Tag 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]

Birds in Chimneys

Birds on top of chimneyAs I’m sitting in my office working, I can hear the high-pitch chirping from some obviously newly-hatched baby sparrows just above my office window. I’m not surprised by the chirping. I’ve been watching the mama bird building her nest on a ledge just above my window for several weeks. During her time building her nest, every time we walk below her nest, she quickly flies away, only to return when we are out of sight. I don’t mind the nest, nor the sound of the constant chirping of the chicks. I don’t even mind the bird poop below the nest on our walkway. It’s the circle of life and I love it.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who is dealing with new nests during the spring. We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from homeowners who are concerned that birds are coming into the chimney. Here’s some information that you need to know.

Are the birds INSIDE the chimney?

“Are the birds INSIDE the chimney?”  That’s not a dumb question. Just because you hear bird noises coming from the chimney, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are INSIDE the chimney.

Prefabricated chimneys have a metal flue pipe with a termination cap at the top. Birds like to hang out at the top. Their chirping through the metal flue pipe creates what I call the “Megaphone Effect.” We chimney sweeps have gone out to homes many times because homeowners insist that these feathered friends are inside the chimney, only to determine that they are just hanging out at the top. The good news is that no birds are inside the chimney.

Once the birds get into your chimney

The bad news is that if birds do get inside the chimney, they’ll fall down on top of the closed damper or behind the damper in the area called the smoke shelf. Then the bird gets trapped. Once the bird lands in the smoke shelf, it’s extremely difficult for them to get out on their own.

Once the bird has flown into your chimney, that chimney is now considered its natural habitat. This makes it a felony for anybody to remove the bird or active nest from its natural habitat without a special wildlife permit. Due to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, there is a potential $15,000 fine per bird, nest, or egg as well as possible jail time and confiscation of any equipment or tools involved with the removal of said birds.

Chimney sweeps have been targeted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as frequent violators of these federal laws. Many chimney sweep companies simply didn’t realize that it’s against the law to remove birds from chimneys and what kind of potential heavy fines they are opening themselves up to. For that reason, we recommend contacting animal rescue organizations who have the wildlife permit.

After the birds are gone…

Chimney CapThe best way to deal with birds getting into your chimney is prevention. Once birds are gone from the chimney and the nest has been abandoned, we recommend having the chimney inspected and swept to remove any nesting material. In addition, installing a chimney cap will prevent future birds as well as rodents and other critters from entering the chimney.

To find a qualified chimney sweep company to install a chimney cap, make sure you use a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep through the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

We have a responsibility as humans to care for our wildlife. We can live in harmony with these precious creatures. Soon enough, I know I’ll miss that sweet chirping just outside my office window.

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!

3 Issues with Rampart General Pre-Cast Chimneys

Photo credit D. Feb
Photo credit D. Feb

Imagine this scenario: You have spent a great deal of time looking for that perfect home. You did your due diligence. You had the proper home inspections and then made the single most expensive investment of your life. After moving in, you decide to get the chimney inspected and swept. The chimney sweep comes in and, within just a few minutes, has discovered that your chimney is a Rampart General Pre-Cast system.  And, because of a major defect, the system can never be used.  Because most home inspectors don’t have specific training in this system, they oftentimes don’t recognize the potential issues inherent with this type of chimney.

Unfortunately, this scenario happens all too often.

What is a Rampart General Pre-Cast Chimney?

Rampart General is the name of the manufacturer of the chimney system. Hence the nickname for these systems is “Ramparts.”

Pre-Cast describes how the chimney was made. The system was manufactured in Santa Ana, California from a cast or a mold, with a Rampart General chimney on side of housecombination of calcium aluminate cement and lightweight aggregate. The cast was cured and then transported to various parts of California.

At the construction site for the home, a concrete pad was poured. The transport truck simply tilted the chimney into place by using a heavy chain and t-bar down the inside of the chimney. Some chimney professionals refer to these systems as “tilt-ups” for that reason. In some cases, the truck dropped the chimney while placing it on the pad, resulting in damage to the system.

The mold or cast for the chimney structure was designed to make the chimney appear that it was constructed with bricks and mortar. To the untrained eye, the system appears to be a normal masonry system. We have found that some home inspectors who are not familiar with this system will call the system out as a masonry system but in fact, it’s anything but.

How to Identify a Rampart General Pre-Cast System

These systems are located in developments throughout California. Ramparts can be found in homes constructed anywhere from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s.

The chimneys (with few exceptions) will look like an off-white color brick. Some homeowners may think it’s a painted brick but in fact it’s the color of the calcium aluminate cement. If it’s a different color than the off-white, someone has painted the chimney.

