Posts made in February 2011

Gas Log Fireplaces vs. Wood Burning Fireplaces

The gas log fireplace has a number of advantages over a traditional wood burning fireplace. While some of the reasons might appear to be obvious others might turn a few curious glances. Gas fireplaces do not have the same amount of realism and the impact of a wood burning fireplace, but with added features gas fireplaces are widely considered realistic and beneficial enough to exceed the expectations of the hearth design. Let’s take a look at the tale of the tape for gas vs. wood fireplaces.

fireplace table


Nothing mimics a wood burning fireplace. The natural crackling and popping and sizzling of sap and the sweet, harsh olfactory effect of a wood fire triggers a physical sensation and psychological relaxation similar to the sounds and smells of the ocean. However, fumes can become toxic, crackling sap sends arcs of sparks off in random directions and a slowly dying fire leaves embers pulsing for hours waiting for an incendiary mistake. While gas fireplaces lack many of the features that create the allure of a wood burning fireplace, the gas fireplace is safer, easier to use and more attractive than most wood stoves and wood burning fireplaces.

Wood & Gas Logs

gas logs

Artificial logs in a gas fireplace.

A gas fireplace offers a level of realism that doesn’t take away from the effects that its traditional counterpart offers. Because of the advancement in technology gas fireplaces offer an authentic looking hand painted ceramic log that comes complete with texture and charring. Well designed gas fireplaces have been commonly mistaken for wood burning fires. Although a wood burning fireplace has burning wood and a gas fireplace burner emits flames from just below the logs the design mimics real flames more reliably than wood logs that often burn inconsistently.

Different gas log manufacturers create gas logs with varying processes and materials. Gas fireplace logs are manufactured of ceramic that has been treated for flame, reinforced with steel supports, hand painted for realistic textures and molded from casts of wood logs. Some gas fireplace logs are also made of a heat resistant foam similar to the architectural foam used for the decorative exterior of homes. Foam refractory logs are lighter and easier to remove to clean and much less expensive but it is also easier to crack the external shell.

The Fire

fireplace screen

A screen protects your home from flying embers.

Because a gas fireplace doesn’t operate on electricity gas burns at a reduced cost compared to a standard home heater. While fireplace wood can be expensive, wood can also be found free. A gas fire will burn until it is turned off and will simply cool down until the next time it is used. In comparison, a wood burning fireplace has to burn down and go out, before it will be safe to leave it unattended with glowing embers dangerously hot several hours after flames have burned out.

A gas fireplace also offers more flexibility in temperature and the appearance of the flames. The fire level is easily adjusted to deliver the amount of warmth and aesthetic appeal that a home needs. When it gets too hot a gas fire can be instantly lowered or be increased when the room gets too hot. With a wood burning fireplace a fire cannot be adjusted in a matter of moments to get the room the temperature to a comfortable place. While a talented use of the poker and flue can affect the heat of a wood burning fireplace it is certainly easier and more reliable to simply push a button and adjust flame height.


dirty fireplace

The remains of a wood fire.

There are also dangers and headaches associated with a wood burning stove. For example, a wood burning stove needs to be cleaned after each use or at least often enough to remove fine silt ash. Ash build up can be messy and difficult if cleaned poorly or left unattended and the fine ash can ruin clothing, air conditioners and get everywhere. Burning wood fireplaces also generate creosote and a chimney must be cleaned on a regular basis to ensure that no chimney fires occur. A gas fireplace will only need to be checked periodically for carbon soot or a leak after a forceful storm, there is no cause for alarm when setting it up for operation.

Ease of Use

gas fireplace

A glimpse at the wiring hidden beneath a gas fireplace.

Ease of use should be noted as well. Many gas fireplaces keep a standing pilot like gas stoves and heater. When the gas fireplace is used a button pushed or knob rotated will have flames at a perfectly selected height and heat emitting from the hearth almost instantly. With any gas fireplace a manual control valve is operated like a barbecue. However, remote control options provide transmitters that function like a hand-held remote, wall switch, automatic thermostat and with a timer.

Building a Fire

wood pile in the snow

It’s a cold trip to the woodpile in the snow!

