Category Archives: Chimney Masonry Repair

Thinking of doing some masonry repair to your chimney? Then you’re wise to do some research to ensure you don’t pay an arm and a leg or invest hundreds of hours in an inferior job. Hopefully our articles below on chimney brick repair are helpful.

Should you happen to be in the Washington DC area and think your chimney might be in need for masonry repair, please contact us. We’re here to help.

Chimney Checklist

The first step in making sure your chimney is safe and serviceable is to get a chimney inspection. When you get a professional to inspect your chimney you’ll receive a report of what it looks like inside and outside.

Levels of Chimney Inspections

Chimney inspections have “levels” with Level 1 Chimney Inspection being the most basic. It’s simply a visual inspection of whatever is easy to see during cleaning.

You probably want a Level 2 Chimney Inspection which involves looking at all the accessible areas (the attic, crawl spaces, etc) and, while not required, usually involves the use of a chimney camera to examine the flue tiles. A Level 2 Chimney Inspection is required (by NFPA and most codes) when changing appliances hooked up to a chimney, after a chimney fire or earthquake, and before a real estate transfer. This is the law in Maryland.

In your chimney inspection, the sweep or inspector should:

Check for cracks and weathering

Check for cracks and weathering in the masonry and the mortar joints. That means looking at the bricks themselves, the joints between them. If there are cracks in the brick or bad mortar joints here’s what needs to happen to fix it:

  • When there’s a lot of bad brick at the top, the best solution is to take the chimney down and rebuild it.
  • If there are a lot of bad mortar joints, take the chimney down and relay the brick. If the bricks are in good condition you can certainly re-use the bricks and, in fact, should for aesthetics – you want to match the bricks below if you can.
  • If the damage is more minor, “re-pointing” is an option. This is where you remove a few bricks individually or where you just put some fresh mortar in where old mortar Is worn out. This is an OK solution for small problems, but it’s a terrible solution when a masonry structure is just plain worn out. It would be like putting a Band Aid on a cut artery. Keep in mind that repointing is aesthetically poor as the new mortar or brick is not likely to match the rest. Rebuilding is best option

Check for cracks in your crown (the cement on the top of the chimney)

Again, you make a difference between “big damage” and “little damage.” If your crown is anything but perfectly sealed, you do need to fix it because this is where all the damage below begins. Water that enters through the top of your chimney freezes and thaws all winter long, in time ruining the structure below.

If you have crown damage, here’s what needs to happen to fix it:

  • Big cracks and masonry that is outright coming up in your hand obviously needs to be replaced. The whole crown should be removed and replaced with concrete. A lot of crowns were made with mortar mix and that’s not good- use concrete.
  • If on the other hand you just have cracks in the top (and fact is most chimneys do) then you will be all right with simply sealing the crown. There are good latex sealants these days which hold for a very long time when properly installed.

Check for stability

It is not uncommon to see chimneys leaning away from the wall. What to do is not clear cut. If the chimney is leaning it’s very likely because the foundation of the chimney isn’t right. In any case, either the chimney moved away from the house or the house moved away from the chimney.

If the chimney is built as part of the foundation the house sits on, and had not broken away, then it’s safe to say the house moved somehow. To know this, you must dig around the base of the chimney to actually inspect the foundation.

If the foundation is good, here’s what needs to happen to fix the problem:

  • You either have to tear down and rebuild the chimney or you must caulk the opening. More likely though, the chimney foundation was never part of the poured concrete of the house’s foundation and it has a “movement life” of its own. If so, here’s what needs to happen to fix it:
    • First, tear down the chimney. Then take out the old foundation. Then dig the hole deeper (another couple feet maybe?) and pour a new concrete foundation. Finally rebuild a new chimney.

I know nobody wants to hear that and I know lots of people think about strapping the chimney to the house and drawing the bolts up tight. It is not a good solution. First of all, it may be illegal. More importantly, it doesn’t really fix anything, it only closes a gap. The chimney comes under new stress and will break in the middle, given some time. Don’t think about straps. It’s more of an 1800s thing.

