Posts tagged with "Chimney"

Types of Fireplace Inserts

With the cool weather moving in, many of us are planning ways of keeping our homes warm and toasty in the coming months.  Fireplaces always seem to be a go-to heating option, given their calming ambience…but not everyone has that luxury.  What’s a homeowner to do, then?  Invest in a fireplace insert, of course!  Inserts are great to have because they fit snugly into an already existing firebox and experience less heat loss than traditional fireplace units.  Perhaps the best part is that there are types and styles to meet every home and homeowners’ needs.  Let’s find out more about the many fireplace insert options.

Main Types of Fireplace Inserts

gas fireplace insert

Photo by Katie Schumm

There is indeed an insert option for every taste and need.  These include gas inserts, wood-burning inserts and electric inserts.  All options are typically dressed with self-cleaning glass doors for both enhanced safety and appeal, but as you can tell by their names, what really distinguishes each type is the means to fuel or power each unit.  Gas units make use of various types of gases to light the flames, wood-burning units operate like real fireplaces and operate from wood power and electric inserts may require little more than the flip of a switch.  No matter which you choose, your fireplace insert promises better home heating than traditional units because each is fully insulated to result in increased temperatures, better combustion and improved heat efficiency.

Types of Gas Fireplace Inserts

A gas fireplace insert is one option for your home.  They are unique in that they run off of gas fuel, such as natural gas or propane.  These units usually hook up to your home’s gas lines or a propane tank outside and direct venting models take in and release air through the chimney.  Some are vent-less, and will monitor oxygen levels in the home instead of using the chimney.  The major benefits of the gas insert are enhanced efficiency and heating power—giving off between 25,000 and 40,000 BTUs at 76-83% heat efficiency.  Additionally, gas units afford users a traditional look with decorative ceramic logs.

The biggest risk with gas units, however, is carbon monoxide poisoning.  While gas units are largely safe, it is difficult to check for leaks in the gas line, so a carbon monoxide detector is an essential accessory.  Overall, gas inserts are good bets for those who operate appliances via gas, individuals looking for the best value (Gas units heat small spaces well, ultimately saving on gas bills), and those wanting ease and convenience of use (They burn cleanly, requiring little chimney maintenance and are lit by means of a pilot light and ignition button).

Types of Wood-Burning Fireplace Inserts

custom fitted fireplace insert

Photo by Brenthasty

Wood-Burning fireplace inserts are some of the most complex of units available.  They’re unique in that they are fueled by wood or, alternatively, wood byproducts like manufactured logs made from sawdust.  These units are in the middle ground in terms of efficiency—running at about 50% due to potential heat loss during air circulation—and can burn very hot and long—upwards of 65,000 BTUs each hour, for 6+ hours.  Wood-burning units are ventilated via the home’s chimney and are therefore attached by a connector between the unit and chimney flue liner or by a connection which scales the entire height of the chimney.

The primary benefits of wood units are the rustic feel they create and the fact that they are “off-the-grid” and therefore work even in the absence of electrical power.  These units also have improved performance in recent years due to more stringent EPA guidelines, which have resulted in decreased smoke output and wood used.  We did say that wood-burning inserts are the most complex, however, and for good reason.  Wood inserts come with the inherent disadvantages of requiring increased maintenance, such as chimney inspections and removing soot and creosote from the units, and despite their lowered smoke emissions they still pose health risks to those who inhale the smoke and to the environment.  So when is a wood insert best?  Wood is likely a go-to option for individuals who heat their homes primarily by fire and do not want to/cannot rely on other methods of power such as gas and electricity, as wood is plentiful and reliable.  Even better, if your chimney is in good repair, you might as well make use of it!

Types of Electric Fireplace Inserts

electric fireplaceElectric fireplace inserts are a pretty good deal…all you do is plug it in and flip a switch!  The unique part about electric units is that they are entirely powered by electricity, via 110-volt outlets and don’t require chimney ventilation.  They come in a variety of sizes to suit your needs, too, and produce just the right amount of heat for comfort—around 4,000-5,000 BTUs.  A nice benefit is that electric units may be used with the heat on to provide warmth, or alternatively as a decorative piece with the heat off and the glow of the flames flickering on artificial logs.  Additionally, these inserts are flexible—they may be used as an alternative to the wood-burning fireplace they reside in or easily removed to light a traditional fire (so long as the fireplace functions correctly).

