Tag Archives: damper

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.

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.

 

So here’s the tip: CLOSE YOUR FIREPLACE DAMPER!

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?

Gas logs on fire in fireplace

16 Tips To Know About Artificial Gas Logs

Gas logs on fire in fireplaceGas logs are so very convenient–no fuss, no mess; instant on-instant off; clean burning to the environment as well as very little creosote build-up in the chimney.

Before making that decision, there are several things to take into consideration first. To help you, here are 16 tips you need to know when deciding on artificial gas logs.

1) First things first, analyze the pros and cons of gas logs to make sure that you know all the facts to make an informed decision.

2) If your fireplace isn’t plumbed for gas, consult with a licensed plumber who specializes in gas. Depending on where the gas is located, the cost for routing the gas to the fireplace may be cost-prohibitive which may be a deciding factor in the decision to install gas logs.

3) Choose which type of gas you will be using–Natural Gas or LP (propane).

4) Determine if you want vented or unvented (vent-free) gas logs. Keep in mind that unvented gas logs are illegal in many states, including California.

5) Decide on how you want to start and control your gas log set: Match Light; Manual Safety Pilot or Remote Control.

6) Have the chimney inspected and swept if needed by a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep. Make any necessary repairs to the system so you can start with a clean slate.

7)  Purchasing a gas log set with a lifetime warranty on the logs is a good investment.  These better quality logs have the added benefit of looking more realistic.

8)  Gas log sets that have white-color logs (such as Birch or Beech woods) will darken up from flame impingement (sooting) and after a while, may not look so nice.  A certain amount of flame impingement is natural.  Artificial gas logs that are darker in color (such as oak) will still have flame impingement but it won’t be so obvious.

9) Measuring the firebox to determine the proper size of gas logs is absolutely critical. If a gas log set is too large, the log set will sit too far forward and you may have gas spillage into the room. Here is how you can measure your firebox:

Measuring for gas logs

A) Measure the front width of the firebox
B) Measure the width of the backwall of the firebox
C) Measure the depth of the firebox from front to back
D) Measure the height of the firebox opening
E-1) Which side is the gas stub location: Left? Right? Rear? Floor?
E-2) How far does the gas stub extend into the firebox:
E-3) What is the distance from the gas stub to the firebox floor:

10) There should be a minimum of 3″ on each side, from the gas logs to each side wall. (For Manual Safety Pilot systems and Remote Control Gas log systems, the clearances are more. See manufacturer’s instructions for sizing.)

11) When installing gas logs, the manufacturer’s instructions will show how the logs are to be positioned on the grate. This is critical. If the logs are not positioned correctly, you can have gas spillage into the room. A professional installer will use a special gas-detecting tool to detect gas spillage. After the installer has tested the placement of the logs, don’t ever move the logs. They are supposed to be positioned in a very specific way. Note: Simply using a “soap bubble test” will not detect gas spillage into the room.

12) Adding small black lava rocks, realistic glowing embers, black glass, pine cones, acorns and wood chunks will enhance the beauty and the realism of the artificial gas logs. Some gas log manufacturers have also created “cracklers,” which are devices that replicate the sound of a wood burning fire.

13) Completely covering the gas burner tray with sand, silica or vermiculite  is important. Otherwise, flame impingement (sooting) on the gas logs can occur. Also, sand in the burner pan can prevent overheating.

14) Install a damper clamp to lock the damper in a FULLY OPEN position. A damper that is partially or completely closed will allow for more heat from your fireplace but will also allow gases to enter into the home which is extremely dangerous.

15) Always make sure that your gas logs are not on at the same time as your furnace or central heater. If you do, you can lose the draw from the fireplace so instead of the gases going up the flue, they can enter the room instead. Remember: One on at a time, never on at the same time.


Bonus Tip to Enhance the look of Gas Logs:

16) Before installing artificial gas logs, paint the firebox black, using a high temperature paint. This brings all the focus on the beautiful gas logs instead of the smoke-stained walls from previous wood-burning usage.