The wood burning fireplace must be built with lighter kindling setup around and below wood chunks stacked below the logs that will be burned. A wood fire must begin with a single flame nursed to the point that kindling burns and grows to burn chunks that burn to ignite actual heat producing logs. Wood fires are never easy to start and a poorly stacked fireplace can ignite, and go out only to be rebuilt until it burns properly to ignite the fireplace logs.

In the winter, a person will need to go out and pick up wood and kindling to build a fire and keep it going. While that might not be too bad in 50 degrees, when it is snowing or a blizzard outside it might become a problem. With a gas fireplace there is no need to worry about tracking down wood as long as gas is running into the home.



Wood burning fireplaces and vented gas log fireplaces both require a chimney or similar ventilation to remove dangerous chemicals created by burning fuels.

Wood burning fireplaces and vented gas log fireplaces both require a chimney or similar ventilation to remove dangerous chemicals created by burning fuels. Direct vent and B-vent gas fireplaces are capable of safely venting through horizontal ventilation flues that offer interior design versatility unavailable with wood burning fireplaces that can only vent vertically. Ventless gas fireplaces are capable of burning in a reduced vent or vent-free environment by minimizing carbon emissions and detecting oxygen levels within the control valve.

While wood burning fireplaces were a great item in their time they don’t hold up to the efficiency that a gas fireplace can offer. If your having either type of fireplace installed, consider a stress-free remodeling company to help improve the entire room from floor to ceiling.

Ventless Gas Fireplace Basics

It is much easier and more attractive to use ventless gas fireplace logs today as safety and log designs have become much more realistic. During the coldest winter months, sitting next to a fire serves both aesthetic psychological warmth and real physical warmth. Electric and gas heaters offer no character and are hideous boxy structures tolerated for the warmth they bring. The same natural gas or propane BTU’s running through a gas log fireplace brings warmth with the augmented interior design of the fireplace design enjoyed year round.

Ventless Gas Fireplace

In the past, having a chimney and proper ventilation was the only way to enjoy the benefits of a fireplace. Dangerous creosote build-up, hazardous fumes, variable flame control valves and spark arrestors were completely necessary to enjoy a fireplace. Wood storage and the scorpions, snakes and bugs that live in stored wood were acceptable annoyances; part and parcel of enjoying the year-round hearth. New advancements in technology now allow a ventless gas log fireplace without dangerous safety concerns and without compromising the beauty and added décor a fireplace adds to any room.

A ventless gas log fireplace creates the warmth and the design of a conventional fireplace without the need for a chimney. Vent-free gas fireplaces are one of the more energy efficient options due to BTU limits that maximize heat retention. There are a large number of choices regarding style, size, color, “wood” selection, non-traditional modern designs and valve controls including remotes and wall-switches for all gas fireplace burners.

Gas log fireplaces in general have easy to use controls that include simple igniters similar to a gas range and gas bbq grill. Ventless gas log fireplace burners are almost always used indoors and tend to use variable remote controls, wall-switches and thermostatic controls that could not last long outdoors. Indoors and lacking a flue’s pull most vent free gas fireplace burners utilize a standing pilot to avoid relighting the burner for each use. Remote receivers are cleverly hidden inside hollow ceramic logs and decorative pine cones. Logs are hand-painted for a maximum attempt at realism.

The ventless gas log fireplace offers an efficient and instant solution for a heat source without the complex designs necessary for vented gas fireplaces and wood burning fireplaces. Set up and installation are so easy that homeowners deciding on a ventless gas fireplace with access to a gas line could decide to purchase a fireplace for a room and be enjoying the hearth that evening. For the homeowner deciding to use vent free gas logs the solution is an effective source of heat because although gas volume is limited there is nowhere for heat to go but inside the home.

Vent-free gas log arrangements combined with BTU limits make gas fireplaces very clean with low fumes resulting from fuel consumption. Other power sources like electricity or batteries are not necessary. Additional features for gas log fireplaces are conveniently available that may use other energy sources but gas is inexpensive everywhere.