The downside, of course, is that when the electricity goes out in inclement weather, so does your fire.  Luckily, these units may be backed up with a battery or generator, so don’t panic!  And these units are especially good for those who live in older homes, as operating the traditional fireplace is often out of the question because the unit and/or chimney are in disrepair and electric inserts provide a sound alternative.

Gas?  Wood?  Electric?  There are so many types of fireplace inserts and each is unique and advantageous in its own way.  So how do you choose?  Compare, compare, compare and choose one based on the most important features!  Safety and efficiency are key, but so is appearance.  There’s a fireplace insert to meet everyone’s needs…which one wins in your book?

Chimney Health Hazards: Things You Should Know

Our chimneys, in conjunction with the fireplaces they support, help to provide us with much warmth during the colder months.  They can, however, have various adverse effects on our health.  Of course, one shouldn’t live in fear of this, though it is wise to have a working knowledge of chimney and fireplace health hazards.  Let’s look at some ways in which your chimney may be more foe than friend.

creosoteCreosote Exposure

Creosote is an oily black substance that can potentially build up inside your chimney flue because of incomplete wood combustion.  Not only does this stuff sound nasty, but it can also produce some undesirable health effects, such as:

  • Skin Irritation. Physical contact with creosote buildup can cause rashes and other major skin issues.
  • Eye Irritation. Creosote debris that gets on/in the eyes will irritate them, sometimes to the point of feeling burning sensations or actual chemical burns.  Sensitivity to light is also possible.
  • Respiratory Problems. Breathing in creosote particles for a length of time often catches up with the person exposed, as lung and other respiratory issues may develop.
  • Abdominal Issues. Creosote carries with it the potential to irritate both one’s kidneys and liver.
  • Mental Problems. Serious exposure to creosote will cause seizures and confusion in some people.
  • Cancer. Though this greatest health effect has not occurred often from chimney use, creosote exposure does have the potential to cause skin cancer.

"Soot" covered youngster

No children were harmed in this photo. (Source: www.amberdusick.com)

Chimney Soot Inhalation

Chimney soot is another contaminant resulting from incomplete combustion, and it forms when wood does not burn hot enough (less than 284 degrees).  This powdery brown or black dust sticks to the inside of chimneys (sometimes escaping into the air) and carries a few risks similar to creosote, such as:

  • Lung Hazard. Like creosote, if chimney soot is inhaled in great enough amounts, it has the potential to either irritate the lungs or cause lung diseases.
  • Respiratory Risks. In conjunction with lung problems, general respiratory infections may crop up due to soot inhalation.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a hazardous gas that is odorless, colorless and tasteless, making it notoriously hard to detect.  The gas is a result of incomplete combustion due to insufficient oxygen to finish oxidation.  In this case, it doesn’t make it to the carbon dioxide form.  When Carbon monoxide makes it into the air, several health problems may emerge:

  • Flu-like Symptoms. Carbon monoxide taken into the body in small amounts may mirror flu characteristics, including fatigue, nausea, confusion or headache.
  • Organ Troubles. The more carbon monoxide you inhale, the worse the impacts on your health.  Breathing in large quantities (At once or over time) of this gas may result in brain damage or heart problems, and at its worst even death.

chimney swift nestChimney Swifts and Histoplasmosis

Chimney swifts are small, brownish black birds with an affinity for taking up residence inside residential chimneys.  The birds themselves are little more than annoying, though what they leave behind may cause problems.  Their droppings may cause histoplasmosis, a respiratory infection caused by histplasma capsulatum, a fungus.  Symptoms generally look like a mild illness or flu, and include:

  • Chronic Cough. Coughing a lot?  It might be a sign of a larger problem from your chimney.
  • Chest Pain. Chest pain is never something to ignore, and if you knowingly have chimney swifts, it may be worth it to mention to the doctor.
  • Fever, Chills or Sweats. Though usually associated with the flu, these symptoms may be the result of extreme buildup of histplasma capsulatum in your chimney.
  • Lack of Appetite and Weight Loss. While you may simply be under the weather when this happens, if this or any of the above symptoms have joined forces, those chimney swifts may be to blame.