Artificial gas logs provide convenience, an attractive and realistic display of a wood fire while clean burning to the environment and to your chimney.

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.

IMPORTANT SAFETY TIPS

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.

FIREWOOD AND ARTIFICIAL FIRE LOGS (SUCH AS DURAFLAME)

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.

SMOKING PROBLEMS

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.

DAMPER

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.

CLEANING OUT THE FIREPLACE

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.

CHIMNEY CAPS

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.

OTHER IMPORTANT INFORMATION TO KNOW

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.

Fireplace Damper Clamps

Damper ClampThe issue of damper clamps can be confusing, not just to homeowners but to home inspectors, utility companies, government building departments and even amongst chimney professionals. In many cases, this issue rears its ugly head during the stressful time of purchasing or selling a home.

What is a damper clamp?

Damper clamps are also referred to as damper stops, damper locks or damper flue clamps, but the terms are all synonymous. They are typically a small C-clamp or steel beam clamp. The damper clamp is designed to lock the damper in a fully-open position. The damper is the metal plate that closes off the flue pipe. The purpose of the damper is to prevent heat loss from the home.

When is a damper clamp required?

damperwithclamp300x200
Damper clamp in position on a prefab fireplace to prevent closing the damper

A damper clamp is required by code when artificial gas logs  or a log lighter are present in an open fireplace. When gas logs are in use, the fuel (whether natural gas or propane) is going through the combustion process. The by-product from combustion is carbon monoxide, which is a colorless and odorless gas. If the damper is not open, the carbon monoxide cannot be exhausted up and out like it should, but instead will be drawn into the living area in which case the homeowners can get very sick and, in extreme cases, may die.

According to page 234 of the 2016 California Building Energy Efficiency Code for Residential and Non-Residential Building, Sub-Chapter 7/Section 150.0, 1C” When a gas log, log lighter, or decorative gas appliance is installed in a fireplace, the flue damper shall be blocked open …”

Why is a damper clamp required with gas logs?

If you’re burning wood in your fireplace and you forget to open the damper, you’re going to know it right away because the room will fill with smoke. If you’re burning gas logs and you forget to open the damper, you could become very sick or, in extreme cases, you can die because the gas loses its odor and is colorless, odorless and toxic and now spilling into the living area. For that reason, code requires the damper is locked in a FULLY-OPEN position so you can’t make that mistake.

Damper clamps are especially critical in the case of rental properties where the fireplace has artificial gas logs or a log lighter. If a tenant forgets to open up the damper and death results, besides the horrific loss of life, the heirs of the tenant will sue the homeowner and/or property management company due to the negligence of not having a damper clamp to lock the damper open.

Can the damper be locked partially open?

Manufacturers’ installation instructions for artificial gas log sets specifically say that dampers must be locked in a “FULLY-OPEN POSITION.” Some professional installers will lock the damper partially closed to reduce the heat loss from the home when the gas logs are not in use as well as to bring more heat into the room when the gas logs are in use. However, a partially-closed damper may restrict the draft enough to cause gas spillage into the living area when the gas logs are on. For that reason, gas log manufacturers specifically state that the dampers be locked fully open. Professional gas log installers may open themselves up to liability if they lock the damper partially closed.

With the damper locked open, how can I prevent heat loss from my home?

When not in use, a fully-open damper is like having an open window all the time and you will lose a great deal of heat from your home. This is a major disadvantage to gas logs or a log lighter. Even if you’re not using the gas logs and you turn on your central heater or furnace, it may actually draw the cold air down the flue and into the room, bringing the cold air in. To prevent heat loss, install glass doors in front of the fireplace. Keep in mind, in the case of prefab fireplaces, glass doors are not always available or listed with the system so glass doors may not always be a viable option for prefab systems.

Be very careful about putting glass doors on prefab fireplaces.  You can only put the EXACT glass doors that are SPECIFICALLY designed for that exact manufacturer and exact model of the system.  If you put on the wrong glass doors on a prefab fireplace, you will void out the listing on the system and can cause a potentially dangerous situation because the prefab system can overheat during a fire.