Easy installation of ventless gas logs primarily means there is no expense for installation of a chimney. Building a traditional fireplace generally includes a construction firm for building once a design is provided. An engineer or architect is sub-contracted to make plans submitted to the city bringing an inspector to the site. Once approved the design is built but a separate permit, inspection and license is needed to cut through a roof and re-seal a roof around a fireplace vent. Again: design, plans, city, construction and inspection. The process can become very expensive. Many homeowners value the wood burning fireplace with crackling flames, popping sap and real woodsy smells over the expense. New-construction makes the process easier but an existing home will spend a lot of money building an indoor fireplace.

wood burning fireplace

A wood burning fireplace will often have a steel flue running through the chimney often built to mimic a rustic appearance. Above the home a termination cap spreads emerging heat and fumes while displacing falling rain or dirt. A wood burning fireplace with a damaged flue can be very expensive to repair as the rustic décor is dismantled rock by rock looking for the faulty seal and it has become typical to install vent free gas logs into existing fireplaces rather than incur the expense of repairing or cleaning chimneys with broken seals or clogged with deposit from years of burning gases and wood.

The vent free gas log fireplace simply needs some space in a room and a gas line. Installing ventless gas logs in a home without a fireplace includes purchasing a vent free firebox, building or buying a mantle and the gas logs with a burner, valve and logs. The vent free firebox is designed to refract heat and protect any materials used in the construction of a wall or fireplace mantle around the vent free firebox. Sitting in front of a fireplace we only see the inner firebox decoratively lined with brick pattern. With a protective vent free gas log firebox a fireplace mantle can be constructed with drywall, wood or cabinet particle board which would otherwise be in danger of burning.

Ventless gas logs are designed to burn safely in the home with no ventilation or reduced ventilation and must always have an oxygen depletion sensor (ODS) and a thermocouple to ensure against gas dangers. A manual safety pilot contains a continuously burning flame which can be extinguished during long periods of unuse. The pilot light allows a fireplace control valve to turn the fireplace burner off and on without the use of an ignition and properly primed thermocouple every time the fireplace is enjoyed. Manual control valves work very much like the valve used to control heat on a barbecue grill and are cheaper than valves with a remote.

The remote safety pilot uses a remote transmitter to turn a valve open or closed, on and off using a hand held remote like a television control. The pilot stays lit and the manual valve spins at the behest of the remote transmitter and a receiver hidden within the fireplace. Finally some ventless gas log fireplace remote controls use a variable valve that can control how much the valve spins open and closed providing flame height adjustment via remote transmitter. Wall switches and thermostatic controls are remotes that operate on an on/off fireplace valve with high and low setting manually pre-set on the valve of the fireplace.

As with anything, it is always wise to exercise caution. Always read the operation manual and ensure the ventless gas log fireplace is properly installed within the insulated ventless firebox. Learning about the risks is one of the best ways to prevent accidents. Vent-free gas log fireplaces have become very ornate with decorations rivaling the realism of vented gas fireplaces and wood burning fires. In addition ventless gas log fireplaces have recently evolved into the contemporary designs of the modern home with fire effects that do not strive to mimic to appearance of wood but enhance the beauty of light with crushed colored fire glass and both natural stone and geo-metric shapes. The growth is tremendous because the vent-free gas log is safe, economical and effective for both its beauty and pragmatic use as a heater for the home.

How Can You Tell If Your Chimney Or Fireplace Needs A Repair?

Let’s cover the obvious and more well known insights about chimney and fireplace repair.

Deteriorated or even missing mortar joints are most obvious of all.

At the top of a chimney you can’t see the mortar well, so be sure anyone who works on your roof inspects this for you. A chimney sweep should look over the mortar as a matter of routine.

Bad mortar joints should be dealt with sooner instead of later. Once the joints start to fail the damage accelerates quickly. Water (from rain and snow) freezing and thawing in a small crack turns it into a larger crack and ultimately the mortar crumbles. If this problem is left long enough, your chimney may collapse.

The story in terms of fireplaces is similar, the difference being that there’s not a freeze-thaw cycle but rather high temperatures causing stress on the mortar. Even though high temperature mortar is used (or even refractory cement,) these materials don’t hold up forever.

There’s more danger below as well. There’s always the structural problem, i.e. the fireplace is supporting a stack of masonry weighing several tons. You want to keep things from shifting! There is also the obvious fire danger of having “holes in the system” either in the fireplace or in the chimney as it passes through the house.