Check for clearances from combustibles

A chimney professional will know code-specific things to check for, but anyone can make sure their chimney complies with the “3-foot, 2-foot, 10-foot rule.”

chimney roof clearance - the 3ft x 2ft x 10ft rule

Take a look at the picture and you’ll understand immediately.

If your chimney doesn’t comply, here’s what needs to happen to fix it:

  • In almost all cases, the solution is to raise the chimney. This can be done by adding rows of brick to a brick chimney, or by adding lengths of factory built chimney both to masonry or factory built chimneys. It looks a bit odd coming off the top of a brick chimney, but it is legal.
  • Check the inside of the chimney- the flue tiles (liner.) Check the liner for mis-aligned tiles, for spaces between tiles, check for cracks or broken sections of tile liner. Check for “spaulling” i.e. little bits of the face of the tile breaking loose and building p at the bottom of the flue. The only way to really know is by video inspection. When you call your chimney professional, be sure to insist that you’re getting a video inspection. If not, hire someone else.

If you have any of the above situations, here’s what needs to happen to fix it:

  • Pretty straightforward really- you need to reline that chimney. The particulars of how that’s done vary so much from one chimney to another that I can’t possibly cover it here. Suffice to say that the one thing you should ask for is to have the old tiles removed. It will cost more and a lot of chimney people would rather not do it because it’s not fun work. But this is your house and you want it done right if at all, right? Have the old tiles removed. The reasons are usually related to proper sizing and to the fact that there is probably creosote on the outside of the tiles where nobody can see it (but it can still catch on fire.)

Check for obstructions

These are usually obvious when cleaning a chimney. Or perhaps you have a tree hanging right over the chimney. If you have an obstruction, here’s what needs to be done to fix it.

  • Just get it out of the way. Overhead branches too close? Cut them off. Bird’s nest in the chimney? Remove it. Debris at the base of the flue? Remove it. This one is obvious what to do, you just need to check to see if any problem exists!

Check for cleanliness

Sometimes a chimney is obviously clean just by look at it. If you can’t say that for sure just looking at it, then play it safe and have the chimney swept.

Check the connections

Wood stoves, fireplace inserts, gas or oil burners and hot water heaters all have pipes that connect those appliances to the chimney itself. They should be secured with three screws at every joint, have an uphill incline, be the right size, attached or joined to the chimney well and have proper clearances to combustibles. Make sure your chimney inspection includes all of these elements. And if something is wrong, here’s what needs to happen to fix it:

  • it varies. Regardless, you need every one of those points to be in order. A bad connection is every bit as dangerous as a bad chimney. Probably more dangerous actually, so pay close attention to connections.

This should give you a good overview of what you want in your chimney inspection and what to listen for when the inspector tells you what needs to happen to fix any problems.

Is Chimney Repair Covered by Homeowners Insurance?

Is Chimney Repair Covered by Homeowner’s Insurance?

Short Answer: It Depends. Here are some answers to questions we regularly encounter, and hopefully, a lot of insight into the whole subject of “insurance coverage and chimney repair.” Continue reading

Your Source for Fireplace and Chimney Information

The following library of information is broken up in a way that will educate you on your chimney so you know how your chimney should be properly cleaned, maintained, and/or repaired. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, leave us a note in the comments and we will try to find you an answer!

The Basics

Continue reading

DIY Masonry Repair

DIY Masonry Chimney Repair: A Warning

DYI Masonry Repointing Gone BadThe do-it-yourself movement has taken the world by storm. With the ability to bring up video walkthroughs for most tasks, hiring a specialist is often viewed as a last resort. The spread of information over the internet is an amazing and life changing phenomenon. Suddenly, replacing the belt in your vacuum is no big deal. Changing fuses in your car is a snap. Is your garbage disposal clogged? You can find countless walk-throughs to help clear that obstruction.

This prevalence of do-it-yourself walk-throughs, however, has left people attempting do-it-yourself projects that are sometimes best left to the professionals. While saving money in the short term is a great thing, it’s important to remember the long term too. Saving money right now hardly counts if it ends up costing you twice as much later.

Masonry is especially susceptible to the DIY problem. Countless articles exist online about repointing brickwork, filling splits or cracks, or even replacing spalled brick. As chimneys are often in need of some work, many look to these articles when contemplating how to fix their masonry chimneys. While these might seem like helpful resources, in the long run they can cost you more in time and money than your local masonry professional.