Is a damper clamp required with a log lighter used with wood burning?

There is a wide range of opinions on this question and the answer is that a damper clamp is still required with a log lighter. A log lighter is a round pipe under the grate, used to easily start a wood fire. You place the wood on the grate, turn on the gas and after about 10 minutes, turn the gas off. There’s no need for newspaper or kindling and it makes it very easy to start a wood fire.  According to the above-stated code, if there is a log lighter present inside the firebox, the damper must be locked fully open.  However, if the firebox is plumbed for gas but the gas is capped off, no damper clamp is required.


Having a damper clamp in place with gas logs or a log lighter is frankly a no-brainer, not only for the safety for you, your family members and/or tenants but for your liability as well. The lack of a damper clamp with gas logs or a log lighter WILL also be noted by a home inspector during a home sale.  Some local utility companies will “red tag” your system if a damper clamp is not installed.  A damper clamp is a critical safety issue when you have artificial gas logs or a log lighter!

One last caveat: Check your local jurisdiction to see what your local codes are for your area.  This above-mentioned code is a California Code.

[This blog was updated as of 3/27/18.]

Smoke coming from fireplace

Ten Fireplace Smoking Problems and Solutions

Smoke coming from fireplaceAs a professional chimney sweep, the most common phone call I get is about fireplace smoking problems.  Sometimes the smoke can fill the room; other times you may not even realize you have a smoking problem because the smoke is so subtle.  If it smells like a campfire in your living room the day after having had a fire in your fireplace, the likelihood is that you had a smoking problem that was so minor, you didn’t even realize it. Here are solutions to the top ten most common smoking problems.

Dirty Chimney

During usage of the fireplace, the smoke goes up the flue (the passageway or pipe). The smoke coats the flue with a by-product called creosote. With usage, the creosote buildup becomes thicker as the flue becomes smaller. This coating is not only dangerous because it’s highly flammable, but will create a smoking problem that will get progressively worse as the creosote builds up and the flue becomes narrower. The Chimney Institute of America (CSIA) states that if the build-up of creosote is any more than 1/8″ in the flue, the chimney must be swept.

SOLUTION: Have the chimney swept by a qualified CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep. To find a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep, go to the Chimney Safety Institute of America at www.csia.org.

Obstructions inside the Chimney and/or Plugged-up Chimney Cap

Birds inside a chimneyThe chimney should be checked for any obstructions inside the flue pipe, such as bird nests, tree branches, leaves, beehives, or even the missing volleyball. (Yes, we really do find balls in chimneys!) Also, with usage, the chimney cap will get plugged up, especially if you burn wet wood or lots of paper.

SOLUTION: Have the chimney swept by a qualified CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep. To find a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep, go to the Chimney Safety Institute of America at www.csia.org

Closed Damper

Before lighting a fire, always make sure that the damper is open. Don’t laugh–a closed damper happens more often than you think!  If you’re not sure if the damper is open or closed, shine a flashlight inside the fireplace, up the flue. If the damper isn’t fully open, do not even attempt to light the fire.

SOLUTION: Always check the damper each time before starting a fire. As chimneys get older, sometimes the damper will become difficult to operate or may even seize. If the damper does not FULLY open, have it looked at by a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep.

Fuel–Firewood or Prefabricated Logs (like Duraflame)

Firewood that has not been aged long enough will have a higher moisture content which will not only create a smokier fire but will create more creosote buildup Pile of firewoodinside the flue pipe. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, ideally, the moisture content of firewood should be between 15% and 25%. A good rule of thumb is to have firewood aged between six months and a year. Firewood should be split to dry out faster. Dried wood that is wet from rain and snow will re-hydrate so be sure to cover up the firewood pile during wet weather. In addition, improper usage of the prefabricated logs (such as Duraflame or Pine Mountain) can create a smoking problem.

SOLUTION: Make sure that firewood is aged at least six months and keep the wood dry during the winter.