None of these things are particularly enjoyable to cope with.  So, the underlying message is simple: take precautions and clean your chimney.  Chimney sweeps can determine if any internal structures of your chimney are damaged, contributing to buildup problems.  Additionally, chimney sweeps will remove creosote, soot and chimney swift deposits, resulting in decreased health risks.  You may also consider having your home checked for carbon monoxide and also install a carbon monoxide detector.  With a better knowledge of chimney risks, you can now enjoy wintertime fires more responsibly!

Animals and Birds Inside Your Chimney

racoon in chimneyA number of factors go into maintaining both the safety and overall condition of your chimney.  We know that hazards like residue buildup can cause problems, but many of us don’t remember the smaller nuisances—chimney pests.  A number of unwanted critters can find their way into your chimney, so let’s talk about what those are and how to rid yourself of them.

Birds in the Chimney

chimney swiftIf there is an opening in your chimney, birds often find it tempting to make their way inside.  One notable pest affecting residents in the Washington DC area is the chimney swift.  Chimney swifts are little brownish black birds with a penchant for building nests the chimney.  Unfortunately, once a swift makes its way into your chimney, you’ll likely be stuck with it for a few weeks, as chimney swift chicks hang about the nest for 14-18 days.  Having these birds in the chimney can be quite annoying—they’re vocal little buggers!

When you find yourself plagued by chimney swifts, which are classified as a Threatened species, there isn’t much that you may legally do about it.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal regulation, prevents removal of chimney swift eggs and chicks.  To remove the birds by means chemical or otherwise would require a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The best you can do with swifts is to clean up after they’ve gone.  Technicians can be called in later to clean up and remove nest remnants from the chimney. Chimney swifts and most other birds are less likely to return to a nesting location if the nest has been removed.

Animals in the Chimney

Several animals can get into your chimney, including squirrels and bats.  A particularly pesky intruder in the DC area is the raccoon.  Raccoons, usually females, make their way into chimneys to birth and care for pups.  Crafty as they are, mother raccoons sometimes succeed in not only getting inside the chimney, but passing through the smoke shelf or chimney damper right above the fireplace.  If they’ve gotten this far, there’s a good chance of eventually making their way into your home.  If not, you’ll likely have to at least contend with various animal odors.

raccoons in chimneyA raccoon is an animal you never want to have hanging around, as they are notorious for carrying a variety of diseases.  Raccoons are home to bugs like fleas and ticks, which you or your pets can get, and also diseases like rabies and roundworm.

raccoon in trapLuckily, there are ways to remove mama and her babies from the chimney.  If you don’t mind the smell, items like predator urine may get rid of raccoons.  A humane method of removal is the live trap. Raccoon trapping is legal in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia, and several services are available. You’ll likely want to trap the mother while she passes through the chimney liner or even attempt to scare her out in some manner.  The babies don’t put up much of a fight quite yet, so it’s pretty simple to reach up the fireplaces and grab them.

The Ultimate Protection

The absolute best way to protect your chimney, fireplace, and ultimately your home from pest intrusion is to make sure you have a chimney cap.  If the top of the chimney is not closed off, you’re just asking for something to get inside it.  The best bet is to install a chimney cap that has an attached wire netting that will act as an additional barrier between pests and the chimney.

Obviously several chimney animals wish to invade your home, and they can be quite a nuisance. From loud chirping to unpleasant odors, these pests can create huge problems.  Take proper measures to protect your home.  Doing this will ensure that you won’t have to deal with birds or raccoons in the first place!

Image sources: mainstreetj.com, birdspix.com, and humanesociety.org

Winter Chimney Checklist

winter chimney checklist

Before firing up your fireplace for the first time this winter, there are a few things you must check for the sake of your family’s health and safety.  Cozying up to a warm fire can be delightful on a chilly winter night, but be safe about it!  Follow the winter checklist below to ensure a pleasant and safe experience.

