Get Fireplace Ready for Winter

  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, the weather outside can be frightful.

    RICHARD: But in here, it’s so delightful.

    LESLIE: But if you don’t maintain your fireplace, it can be downright frightening.

    TOM: And the song you just heard was sung by our friend, Richard Trethewey, the plumbing-and-heating …

    LESLIE: Equally frightening.

    RICHARD: Yes.

    TOM: Equally frightening. The plumber-and-heating contractor on TV’s This Old House.

    And Richard, fireplaces are great for ambiance and maybe cutting your home heating bills a little bit. But if they’re not clean, they can be doing more harm than good, right?

    RICHARD: Yeah. I mean all the – so many of the houses from that – when this part of the country was settled, those houses were all gone, not from age – from chimney fires that sort of …

    TOM: Fires? Wow.

    RICHARD: The principle heating source was those fires all winter long. And finally, they just overheated and then there’d be a creosote fire. It’s a big deal.

    TOM: So moving into the fall, temperatures start to drop. What’s the first thing that you would advise folks do to make sure their fireplace is good to go?

    RICHARD: Well, if you’re going to really use your fireplace – if you’re going to burn one ambience fire a season, it’s no big deal. But if you’re really going to use that fireplace a lot, call a chimney sweep. Hire a chimney sweep, have him come in. Nowadays, they’ve got cameras that can go up inside, they can look for what the lining condition is inside that thing. If there’s breaks in the lining, there’s a place where creosote and soot can get into – get out of the chimney. It’s not good. So, chimney sweeps, we think about, you know …

    LESLIE: Mary Poppins?

    RICHARD: Yeah. Mary Poppins. Chim-chiminey. I was going to sing again.

    LESLIE: Don’t sing.

    RICHARD: Sorry.

    LESLIE: Don’t sing.

    RICHARD: They’re not just characters in old movies. They are a professional organization that – there’s really good ones out there. You should do your due diligence, though, because not everybody is that. So, you want to look at the Chimney Safety Institute of America or somebody that’s in the game that’s been around for a while.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: Ask around.

    TOM: Yeah. We occasionally will get a call from somebody who’s had a chimney sweep come to their house and it’s almost the same – always the same pattern. Their inspection “fees” are always very, very low. But lo and behold, they find tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage that immediately has to be fixed so your house doesn’t burn into ruin.

    RICHARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right.

    TOM: And sometimes that’s right but a lot of times it’s just not. And they’re just trying to sell you something that you don’t need.

    RICHARD: Yeah.

    TOM: So you do need to be very careful about choosing that pro.

    Now, if we do find damage, you would think how can you possibly repair something that’s inside the chimney? What are the options?

    RICHARD: Well, you’ve got to figure out where it is and if it’s near the top or near the bottom, we can get at it. You can often patch it. You’re still trying to get down inside of – to an existing – usually, it’s an 8×8 chimney liner if it’s the old claystone.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: But nowadays, you can actually reline a chimney a variety of ways. One, you can reline it with a cement that you’d actually inflate the equivalent of a balloon inside and then pour concrete over to make a new liner.

    TOM: So the balloon goes inside the chimney and the concrete surrounds the outside of the chimney and basically you sort of cast a new liner?

    RICHARD: Right. That’s right. That’s right. A new liner. Mm-hmm. And then you can also drop a new proper gauge smoke pipe down inside of a chimney, too. Sometimes that’s your only choice.

    LESLIE: And that’s something that really needs to be done, especially if you’re going for more high-efficient heating options in your home.

    RICHARD: Well, we also should do – we should talk a little bit, though, about high efficiency. A fireplace, although it’s lovely for ambience, that there reaches a point halfway through that fire that the amount of heat that you got from that fire is – it’s over. Now, everything after that halfway point is just heat that’s leaving your building …

    TOM: Right.

    LESLIE: Going right out.

    RICHARD: Right. And going up through there. So, there was a time that that was our only choice but – so we should be very clear about that the fireplace is not a principle source of heat in most cases. If it is, you should find a way that the air that is being burned in the fireplace comes from outside, not from inside the building. That means you put in a fireplace insert or the equivalent of a heat exchanger inside, where the fire exists in the firebox and you see it but you’re not really letting the air that you are breathing come into that fireplace.

    TOM: So we’re essentially supplying combustion air from the outside for the sole purpose of feeding the fire but we’re still enjoying the heat on the inside?

    RICHARD: Right, right. Right. That’s right. Now, I love the smell of a wood fire. Everyone does. It’s part of that ambience you talk about. But we see more and more in people’s houses, they’re going with gas fireplaces, so they have that sort of look of a fireplace. And that is going to be vented with either a series of smaller pipes bringing air from outside and then venting. And many times, they just don’t even need a chimney; they just vent out to outside. And so, that’s become the sort of convenience in America solution for that.

    LESLIE: But let’s get back to a wood-burning fireplace for a second. So many people want to use those wood-burning logs that are sort of those quick fire starters.

    RICHARD: Oh, no.

    LESLIE: And I feel like those are the worst things that you can do for your chimney.

    RICHARD: There’s a fair amount of chemicals in them and it’s not just wood that’s in them.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: So, yeah. And so, you’ve got to worry about the buildup of creosote and other chemicals up there. The chimney sweep will do his visual inspection and then he’s got a series of brushes and vacuums that can go down and clean that thing right back to Bristol (ph), right back to original condition. Just about …

    LESLIE: And then you should only use seasoned wood.

    RICHARD: That’s right. Yeah. And it wants to be dry enough, too. If it’s highly moist, you’re also going to have – in the process of combustion, you’re going to have lots of moisture that can also stick on the side and help to form that almost creosote paste, almost like a toothpaste up inside the firebox.

    TOM: And that’s what gets danger. If we do not clean the fireplace and you get the combustion mixing with the moisture, you can get that creosote, which can stick to the sides.

    RICHARD: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

    TOM: And then that could fuel a chimney fire which is very, very dangerous.

    RICHARD: If you see flames coming out through the top of the chimney, it’s not good.

    TOM: Let’s try to avoid that with tips from Richard Trethewey, the plumbing-and-heating contractor on TV’s This Old House.

    Thanks, Richard.

    RICHARD: Great to be here.

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