Cold Weather

When it’s cold outside, there’s also cold air inside the flue pipe and that cold air is very heavy, dense air, especially if it’s raining outside. That cold air acts like a plug. If Priming the flueyou light a fire, the smoke can’t rise but instead will come into the room where you’re sitting. That cold air in the flue will eventually warm up on its own during a fire, but not before smoke comes into the living area.

SOLUTION: During cold weather, always “prime the flue” before starting your fire. To do this, place the wood on the fire grate as far back as possible in the firebox. Open the damper. Roll up a piece of newspaper like a “wand.” Light the end of the wand and hold it up near the open damper for a minute or two to warm up the air in the flue. When the flue is primed, you should see the smoke from the wand being drawn up the flue. At that point in time, light the fire.

Central Heating System or Furnace

If you have the furnace turned on at the same time as having a fire in the fireplace, you may experience a smoking problem. This is especially true when the furnace’s Cold air register for furnaceair intake (cold air register) is close to or in the same room as the fireplace. Other systems like kitchen hoods, bathroom exhaust fans and dryer vents can also contribute to this problem. This is especially true if you have made your house more airtight with new vinyl windows and doors as well as tight weatherstripping.

SOLUTION: Do not have the furnace on at the same time as the fireplace.

New Windows and Doors and Tight Weatherstripping

New windows and doors make for a “tight” house which may create a Fireplace next to windowsmoking problem when the fireplace is in use. A fire requires oxygen and in a tight house, there’s a limited amount of make-up air.

SOLUTION: Cracking open a window or sliding door close to the fireplace will give the fire the oxygen that it needs for the combustion process, and will also help the smoke vent up the chimney.

Canyons and Hillsides

A house located near Wind cap on top of a chimneya canyon or a hillside will be more prone to gusting winds that can create downdrafts. Also, homes located close to the ocean will be prone to the prevailing winds.

SOLUTION: A specially-designed wind cap can sometimes minimize the downdrafts. Note that these wind caps cannot be installed on prefabricated fireplace systems.

Chimney Improperly Built

A masonry chimney is built to a certain formula, having 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 factors). If any of these factors are not correct, the fireplace may be prone to smoking problems. Also double-sided, L-shape or see-through fireplaces are always more prone to smoking problems.

In addition, if a chimney does not have an adequate height above the roof line, the system may be prone to smoking problems. We call these systems “short stacks.” The chimney should be at least three feet above the roof line, and at3-2-10 Rule least two feet taller than anything horizontally within ten feet. This includes houses located too close together, two-story additions (when the chimney is on the first story), or trees. In building terms, this is called the 3-2-10 rule.

SOLUTION: For a one-sided fireplace opening, sometimes installing a smoke guard will resolve the problem. A smoke guard is a piece of metal that extends the full smoke guard on fireplacewidth at the top of the firebox opening and lowers the firebox opening by 4″, 6″ or 8″, to encourage the smoke from the fireplace to go up the flue instead of in the room.  For multi-sided fireplaces, closing one side of the glass doors may reduce smoking. (Note: Never close both sets of glass doors on a two-sided fireplace at the same time during a fire.)  As a last resort, sometimes the only solution is to have a chimney mason raise the height of the chimney.

Wind

Two systems in one chimney structure can create smoking problems if the two flues are at the same height at the top of the chimney stack, side by side. As one fireplace is used, the smoke goes up and as it exits the top, the wind can drive the smoke down the other flue pipe, like a siphon effect.

SOLUTION: Slightly raise one of the two flues so that they aren’t at the same height at the top of the chimney.

What NOT to do if you have a smoking problem…

Time and time again, homeowners install artificial gas logs to solve a fireplace smoking problem.  This is NOT a viable solution and can actually create a more dangerous situation!

If your fireplace has a smoking problem when you’re burning wood, it’s going to have a smoking problem when you’re burning artificial gas logs, only the gases are colorless and odorless so you won’t be aware there’s a smoking problem.  It’s better to figure out why the fireplace is smoking before installing gas logs.