Most DIY masonry repair articles mention mortar only in passing. While they mention its use between layers of brick, they rarely emphasize that mortar isn’t just a slapdash mixture of sand and water. This omission can be costly and belies their disinterest in supplying a genuinely useful article as any trained mason knows that improperly mixed mortar can cause massive masonry damage.

Mortar exists as a cushion between bricks. As bricks swell and contract from temperature changes, a proper mortar absorbs these changes. Gradually, that causes the mortar to crumble. This mortar can then be replaced with relative ease by a professional, providing another 25 or more years of low-maintenance service.

If the mortar is mixed so that it is stronger than the surrounding brick, temperature changes actually cause the mortar to squeeze, and thus damage, the brick. This causes the bricks to spall. Spalled bricks cannot be repaired, and must be replaced before further damage accrues. If incorrect mortar mixture is the cause of the spalling, the mortar must also be replaced to prevent further damage.

Mortar that is too soft, on the other hand, quickly deteriorates and requires premature replacement or repair. If it deteriorates faster than surrounding mortar, this can create instability in the masonry, and if left unchecked can even cause collapse.

When so many masonry professionals offer free initial consultations, taking advice from strangers over the internet seems a poor choice. For those in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C. and Maryland, High’s Chimney offers free masonry estimates where we discuss problems with your masonry chimney and how we would fix them. Not just handy-men, our highly trained masons have years of experience, ensuring that your masonry chimney is safe.

Masonry Chimney Damage & Repair

Damaged Masonry ChimneyRegular maintenance on your masonry chimney will keep it looking great for years. In reality, though, regular maintenance falls through the cracks while you juggle work, life and family. Sometimes, even the most proactive homeowners will be surprised by damage left by previous owners. So while in a perfect world, repointing would be the only masonry service the average masonry chimney would need, in reality you might find unfamiliar problems with your masonry.

Masonry Chimney Damage

Chimney with Spalled BrickSpalled Bricks

Broken (or spalled) bricks are one of the most noticeable types of damage. This is most commonly seen when the front of the brick has either broken or fallen from the masonry.

We’ve mentioned before that the largest cause of damage to brick and masonry is freeze and thaw cycles. Bricks are built to withstand water by finishing them with a hard non-porous outer shell. Spalled bricks break this shell and expose the porous interior of the brick, allowing water damage to destroy your masonry at an accelerated rate.

Spalled bricks are primarily caused when mortar with an incorrect compression rate is used. Mortar is made to absorb the expansion of brick during freeze and thaw cycles. If the mortar is stronger than the brick, however, this role reverses. As brick isn’t meant to be squeezed by expanding materials, it can quickly deteriorate.

The Wrong Bricks

All bricks are not created equal. Brick makers understand that interior bricks don’t need to weather the same abuse as exterior bricks, and thus make different types of bricks. When buying bricks, the difference between these is obvious. It becomes a problem, however, when bricks are salvaged. Inexperienced masons and do-it-yourselfers have a difficult time determining which bricks were meant for interior and exterior use.

Some brick makers even make different bricks for different climates. The Deep South is free from freeze and thaw cycles, so some brick makers decided to change the type of brick they shipped there. Since these bricks didn’t need to withstand the same type of abuse as bricks used in the North, they added sawdust to the brick mix. When the bricks were fired, the sawdust burnt away, creating a lighter, more porous brick. This saved on transportation and made it easier for masons. While this caused little problems for the South, unfortunately these bricks were soon being sold further north, where they easily crumble under the extreme temperatures.

Damage from sandblasters and pressure sprayers

An unexpected source of damage is sandblasters and high pressure sprayers. While these might make cleaning a hands free experience, they do so at the expense of your masonry. As mentioned earlier, brick is made such that the edges are hardened to prevent absorption of water. Sandblasting and even high pressure sprayers can reduce this hardened edge and allow water into your bricks, drastically reducing their lifespan.

Masonry Chimney Repair

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to fix spalled bricks. Removal of the spalled bricks and replacement with strong new bricks is necessary. If the spalling is caused by poorly calculated mortar, repointing with correct mortar may help to prevent the problem from spreading.

