbor’s roof, your solar panels, your car and your landscaping ; 2) will prevent birds and other critters from entering your home through the chimney; and 3) can prevent water intrusion into your chimney which will deteriorate your chimney prematurely and will also extend the life of your damper.

41. If your home is located off of a canyon or hillside, your chimney may be more prone to smoking problems. A specially-designed windcap can minimize smoking problems in this case.


42. Pre-fab fireplaces, typically in condos and homes built after the 1980s, are intended more for ambiance and romance than for heat. In this type of fireplace, you should not have a fire any larger than what you would get if you are burning one artificial fire log, like Duraflame. Having large or overly hot fires in pre-fab fireplaces may cause damage to the fragile refractory panels inside the firebox and those panels are expensive to replace.

43. Consider a heat shield or fireback to protect the backwall of your fireplace. It will extend the life of the firebox.

44. Odor problems, or as I like to say “stinky chimneys,” can be caused by smoking problems, animals in the chimney, a dirty chimney, the type of fuel you’re burning (especially wood that is wet or not aged), the pressurization in your home, or rainwater in your chimney.

45. Reconsider mounting a TV above your fireplace. Heat and dust particulates aren’t good for electronics and doing this may void the TV manufacturer’s warranty.

46. If you’re buying a new home, have your chimney inspected by a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep during the inspection period. If you have just bought a home, have the chimney inspected before using it for the first time. You never know what or how much the previous owner burned.

47. If you have a masonry chimney and you live in a region with a lot of rain or snow, consider weather sealing the masonry to prevent spalling and deterioration of the bricks and to avoid expensive masonry repairs later on.

48. Only use a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep to inspect or sweep your chimney. To find a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep, go to the website for the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

49. According to the National Fire Protection Association, chimneys should be inspected on an annual basis and swept if necessary.

50. To save money, do this important maintenance in the spring and summer when the rates are the lowest and when the schedule is less impacted.

Fireplaces are the best part of winter. Following these simple hints will give you the most enjoyment from a cozy fire.

8 Reasons NOT to mount your TV above the fireplace

TV above the fireplace
Photo credit R. Pocock

Installing a TV above the fireplace is a very common decorating style in homes these days, but does that make it right? Here are some valid reasons to reconsider the location of your TV.

1) Electronics are sensitive to heat. The heat and smoke will reduce the lifespan of your TV. When you use your fireplace, heat rises. This is how your TV above the fireplace will come into direct exposure to the heat from the fire. This is especially true in cases where you have a heat exchange system or a stove insert inside the firebox which generate far more heat than a regular open wood-burning fireplace. In addition, the wall behind the TV may have some radiant heat from the heat going up the flue pipe inside the chimney, so your TV could be exposed to heat from the front as well as from the back. Televisions already generate a lot of heat on their own without additional exposure to the heat from the fireplace. Some manufacturers of televisions and other electronics recommend a maximum heat as low as 90°F.

2) Besides heat, dust particles create problems in electronics. Soot particles or particulates in the smoke from your open wood-burning fireplace can damage your TV. When you’re having a smoking problem from your fireplace, particulates will enter the TV above the fireplace. If your fireplace has a smoking problem, here are some solutions to solve that problem and reduce the amount of particulates into the home.

3) Due to the two reasons listed above, some television installation professionals state that installing a TV above the fireplace may void out the warranty on your TV. Make sure to contact the manufacturer and the retailer to verify that your warranty will be valid if you insist on installing your TV this way.

4) Television manufacturers recommend that televisions should be at eye level. The resolution of the TV is designed to be viewed from a specific angle. If you’re viewing the TV from too far right or left, or if the TV is located too far above the ideal viewing position, the TV screen may appear washed out and may lose some brightness. Adjustable mounts may alleviate some of those issues but not all.

5) Neck strain is a prominent problem with televisions mounted above the fireplace mantle. Imagine watching a movie in the theater from the front row. Sore neck and back muscles, stiff necks, and headaches can be caused by sitting in an unnatural position for any period of time.

6) Any kid or teenager will be the first ones to say that playing their X-boxes and Play Stations aren’t as easy to play when the TV is located above the fireplace.

7) During the mounting process, if the TV isn’t installed properly, you can ruin the fireplace and chimney system. Over the past few years, I’ve received a number of phone calls from panicked homeowners who drilled through the wall above the mantle straight into the chimney pipe. If you miss the stud, the drill can go clear through the drywall and into the metal chimney pipe on a prefab fireplace system. Homeowners and professional television installers don’t know just how close the chimney pipe for the prefab fireplace may be to the wall. If a hole has been drilled into the metal pipe, the flue pipe is compromised and the system can no longer contain the elements of combustion. In that case, the pipe must be replaced and, in some cases, the entire prefab fireplace system as well. In addition, it’s never a good idea to install the cables and electric cords behind the wall inside the chimney chase.

8) Most interior decorators will agree that a TV above the fireplace is not aesthetically pleasing because it takes away from the true focal point of the room–your beautiful fireplace. Also, we know as chimney sweeps, how much homeowners love to decorate their mantles which is harder to do with a TV blocking a majority of the mantle.

Here’s an article from c|net, a very reputable technology magazine that confirms the reasons why you should not install a television above a fireplace.

Televisions are expensive, and none of us want to see them damaged and quit before their time.   My advice is to consider other locations to put your television instead of above that fireplace!

Blog post updated 10-03-21.