In Summary…

This is not a complete list of causes for smoking problems but certainly the most common. Using the process of elimination, trying different solutions one at a time, will narrow down the cause so you can enjoy your fireplace to the fullest. Future blog posts will go into further detail on each of these smoking problems.  Keep in mind, the best place to start is to have a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep out to evaluate your system, sweep if necessary and give you advice on how to resolve any smoking problem that you may be having.

Gas logs on fire in fireplace

The Pros and Cons of Gas Logs

Gas logs on fire in fireplaceImagine coming home after a hard day of work and sitting down next to a cozy fire in your fireplace, and relaxing with a cup of soothing tea or a glass of Merlot, all in just a matter of minutes, with minimal effort. Think this is impossible? With gas logs in your fireplace, this is totally possible. But you need to know all the facts about gas logs in order to make an informed decision.

Advantages of Gas Logs

Time Savings and Ease of Use

Gas logs are instant on/instant off. You can light a fire within seconds. Even better, at the end of the evening, there’s no waiting for the wood embers to finish burning out before going to bed like you need to do when burning wood.

Clean Burning to the Environment

Gas logs don’t produce many particulates and therefore are very clean burning to the environment.

Beautiful Display

Gas logs are very realistic looking and make a cozy display even when the gas logs aren’t on.

Less Work

No more lugging in the firewood from outside and no more cleaning out the debris from the firebox after a wood-burning fire. This makes it ideal for older people who may find it difficult to carry in the heavy wood or bend down to clean out the fireplace.

Less Maintenance

Gas logs produce minimal creosote build-up in the flue, which means that a chimney sweeping is not required as often as wood-burning fireplaces. However, according to the National Fire Protection Guideline 13:2, this code requires that “Chimneys, fireplaces and vents shall be inspected at least once a year…cleaning maintenance and repairs shall be done if necessary.”

Termite- and Rodent-Free

Woodpiles can attract termites and rodents which isn’t a problem with gas logs. On a similar note, woodpiles should never be located up against a house.

Absolutely No Hassle

You never have to clean out the ashes and debris from the fireplace. In fact, we highly recommend that you never even touch the gas logs after they’ve been installed. The logs have to be positioned in a very specific way on the grate and then tested with a special combustible gas detector to ensure the gas logs are positioned correctly.

Available Space

Not everybody has a backyard with space for a cord of wood. In addition, not all homeowner associations permit woodpiles. This is especially true for people who live in condominiums or urban areas.

Disadvantages of Gas Logs

Heat Loss from the Home

Uniform Mechanical Code and the gas log manufacturers’ instructions require that the fireplace’s damper be locked permanently in a FULLY open position. If you don’t have glass doors on the front of your fireplace, an open damper is equivalent to an open window and you will lose heat from your home during the winter. In fact, every time your central heater or furnace kicks on, all you’re doing is sucking cold air down your chimney and into the room which totally defeats the whole purpose of having your furnace on.  This also holds true in the summertime.  With an open damper and no glass doors, every time your air conditioner kicks on, all you’re doing is sucking hot air down your chimney and into the room.

The solution to an open damper is glass doors in front of the fireplace, but not all fireplaces can have glass doors, especially prefab fireplaces where the manufacturer may not have listed glass doors available for that system. Therefore the glass door solution won’t always work for all fireplaces.

In some states and regions in the United States, ventless gas logs are allowed which doesn’t have the requirement of the locked-open damper.

Less Heat Generated

In most cases, gas logs don’t produce the heat that burning wood does, although some manufacturers’ logs may produce more heat than others. Gas logs are not designed so much for heat as for appearance, ambiance and romance.

To compensate for the lack of heat from gas logs, many people will turn on the furnace to get the heat that they’re not getting from the fireplace.  Having both the gas logs and the furnace on at the same time is not a good idea.  You may lose the draw on the fireplace which means that instead of the gases going up the flue, the gases can be drawn into the room.  (To what extent this can happen depends on how tight the house is and where the air intake is for the furnace.)  The rule of thumb for fireplaces and furnaces: One on at a time; never on at the same time.