Chimney liners have lots of problems but you can’t see them easily.

In the last 25 years many houses have converted to stainless steel chimney liners, and for many different reasons, some of which are not related to chimney damage. While the reasons for lining a chimney with a stainless liner would fill a very long article of its own, suffice to say that there can be a lot of problems with tiled-lined chimneys. The focus of this article is how to find out if you have those problems.

In a word, it takes a careful inspection by someone who knows what he’s looking at. In the early days of chimney sweeping (1975 we’ll say) we used very bright lights to look down a chimney. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know” because when the ChimScan™ came along and boy did we all get an eyeful. A ChimScan™ is a closed circuit camera put on chimney rods used to get a close in look at the inside of the chimney.

A ChimScan™ inspection will show cracks and other deficiencies that can’t be seen by a visual inspection looking down the flue with a bright light.

So said, a visual inspection is better than no inspection at all.

And what problems are commonly seen? First of course- you guessed it- deteriorated or missing mortar joints, and you probably can’t see them without a ChimScan™ inspection. Another is misaligned flue tiles. You’d be surprised how many chimneys are not built properly, some with tiles an inch or two offset from the one below. This problem can usually be seen by a visual inspection.

Cracked flue tiles are more common than most people realize. Again, the reason why broken tiles are a problem is the subject of a different article, but as for how to tell if you have the problem is by having a ChimScan™ inspection. It’s a serious condition, it may or may not be covered by homeowner’s insurance, and a chimney liner is the solution.

Finally there’s the issue of “shaling” tiles. This is when thin slices of the face of the chimney tile pop away. This is very visual. Just pull the connector pipe from the wall or look in the clean out door (wherever the bottom of the chimney can be found) and see if there are chips of the liner piling up. This is especially common in flues when converting from oil to gas heat. A stainless steel chimney liner is the solution to all of these liner problems.

Spalling Bricks

This is just the term used for the same problem (as shaling tiles) when it happens to the bricks on the outside of the house. The faces just pop off and lands in the yard or on the roof. It’s very visual – you’ll know if you have this problem just by looking at the chimney and the roof. When this happens there’s nothing to fix the problem except to replace the bad brick with a good one and waterproof the chimney so it doesn’t happen again. And check the crown, which is my next point.

chimney repair

Problems with the crown are easy to see if you go on the roof.

The crown of the chimney is the cement at the top that covers the bricks up to the flue tiles. This keeps rain and snow, not to mention birds etc., from getting into the brick chase around the chimney liners. The crown is the first line of defense against the weather and takes the most abuse because it’s horizontal and facing the sun all the time. All you have to do is go up (or have someone who know what to look for go up) and look at it.

Cracks in the crown, like the mortar joints, usually start small but grow as water freezes and thaws in them. Eventually you have big cracks or even missing chunks of the crown. Water which enters through the crown seeps into the bricks and liner. This is where a lot of spalling or shaling comes from.

The crown is the source of a lot of trouble yet it’s easy to catch the problem early, easy to fix. There are superb specialized crown coatings available today. These highly elastic and weatherproof materials cover small cracks so they don’t get bigger and prevent new ones from forming. It’s smart to just have the crown coated on general principles- even if you don’t have a problem already.

Everyone gets a problem on the crown eventually (and for reasons I won’t go into here, many, many crowns are bad from the first day they are laid) and there’s so much expensive potential damage that can follow, it just makes good sense to coat the crown and rest easier about the whole thing. It’ll save a lot of money in the long run.

Broken firebricks and other assorted problems at the fireplace

Firebricks usually break from too much heat or from logs hitting them one too many times. The fix is merely a replacement.

There’s sometimes a gap between the face of the fireplace and a metal firebox, and sometimes you can see framing through the crack. The solution is to pack it with ceramic wool and put refractory cement on that. This problem will reoccur so you’ll have to “repair the repairs” from time to time just because of the nature of the materials involved and their different rates of expansion.

The damper may not work properly for a lot of different reasons, and most of them are leaky anyway. There’s more heat-loss through most dampers than any other “hole in the house.” If the damper isn’t closing well or easily, that’s something you can tell easily by feeling and seeing as you work the damper. The heat loss is more subtle, though you may well be able to detect a draft across the floor of the room with the fireplace. The fix is a new damper, and a top-sealing damper (such as the EnergyTop™) is the best choice. They really keep the heat in the house when conventional dampers cannot.