Chimney Inspection and Cleaning. The best way to be sure that everything is in proper working order and is safe for use is to have the chimney checked and/or cleaned.  The National Fire Protection Association suggests having your chimney inspected on a yearly basis for maximum efficiency and safety.  Common chimney problems include build-up of deposits and chimney fires.  Bring in a Chimney Safety Institute of America certified chimney sweep to assess the situation.  A few things on their chimney checklist will include looking for:

  • Soot. Soot is a brown or black soft powder.  It is made up mostly of carbon and sometimes combined with ash.  The threat this buildup poses depends on the amount of ash it contains, as more ash reduces the problem.  Carbon is flammable, posing a larger risk of a chimney fire.
  • Creosote. Creosote, another flammable substance, starts off as a residue of smoke and vapors from wood.  It clings to the venting system as it builds up as a hard, flaky deposit resultant from incomplete combustion.  It is recommended that a cleaning be performed when either soot or creosote buildup reaches ¼ inch or more.
  • Glaze. Glaze is the toughest chimney intruder to remove.  This is a tarry, shiny substance which puddles up in the chimney and sometimes even drops down into black icicle-like deposits that hang above your fireplace.  It’s the most dangerous chimney fire culprit because of how dense it is, allowing the glaze to burn longer.  Glaze should be removed when buildup reaches or exceeds 1/8 inch.

If the above residues are found in your chimney, or other problems are detected during inspection, the chimney sweep may decide to clean out the system.  Aside from the risk of a chimney fire, cleaning will help to ensure proper chimney ventilation, eliminate undesirable odors and remove blockages that would result in CO poisoning.  While cleaning, the chimney sweep will employ:

  • Standard cleaning. Standard cleaning is recommended for the elimination of both soot and creosote.  Brushes and high-powered vacuums are run along the chimney walls to eliminate and prevent the substances from entering the home.
  • Mechanical cleaning. Mechanical cleaning is the high-powered version of the standard method.  Wire brushes, cables and chains are twisted and turned by a motor at a quick speed to rid the chimney shaft of hard creosote and glaze.

Some chimney sweeps also choose chemical cleaning, which involves spraying various substances to break down and dissolve hard glaze and creosote.  In any case, at least one of these methods will be used.

In addition to cleaning your chimney, there are some fairly obvious safety measures you should take in preparation for your fireplace’s first seasonal use. Add the following to your winter checklist:

  • Proper firewood. Only use dry wood that has been split and seasoned outdoors for 6 months to 1 year. To learn more about firewood, read our articles on environmentally friendly firewood and firewood in the Washington DC area.
  • Clear the Area of Fire Hazards. Move all furniture, curtains and other items away from the fireplace.
  • Smoke Detector. In the case that you leave the room for a minute or dose off, a smoke detector will alert you of problems near your fireplace. Make sure yours are installed and working.
  • Carbon Monoxide Detector. CO is a major concern when burning fires in the home.  It is virtually odorless and unnoticeable unless you have the right equipment installed, and is the primary chemical that comes from burning wood and having chimney soot.  Do not be caught off guard!  Install one of these.
  • Fire Extinguisher. Accidents happen to everyone.  Maybe the fire burned to hot or big, maybe the door was not shut and a log tumbled down onto the floor.  In cases like these, be prepared to deal with the situation by having a fire extinguisher nearby to avert a crisis.

Winter fire burning can be a tremendously enjoyable part of the season.  Follow this guide and you will be well on your way to preparing your chimney and fireplace for winter!

About Chimney Creosote – Part 1: The 3 Stages of Creosote

What is Creosote?

Creosote is actually just one of the components in the stuff (aside from the ash) that’s left over when wood is burned.  The whole mix of tar and creosote and soot is commonly called creosote.  The term is almost exclusively used when talking about burning wood.  If discussing soot resulting from burning oil, or even gas, this is just soot and it’s just called soot.  Though the black residue in the chimney from burning wood is called creosote, it is in fact mostly tar.

There are, generally speaking, three types of creosote are found in chimneys and they are usually called ‘stages’ or ‘degrees.’  All three forms are all combustible and should be removed.

First Degree Creosote Buildup

First degree creosote has a high percentage of soot and can be removed from a chimney effectively with a chimney brush.  First degree creosote develops when there is a relatively good combustion of the wood and/or relatively high flue gas temperatures.

This describes an open fireplace.  The burning wood had lots of air for the combustion process and the heat flies up the chimney.  These are best conditions for a chimney.