Dependency on Utility Company

Gas logs mean that you’re dependent on the utility company for natural gas or the propane company for propane.

No crackling Sound

Although many gas log sets have a very realistic look, there are no gas log sets on the market that produce a wood crackling sound.

In Summary…

Making the decision for gas logs doesn’t have to be difficult once you know all the facts. There are many factors to take into consideration but information is power in deciding between burning wood or gas logs.

Spring flowers with the words "Time for a Spring Cleaning"

10 Easy Steps to Spring Cleaning Your Fireplace

Spring flowers with the words "Time for a Spring Cleaning"Spring has sprung and it’s time for some spring cleaning, and that includes your fireplace! Many people would agree that one of the least favorite household chores is cleaning out the fireplace after the last fire of the season but it doesn’t have to be difficult with some easy tips. Ashes should be removed from the fireplace during the spring to avoid what we refer to as “Stinky Chimney Syndrome.”

10 Easy Steps to Cleaning Out the Fireplace

1. Make sure the ashes are completely cool before starting. It’s best to wait at least 48 hours after a fire in order to allow the ashes to completely cool.

2. If you have respiratory problems, asthma or allergies, use a mask. Breathing in the fine particulates can irritate the lungs of people who have respiratory problems. Better yet, if you have any kind of lung problems, let someone else in your family do this chore!!

3. Place plastic sheeting around the fireplace to ensure ashes don’t get on your carpeting. Wipe down the grate and place it to the side on the plastic sheeting.

4. Remove about a cup of ashes from the firebox and set aside. This will be used later to clean the glass in the glass doors.

5. Sprinkle some slightly damp, used coffee grounds on top of the ashes inside the firebox. This will settle down any dust and cut down on the fly-away ash, making it easier (and healthier) to sweep up.

6. Using a whisk broom and a dust pan, place the chunks of wood and ashes in a metal container with a lid. Sweep each interior wall of the firebox from top to bottom.

7. Brush each firescreen mesh from top to bottom. We find, for whatever reason, that firescreens tend to collect “dust bunnies.”

8. Place the metal container of ashes outside but never place the metal container on a wooden deck or patio if the ashes are warm. We’ve heard too many stories of houses burning down from this simple mistake.

9. Avoid harsh chemicals to clean the glass doors. Simply dip some damp newspapers in the ashes that you set aside and rub the glass to remove the soot and build-up. Because the ash is somewhat gritty, it’s much better at removing the residue off the glass than normal glass cleaners. Afterwards, spray white vinegar on the glass and wipe down with a soft rag to get the glass sparkling clean.

10. The last step is to close the damper. An open damper is the same as an open window. During the summer when you’re running your air conditioning with the damper open, all you’re doing is sucking the heat down the chimney and into the house, totally defeating the whole purpose of having your air conditioning on. Close the damper and you will save money on your electric bills. Just don’t forget to open your damper in the fall when you go to use your fireplace!

A Word of Warning

Don’t try to take the easy way out by using your household vacuum cleaner to remove the ashes from the firebox! You run the risk of ruining your vacuum cleaner so use a whisk broom and dustpan instead. In addition, the average household vacuum cleaner does not have the proper filter to prevent soot “blow-back” into the room. This blow-back may create a sooty mess on your carpeting, furniture, walls and window coverings. Even a Shop-Vac has the potential for creating blow-back. Professional chimney sweeps use industrial vacuums with special HEPA filters specifically designed to contain the fine particulates of soot.

The Best Solution

Of course, the easiest way to clean out your fireplace is to call your chimney sweep who’ll take care of that nasty chore for you as part of sweeping your chimney! In addition, your chimney will get a thorough inspection, inside and out, to make sure that it’s ready for the next burning season. The bonus is that we offer a discount during the spring and summer, so call Swede Chimney Sweep today at 858-573-1672. Check us out at www.swedesweep.com for additional information.