The flashing is a common problem too.

The flashing is the metal that keeps rain or snow water from going into the house at the point where the chimney passes through your roof. The top part of the flashing is actually mortared into the brick mortar joints. It’s a problem if the flashing has holes in it or isn’t sealed into the chimney well. This can be seen but usually only if you go on the roof.

Flashings are the source of almost as many problems as crowns are, whenever anyone is on your roof, ask them to inspect the flashing too. Dissimilar materials with different rates of expansion, coupled with ultraviolet light on the sealants, means that flashings don’t hold up forever. The fix is something most chimney sweeps and all roofers can do. Replacement is always a good choice, but there are repair materials available as well.

Have a problem with the wallpaper where the chimney passes by?

There are two reasons for this problem usually (stress usually- there are a few others too) First is the flashing or crown allowing water to enter the brick structure. The fix for that is to fix the flashing or crown, and maybe install a chimney liner as well. The second is excessive condensation inside the chimney, especially common in gas flues. In this case the solution is almost always a new chimney liner (though you can also go back to a less efficient heater, but nobody is going to do that!)

Rust stains from a chase cover

Very visual indeed. If you have a factory-built chimney, the chase cover is a metal top on the chase surrounding the chimney pipes. Builders commonly put up a galvanized one because they’re cheap to get. The chase doesn’t rust until long after your check has cleared. Don’t make the same mistake twice; get a stainless steel chase cover installed to replace the old rusty galvanized cover. More expensive to be sure (and they’re ALL custom made) but it really is the only smart thing to do. A new galvanized chase top is a false economy.

Why Your Annual Chimney Maintenance Includes Exterior Inspection

Your annual chimney maintenance is an important part of upkeep in your home. And this visit by a qualified technician should always include an exterior inspection. The condition of your chimney will determine the overall efficiency of your fireplace or wood stove and should be closely monitored in case repairs are needed.

Annual Chimney Maintenance: What Could Be Wrong With The Chimney Exterior?

Over time the mortar used on the exterior of your chimney will break down and wear away. This is especially true for the area around the chimney caps. Because this surface is flat, water can collect without running away and gravity and force make short work of any weak or deteriorating mortar joints.

When this occurs – even one small crack – the entire chimney may be at risk. Water will enter the chimney, and possibly your attic, damaging the materials and presenting a risk of mold and mildew growth.

Vertical Problems Need To Be Fixed As Well

Crumbling brick and mortar on the vertical part of your chimney should also be repaired right away. An experienced chimney sweep will be able to climb up onto the roof and have a good look at the exterior. Repairs may be small and quick or extensive and expensive, but in any case they should be done without delay.

Letting your chimney deteriorate will result in less efficiency, more smoke and more hassle when lighting and maintaining your fire. It will also result in an unattractive view that could age your home prematurely.

Always be sure that your annual chimney maintenance includes a thorough inspection of the chimney’s exterior. Plan to tackle any necessary repairs right away and keep a record of the condition to monitor overall wear and tear. These steps will ensure the optimal performance of your entire hearth.

How Do You Know If You’ve Got A Good Wood Stove Installation?

Most people assume that if the heat is coming off of a wood stove and the smoke is going up the chimney, everything is fine. It may be, but very often it isn’t. There are two common problems, and a thousand little ones. Let’s only deal with the common problems. The biggest problem of them all is the clearances to combustibles. There are codes, standards and listings that specify how close a hot surface (either the stove or the pipe) can be to a combustible surface. And on top of the codes, standards and listings, there are the manufacturer’s instructions. Let me sort this out together.

Standards, Codes, Listings and Manufacturer’s Instructions

A standard is developed in a test lab. It’s not a rule in itself, but the standards do matter. When a chimney sweep quotes from NFPA211 (the standard covering this area) you should pay attention. But the standard itself is not law.

A code is law. And the codes are made from – you guessed it! – standards. The code doesn’t necessarily match exactly what’s in NFPA211 every time, but it’s highly likely to be very almost exactly the same. This is especially true today as most jurisdictions now use the International Residential Code, which standardized several different codes fairly recently (past few years.)