Second Degree Creosote Buildup

Second degree creosote is a bit trickier.  This creosote buildup is generally in shiny black flakes.  Imagine dry, hard tar corn flakes, and in greater volume than first degree creosote.  It’s not as easy to brush away, but still fairly removable.  It would be difficult to describe all the situations where 2nd degree creosote develops, but suffice to say it will occur where the incoming air is restricted.   This describes woodstoves and fireplaces with glass doors.

Third Degree Creosote Buildup

Third degree creosote buildup is the worst of them all.  This occurs when the flue temperatures are low and/or combustion is incomplete.  This is common when any of, or a combination of, these conditions exist:

  • On woodstoves with the air controls turned way down
  • Un-insulated chimneys (or any other reason the chimney is cold)
  • When using unseasoned wood
  • If the flue is oversized for the appliance
  • When the house is tight and can’t draw sufficient combustion air

Third degree creosote looks like tar coating or running down the inside of the chimney.  It is extremely concentrated fuel.  It can get very thick as it hardens and is recoated over and over.  An inch thick would be unusual, but it’s not unheard of.

And worse yet is third degree creosote that fills up “chimney fire fluff.”  If creosote buildup catches fire in a chimney, maybe it burns away completely but more often it does not.  More frequently the creosote partly boils, partly burns and leaves a dried out light-weight “sponge,” often more than 2” thick which is actually very easy to remove.  But if it is not removed, new third degree creosote fills that sponge you can have well in excess of 100 pounds of creosote in a chimney.

The first chimney fire may not have damaged the house, but that next chimney fire will be fiercer than the first and exceptionally dangerous.  The really tough part is that third degree creosote, in any form, is very hard to remove.

We’ll discuss ways to remove creosote in Part Two.

Types of Chimneys, Vents and Connectors

Chimneys, Vents and Connectors: a Guide

On part two of our guide to chimneys, vents and connectors, we will be covering the specific types of chimneys, vents and connectors. Refer to our initial chimney terminology guide for more general information on chimneys, vents, connectors and flues.

Types of Chimneys

There are two major types of chimneys: masonry and factory made. Masonry chimneys are made of brick or block and require lining for proper safety. Stainless steel liners are preferred.

Factory-built chimneys are often referred to as “class A chimneys”. This terminology is not official, but chimney professionals use it and understand its meaning. Class A Chimneys always have a stainless steel interior and a galvanized or stainless steel exterior. If the class A chimney runs outside without a chase, stainless steel is always used.

Class A Chimney System PartsClass A chimneys are insulated to prevent the outside of the chimney from becoming excessively hot. There are two types of insulation used: packed pipes and air insulated pipes. Packed pipes have a double wall with insulation between the layers to help absorb the heat. Air insulated chimneys can have up to three or four walls without insulation between them. In these chimneys the air space is used to help absorb the heat. These may also be called “Air Insulated” chimneys.

It’s worth noting that Class A Chimneys must always be used as a whole unit. Mixing parts from different brands/makes is extremely dangerous and strictly prohibited.

Types of Vents

Vents are used for the venting of gas, oil and bio-mass appliances. They are never used as a chimney for a solid fuel such as wood. While using multiple brands isn’t optimal, adapters are sold to allow the use of pipes from multiple vent brands.

Type "B" Gas Vents/ConnectorsType B Vents are factory built double wall vent pipes that are only used to for venting gas. They are always made with a galvanized exterior and an aluminum interior. The air space between walls is fairly small. This vent can be used as a vent or connector, and is quite inexpensive.

Type L vents can be either a vent or a connector, and is made to vent oil. Class A chimneys are still preferred in the market over L vents, and as such L vents availability is limited. Sometimes it is listed for “bio-mass venting”, or venting the products of combusting Pellet Ventpellets, corn, cherry pits, etc.

Pellet vents are technically L vents as well. These vents must be installed through a house or be in a chase. While they have stainless steel interiors, their exterior may be black or galvanized steel.

Types of Connectors

Type C vents are used only as connectors. They are single walled galvanized pipes, and as such often called “galvanized pipes”. They are used only for venting gas or oil. Using a C vent with solid fuel appliances can cause extremely toxic fumes. This is the least expensive of the pipes. Inspectors mandate that when used, C-vent crimps must go away from the appliance towards the chimney or vent. This isn’t an official rule and there’s no specific reason for this to be necessary, but is simply a standard on installation. Inspectors will make you reinstall the vent with the crimps pointing the ‘correct’ way, so it’s best to just install them appropriately from the beginning.