The chimneys (with few exceptions) will be located on an exterior wall of the home. That’s because the chimney was tilted up into place.

In many cases, the exterior chimney appears to have a very narrow chimney above the shoulders of the chimney, much narrower than a masonry chimney.

These systems can be found primarily in Southern California as well as throughout California and may be found in other states as well. In San Diego County, we have found patches of them in Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, Paradise Hills, Spring Valley, Lemon Grove, El Cajon, Fletcher Hills, San Carlos, Del Cerro, Santee, Tierrasanta, Scripps Ranch, Mira Mesa, Rancho Penasquitos, San Marcos, Escondido, Oceanside, Encinitas, Carlsbad and Leucadia.

Here’s a local news report about these damaged systems.

Problems with Rampart General Pre-Cast Systems

There are three major irreparable problems with these systems:

Insulation Plate

The primary problem is the potential for having cracks in the insulation plate, also referred to as the breast plate, which is located directly above the opening inside the firebox.

Cracked insulation plate in a Rampart General Pre-Cast Chimney
Looking up from the fireplace, here’s a crack in the breast plate

If the insulation plate is cracked, there is no approved repair and the system SHOULD ABSOLUTELY NOT be used due to the high risk of a fire between the chimney structure and the home. Stove inserts (gas, wood, or pellet) or gas logs should not be installed, and there is no approved repair.

In the almost two decades following our training in Rampart General Pre-Cast systems, we have found that approximately 60% of the systems that we have inspected here in San Diego had a cracked insulation plate.

Even hairline cracks in the insulation plate are dangerous because they will widen or expand with heat, and then allow this heat to transfer through the cracks to combustible materials used in construction around the fireplace.

According to Dale Feb of Fireplace Investigation, Research & Education Service, the leading expert in the country for this system, “Based on the manufacturers’ specifications, the ICBO evaluation report and the acceptance by the local building official of these two documents, we are not allowed to deviate from the construction, installation or repair requirements stated within these written details.”

In other words, repairs such as patching, relining, or stove inserts are not viable solutions to repair Rampart General Pre-Cast systems. These chimneys were UL-Listed and approved in their original design and no modifications are permitted.  Relining or installing a stove insert would be considered a modification and therefore would not be approved under the UL listing.

Most manufactuers of stove inserts specifically state that they cannot be installed into a fireplace or chimney system that is damaged. This is yet another reason why stove inserts cannot be installed into a Rampart.

No repairs have been approved by the manufacturer or by the Superior and Municipal Courts of California who have made rulings in cases involving Rampart General Pre-Cast systems.

Unfortunately, Rampart General, the company that constructed these chimney systems is now out of business so there is no recourse against the manufacturer.

Cracks in Chimney Structure

Extensive cracks in a Rampart General Pre-Cast chimney systemThe second issue that we find is the exterior chimney structure will often be cracked as well. These cracks appear as long, deep, wide vertical cracks in the exterior chimney structure. They appear along where the reinforcement (rebar) steel is located within the structure. These cracks are not subject to patching and eventually, the chimney will lose its structural integrity.

We are now finding that the cracks are becoming so long, deep and wide, that the chimney is literally falling apart.  In this case, we recommend tearing down the entire chimney in order to avoid damage or injury due to falling concrete.

Damaged Flue Lining

The third issue that we are finding with some Rampart General Pre-Cast systems

Collapsed flue tile in Rampart General Pre-Cast system
The flue tile collapsed during the manufacturing process

here in San Diego is that the flue lining can be damaged or cracked. The flue lining is the passageway inside the chimney structure.

Since the chimney was constructed horizontally in a cast or mold, sometimes the cast failed to contain the concrete during the construction process, and “blew out” the flue tile.  This creates a concrete blob inside the flue lining which makes the fireplace system completely unusable.

Because the system cannot be relined nor a stove insert installed, the chimney can no longer be used.

Repairing a Rampart General Pre-Cast System

According to Rampart General, the manufacturer, systems with cracked insulation plates are not subject to patching.

There are some chimney companies that are using Thermocrete, a ceramic coating, to cover over the cracked insulation plate.  I contacted Approved Industries, the manufacturer of Thermocrete, to find out if their product can be used for this purpose.  Approved Industries stated emphatically that Thermocrete CANNOT be used for damaged insulation plates in Rampart General Pre-Cast systems.  Thermocrete is not U.L. approved for this repair as well as the Rampart General system has no U.L. listing for Thermocrete as a repair.  As stated above, no repairs have been approved by Rampart General, nor by the Superior and Municipal Courts of California who have made rulings in cases involving these chimney systems.