And then there’s the listing. At UL or a similar lab, they determine that Product XYZ performs in a way that keeps it in the safe guidelines of the standards. And manufacturer’s installation instructions are always included in their listings. So in the end you have to install a woodstove or stovepipe according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

So Get to the Point! (OK! OK!)

wood stove clearance diagram

Recommended minimal clearance for unlisted Wood Stove (single-wall pipe)

You must follow the manufacturer’s instructions of course, but there are generalities we can specify because we know how products have been listed. The graphic here tells you what clearances you need to maintain for an unlisted stove and for single wall stovepipe. There acceptable ways to reduce those clearances as well. I refer you to the NFPA 211 or invite you to call us here at High’s if you need specific information about this. There are products listed for closer clearances than these however. Double Wall Stovepipe is listed for a 6” clearance to combustibles for example. And see what the installation instructions on your stove say. Some stoves are listed for as close as 12” to the wall.

Most people don’t realize Double Wall Stovepipe is even an option. It’s also called DVL and improves the performance of any woodstove. It definitely costs more than ordinary black stovepipe, but it doesn’t break the bank either. DVL is a very nice product and most people would be happier having it if they only knew it was an option. So the way you know if your clearances are OK or not is to read the instructions and break out a measuring tape. It’s that easy.

Proper Sizing of Connectors

Surprisingly, you’ll see the wrong sized connector (stovepipe) on stoves, either too big or too small. The manufacturer’s instructions will always say to use the same size pipe as the stove collar (the flue gas outlet on the top or back of the stove- where the smoke comes out) so this is easy to figure out. If you increase to a larger pipe for some reason, you will give up stove performance, that is the stove won’t draft as well. If you decrease your stovepipe, for several reasons I won’t cover here, you are likely to have draft problems as well. In any event, the stove was engineered to have a certain connector size, and changing the connector size for some reason changes how the stove performs and can even make it unsafe when otherwise installed according to proper clearance! Don’t change the connector size!

Other Considerations

  • Single walled stovepipe should be secured by three screws at every joint. This is an easy one to check and easy to fix if it needs it.
  • Any woodstove, but especially (and absolutely!) fireplace insert woodstoves should have a properly sized stainless steel liner when installed in a masonry chimney. In fact, that’s in most manufacturers’ installation instructions these days, and the codes are increasingly calling for liners on older wood stoves as well. The way to find out if you have one (if you are unsure) is to look down the chimney. The liner should extend out of the top of the tile.
  • Read the instructions for information about the area in front of the stove. In general you want 16” of protection in front of the stove door, but again, you go by what the manufacturer says.

Tips On How To Hire A Chimney Sweep

Annual chimney maintenance is crucial to the overall safety of your family and the efficiency and operation of your fireplace or wood stove. And the very best person to handle your annual chimney maintenance is a certified chimney sweep.

Hiring a Chimney Sweep Is Easy… With These Tips

Since this professional offers an incredibly valuable service that will protect your family from fires and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, hiring the right company is important.

Choose on service: Prices should be fairly constant across the industry and you need to base your selection on the level of service offered.

Certifications matter: Always be sure that you are hiring a certified sweep. When dealing with a large company as opposed to an individual, it pays to be sure that the person performing the actual work is certified.

Experience counts: Find out how long they have been in business and more specifically, how many years of experience the individual sweep has. Get local, recent references.

Check the BBB: Look up the company in the Better Business Bureau to be sure that there are no outstanding or unresolved claims with the company.

Liability insurance: Ask about liability insurance and be sure that the firm is covered should an accident or damage occur while they are performing the maintenance. Also be sure that any equipment they are using is up to date and will offer you the best overall clean for your hearth.

Once you have found a reputable and reliable chimney sweep, keep their phone number handy. It’s important to have the same company (and ideally the same sweep) back each year for chimney maintenance. That way you can have a more accurate gauge of the condition your chimney and fireplace is in.

Keep your family safe by hiring the right chimney sweep to perform regular chimney maintenance at your home. Their service is specialized and highly valued. The experienced staff at Fireplace Village or High’s Chimney can help you with your chimney maintenance needs.