Black Single Wall Stove PipeBlack single walled pipes are also only used as connectors. Sometimes they are referred to as “black galvanized pipe” even though it is not galvanized. While black single wall pipes can be used for solid, gas, or oil venting, it’s expensive and overkill for gas and oil. To prevent condensing creosote from leaking out of the pipes, crimps must point to the stove. This isn’t an official rule, but it is a best practice is you don’t appreciate the smell of creosote.

Double walled stovepipes are used for reduced clearance solid fuel, and used only as a connector. They’re more expensive than single walled stovepipes as they are made of double walled pipe with an air space insulator.

When making decisions about vents, connectors or chimneys, it’s always wise to work with an experienced chimney and vent specialist. They can help you navigate installation to ensure your work passes inspection, looks great, and works well for years to come.

How Many Things Can You Put On One Chimney? Or Multiple Appliance Venting

Let’s start with a few definitions.

chimney flue ventingAppliances include fireplaces, woodstoves, furnaces, boilers, pellet stoves, hot water heaters, etc. They’re all individual appliances.

A chimney is a structure that has one or more flues in it.

A flue is simply the chimney passageway that vents the fumes from whatever is attached to it. (A flue is not the same as a damper either; a damper is something that can block the flue.)is simply the chimney passageway that vents the fumes from whatever is attached to it. (A flue is not the same as a damper either; a damper is something that can block the flue.)

How many appliances can you have per chimney?

And even though the question always comes across as “how many on one chimney?” let’s make sure to discuss “how many on one flue?” The answer to the question is: “It Depends”.

The rules are found in various NFPA standards and in the IRC (International Residential Code.) This article is general in nature but for those who want to drill down into the details, most of the information can be found in IRC chapters 10, 13, 18 and 24.

Solid fuel burning appliances.

Solid fuel includes coal or corn or cherry pits, but for most of us that means cord wood or pellets. The rule here is easy and clear.

IRC M1801.12 (PDF Here) Multiple solid fuel prohibited. A solid-fuel-burning appliance or fireplace shall not connect to a chimney passageway venting another appliance.

In other words, only one appliance per flue, period. It goes without saying, I hope, that gas or oil appliances cannot be vented into a flue which also vents a solid fuel appliance. EVERY SOLID FUEL APPLANCE GETS ITS OWN VENT!

How about hooking up a woodstove into an existing masonry fireplace flue?

That’s OK as long as:

  • The fireplace has been blocked off. Remember, only one appliance per flue!
  • The liner for the woodstove has to be properly sized, which generally means the same size as the collar-size coming from the appliance.
  • Make sure the chimney is clear of combustible materials before inserting the smaller liner.

Gas and Oil Appliance Venting

Gas fireplaces are factory-built systems. The manufacturer’s listing and instructions will preclude attaching any other appliances to it.

Multiple gas or oil furnaces or boilers, as well as hot water heaters, can be vented into one flue. There are a few rules to mention:

  • The rules apply to listed appliances. While I have never seen an unlisted gas or oil furnace in my life, if you have one, you are referred back to the rules for solid fuel burning appliances- one per flue.
  • If venting two or more appliances on the same flue, you have to know the flue can handle it, as determined but the BTU input and other factors.
  • Both or all appliances have to be on the same floor. So, no furnaces in the basement or room heaters on the second level of your home.
  • The connectors for the appliances have to be offset. They can’t come into the flue at the same height, and especially never directly across from each other.
  • The smaller of the two connectors go into the flue above the larger one (usually meaning the hot water heater).
  • As a general rule, don’t mix “natural draft” appliances and “fan assisted” appliances on the same flue. This rule is more complicated than this, but if this is your case, be sure you refer to the manufacturer’s instructions. Call an HVAC company and make them show you to your satisfaction it’s right. Don’t take anyone’s word for it, see it in writing.

The NFPA 54 (Gas) and the NFPA 31 (Oil) show diagrams in great detail, and cover sizing the connectors as well (connectors are the smoke pipes that carry the fumes from the appliance to the chimney flue.)

Read another helpful article by the American Society of Home Inspectors.