Do not allow anyone to talk you into any repairs of these conditions or resolve the problem by installing a stove insert into the chimney. This could result in a potentially dangerous fire and, since the chimney system was modified against the U.L. listing, there is a possibility that your insurance company would not honor a claim for any resulting fire to your home.

In conclusion….

Whenever you purchase a home, always have a separate Level 2 Chimney InspectionTo find a qualified chimney sweep, go through the Chimney Safety Institute of America. If you are buying a home with a Rampart General Pre-cast system, the question to ask your home inspector or chimney professional is if they have been specifically trained in these chimney systems by Dale Feb, the leading expert in the country on Ramparts. Not all home inspectors and not all chimney professionals have this specific training and therefore will not know about these systems.

For further information, please refer to Dale Feb of Fireplace Investigation, Research & Education (F.I.R.E) Services. Here is a link to his extremely well written and in-depth publication about Rampart General precast systems.


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.

Rolled up newspaper used in priming the flue

Priming the fireplace flue

Rolled-up newspaperWhat does a rolled-up newspaper have to do with preventing a smoking problem in a wood-burning, open fireplace?

One of the most common causes for smoking problems in open hearth fireplaces is due to homeowners not priming the fireplace flue before starting the fire, especially during cold weather.  An indication that this is the cause of a smoking problem is if you notice smoke in the room at the beginning of a fire, so it’s a good habit to prime your flue every time you use your fireplace.


When it’s cold outside, it’s also cold inside the flue pipe and this cold air is very “heavy air,” especially if it’s cold and/or damp outside. If you light a fire, the smoke rises, but it can’t because the cold air acts like a plug. Instead of the smoke trying to rise up the pipe, the smoke can come into the room where you’re sitting. If you don’t prime the flue, eventually the air inside the pipe will warm up enough on its own but not before filling the room with smoke. Priming the flue is essentially pro-actively starting the draw.  Doing this is especially necessary in chimneys that are on an exterior wall of the house.

Steps to Priming the Flue

1) Open up the damperPriming the flue
2) Place the wood or fire log on the grate3) Tightly roll up a piece of newspaper like a wand or torch and hold it up near the open damper
4) Hold it there for a minute or two until you see the smoke being drawn up the flue
5) Start the wood or fire log on fire

This will heat up the air inside the flue and will get the draw started.

What NOT to do!

It’s potentially unsafe to use the log lighter (the gas pipe under the grate) to prime the flue.  Using the log lighter for this will eventually warm up the air in the flue, but in the meantime, the gases can enter the room where you’re sitting.

In summary….

There is nothing better than a cozy fire on a cold, winter night but that joy can be totally cancelled out by a house full of smoke. Smoking problems can be caused by many reasons but priming the flue is an easy solution for smoking issues. Getting into the habit of priming the flue will go a long way in enjoying that cozy fire in the fireplace.  Bottom line: Don’t throw away those newspapers anymore; they’re good for more than just reading!

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.


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.

Close-up of the face of a sheep

Timing is Everything – Don’t be a Chimney Sheep!

Close-up of the face of a sheep
Don’t be a chimney sheep!

Sheep are best known for flocking and will run together as herds because there’s safety in numbers. This works great for sheep but works against homeowners for their home maintenance, especially in preventing fire hazards due to chimneys and fireplaces.

It’s common knowledge that you never call for maintenance on your air conditioning on the hottest day of summer and you don’t even attempt to call an appliance repairman to fix your kitchen stove on Thanksgiving Day. Not only will you pay a lot more money but you will wait more than a few days before getting a service. Maintenance is best done to prevent break-downs, especially break-downs during inopportune times.

The rule of thumb for timing on any home maintenance is: DON’T BE A SHEEP! This certainly applies to any service within the chimney industry, whether this is a chimney inspection, a chimney sweeping or any chimney repairs needed.

The chimney industry is extremely seasonal and, in most parts of the United States, the busiest time of the year is from September through February. Don’t be a sheep and call a chimney professional at the first cold snap of the year. Better to maintain your chimney on a preventative basis during the off-season.

The best time of year to have your chimney inspected is after you finish using it for the last time of the year, typically in the spring. Not only will the prices be the lowest at that time of year, but you can usually schedule a chimney sweep appointment within a few days to a week. This also allows more than enough time to do any repair needed long before the fire-burning season starts up in the Autumn.

So don’t be a sheep. Get your chimney inspected, swept if needed and repaired during the off-season. That way, when you light up your fireplace for the first time in the Fall, you’ve got peace of mind and can sit back on a cozy night and thoroughly enjoy your fireplace.