FAQ – Fireplace

1. My fireplace is drafty. How can I correct this problem?

The most likely cause is a poorly sealing damper. Spend some money on a high quality fireplace damper for a tight seal. You’ll recover the cost in your heating bill after two or three winters.

2. My fireplace smokes a bit when I start a fire. How do I fix this?

If the problem corrects itself once the fire gets going, you’ve simply got a cold chimney. Cold air sinks. You can probably feel the air coming down when you arrange the wood. You need to warm the chimney up. Roll up some newspaper tightly and light the end. Hold your makeshift torch up the flue so the lit end is past the damper. This should help warm the chimney enough to reverse the draft. You’ll be able to hear the reversal when it happens.

3. My fireplace smokes constantly. How can I correct this problem?

One usual reason a fireplace will smoke lack of air. It’s easy to check if the problem is lack of air. Just open a nearby window to create a draft and see what happens. If this is the problem, the air coming in the window will feed the fire and allow it to burn hotter and cleaner, sending smoke up the chimney. In an airtight home, you may need to open a window just a smidge any time you have a fire. An upstairs window is best.

4. I tried that. Lack of air isn’t the problem. What now?

Another equally likely problem that’s a little harder to check for is blockage. Shine a flashlight on the damper to make sure that it is opening fully. Shine the light up the chimney to see if you can see any blockage. You may need to get on the roof and shine the light down the chimney as well. Remove any leaves or birds’ nests or whatever else you see. If this doesn’t work, it’s time to call the chimney sweep and get a professional opinion

5. Can I improve air flow without opening a window?

Yes. If your house is too airtight to get a good fire going without opening a window, you can install an “outside air kit.” This kit is just what it sounds like. It draws in air from the outside to help the fire burn. You can keep all your windows closed. You can get this kit from the manufacturer of your prefab fireplace or from a brick yard for your masonry fireplace. Many certified chimney sweeps sell them and will install them as well.

6. Do the glass doors need to be closed if I use an outside air kit?

No. You can leave the doors open if you like. But since the air kit provides all the air the fire needs, you can also close the doors. You’ve increased your options.

7. Should I leave the glass doors open or closed?

When you’re just starting a fire, you want the glass doors to be all the way open. The fire needs plenty of air so that it can burn hot and clean. A cool fire will produce more smoke and creosote buildup in the chimney. Once you can see embers (glowing coals) in the wood, it’s safe to close the glass doors partially to control the fire. When the fireplace is not in use, keep the glass doors close (and the damper too!) You’ll save on your heating bill.

8. My chimney was blocked by leaves or a bird’s nest. Cleaning it up was a chore. How do I prevent this?

Get a chimney cap. Your home store will be able to sell you the right size chimney cap that will let smoke out but deflect leaves and discourage birds.

9. What size chimney cap do I need?

Just measure the diameter of the flue on which you want to install it. Chimney caps are friction fit devices. If you have two flues close together, you can purchase a larger chimney cap that anchors to the chimney itself.

10. Should I have my chimney sealed?

If you live in a wet climate, “sealing” the chimney can be worthwhile. Make sure you or the installer uses a product that is approved for this use. Ordinary sealant won’t do. You need a special sealant that puts up a one way barrier. Water shouldn’t be able to seep in, but it needs to be able to seep out. Otherwise, water on the inside of the chimney will be stuck there. This is especially a problem when the temperature dips below freezing. The stuck water will freeze, expand, and crack the chimney. This is called “spalling.”

11. I left the damper open when it was raining and now my fireplace has a bad odor. What should I do?

You’ve got some water behind the back wall of the fireplace. It’s mixing with the ash and causing the odor. Cleaning it out is a messy job. You should call a chimney sweep. If you want to tackle it yourself, be prepared to get dirty. You’ll need to reach through the damper and back to feel where the water is-about a foot to a foot and a half back. When you know where it is, run a shop vac back there and vacuum out all the water and ash. Remember to close the damper when not in use! You may also want to consider a top sealing fireplace damper with a gasket seal for added protection against this problem.

12 Can I repair the mortar in my own fireplace? I’ve got some cracks I’d like to get rid of.

Yes, this is actually something you can do yourself. You can buy fireplace mortar in an easy to use caulking tube. Chisel away the old mortar. Spray the area with water to get rid of the dust and help the new mortar adhere. And apply the mortar. The first fire will cure it.

13. How tall should my chimney be?

Your chimney should reach two feet above the tallest point on the roof within a 10 foot radius.

14. How long should a prefab chimney last?

Many prefab chimneys are warranted for 25 years. As long as they are maintained, they should be relatively permanent and not need to be replaced for as long as you own the home.

15. Can I use wood in my gas burning fireplace?

No. If the fireplace is designed for use only with gas, this is a very bad idea. The fireplace is not designed to withstand a wood fire. And the gas jets are not meant to come in contact with ash. This is a real fire hazard. It’s possible your fireplace was originally a wood burning fireplace and has been converted to gas. In that case, it can be converted back. But you shouldn’t burn would in it until that’s happened.

16. I’ve heard that fireplace inserts are not safe and can damage the fireplace. Is that true?

Depends on the insert and the fireplace. If you’ve got a masonry fireplace that was built with the home, an insert shouldn’t be a problem. If you’ve got a prefab fireplace, you’ll need to be more careful. Make sure the insert is rated for use with your model of fireplace. You may need to call the manufacturer of your prefab fireplace to make sure.

17. What are the pros and cons of burning an artificial “log” in my fireplace?

Artificial logs are made out of wax and sawdust. The most obvious “pro” is that they’re easy to use. And if you follow the directions, you should be ok. Don’t use more than one at a time or the heat produced may be too much for your fireplace. Don’t prod the log after it has been lit, either. It can come apart which means the sawdust will burn faster and hotter than intended. Your fireplace may not be designed to take that much heat. Also, there’s a possibility that the wax can drip into the low heat area of the fireplace and ignite there. That could cause a house fire.

18. How often should I have my chimney cleaned?

At least once a year, maybe more. A good rule of thumb is that the chimney should be swept after each cord to cord and a half of wood used. Have a chimney sweep come out midway through winter and inspect the system. He can advise you whether there’s enough buildup to justify cleaning the chimney twice a year.

19. What kind of wood should I burn in a wood burning fireplace?

Use seasoned hard wood. “Seasoned” wood is wood that has been dried out for at least half a year, preferably a year. It’s opposite, green wood, will produce a cooler, smokier fire that’s bad for your chimney. Hard woods are woods like oak, maple, beech, and ash. They burn hotter than pine, spruce, birch, or redwood. Do NOT use wood that has been painted or had finish applied. This could release toxic fumes into your home.

20. Can I use one of those chimney cleaning logs?

Chimney cleaning logs are not a substitute for a professional chimney sweeping, but they do do some good. It’s a bit like running weakly soapy water over your hands but not scrubbing.

21. Can’t I accomplish the same thing by putting salt on the fire?

Don’t do it. Yes, the salt will work, but salt is corrosive. You can damage metal parts like the damper and rain cap. If it’s a prefab fireplace, you could corrode the whole thing.

22.How do I clean the glass doors?

You can actually use a little ash from your fireplace to do the job. Just take a rag or sturdy paper towel, get it moist, dip it in a bit of ash, and use it to clean the windows.

23. How do I clean the brass trim?

Do NOT use any sort of polish or metal cleaner. The trim on fireplaces usually has a lacquer coating that can be stripped off with harsh cleaners. Stick to simple soap and water.