If you suspect your masonry might be made with bricks that can’t stand up to your weather, or if you have sandblasted or pressure sprayed your masonry, we can apply a waterproof sealant to help the longevity of the bricks.

And of course, if you notice any spalled bricks, cracks, crumbling mortar, or signs of deterioration on your masonry chimney, it’s time to contact a masonry expert right away. Ignoring masonry problems is dangerous and costly.

If you have questions about masonry repair in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C. or Maryland, we at High’s Chimney would be happy to answer any of your questions or take a look at your masonry and give you an estimate for repairs free of charge.

Time to Repoint this Masonry Chimney

How to Repoint a Chimney

Why Chimney Repointing is Essential

Repointing is a necessary component of chimney masonry maintenance. Well done mortar joints can last for 25 years before repairs are needed, but the brick that surrounds them can easily last 100+ years. Weather plays a large factor in determining how long your mortar joints will last.

Time to Repoint this Masonry Chimney

Time to Repoint this Chimney

Washington DC is known for its unique blend of weather. Sandwiched in by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the West and the Chesapeake Bay/Altantic Ocean to the east, our weather is unpredictable. When the weather begins its steady descent into winter, we’re especially susceptible to changes in temperatures, rain turning into sleet into snow, followed by a crisp and sunny winter day. This weather might mess with your head, but it slowly destroys your masonry. Moisture is absorbed into brick and mortar, and with the temperature fluctuations the water expands and contracts. If brick and mortar were equally strong, this thermal expansion would cause irreparable damage to brick and mortar.

For this reason, the compression strength of mortar is less than the brick. As temperatures fluctuate, the expanding brick overpowers the expanding mortar. Over years of thermal expansion cycles, this will cause enough damage to the mortar that it will need to be repaired. If mortar wasn’t calculated to be softer than bricks, regular reconstruction of your masonry would be necessary.

The Chimney Repointing Process

Repointing a masonry chimney requires a skilled professional. Repointing is far more than just slapping some mortar into cracks. The process requires different skills than traditional masonry, and even masons with years of experience might not have significant experience repointing brick.

Before Repointing Assessment: The biggest challenge of repointing is determining the extent of the mortar damage and removing damaged joints without causing new damage. Generally, an expert starts with a visual inspection where erosion deeper than 6mm, crumbling mortar, and cracks between brick and mortar or within the mortar are noted. After the visual inspection, specialized tools such as metal scrapes or special low pressure water sprayers might be used to determine the extent of the damage. Once the determination has been made, the deteriorated mortar joints must be removed.

Removing mortar joints: It’s important that the joint be removed to an appropriate depth without causing extra mortar or brick damage. Once the joints are removed, the new mortar must be mixed. This mortar should be as similar in composition to the existing mortar as possible, lest thermal expansion cause the mortar to react differently to the pressure of expanding brick. Ignoring this step could lead to premature mortar deterioration. Using mortar with excessive compression strength can cause permanent brick damage, such as cracking and splitting.

Applying mortar: The correct mortar is then placed between the brick by layering, compacting and tooling. This helps adhere the old mortar to the new, and ensures a snug fit between brick and mortar.

Professional masons experienced in repointing also take care to match the shade of the new mortar to that of the old. This is purely aesthetic, and keeps the chimney repointing from looking sloppy. A skilled mason will do this with minimal mess, and will ensure the brickwork is clean before finishing the job.

Applying mortar during repointing chimneyApplying Sealant: Finally, a waterproof sealant is applied to the fresh repointing. This will help prevent water from permeating your chimney, and thus will help extend the life of your mortar joints.

Just RepointedGet the Chimney Checked

While all masonry will need repointing at some point, chimneys are particularly susceptible to water damage. Their location subjects them to constant temperature changes while making them difficult to monitor for signs of damage. Before fall slides into winter, have your chimney inspected for mortar damage. Timely chimney repair can save you money, and our free masonry inspection will give you peace of mind that your chimney will be sturdy and safe all season.

Masonry Chimney Repair & Relining

Masonry Chimney Repair & Relining

The Washington DC area has a rich history of architectural styles. From brick farmhouses in Fairfax to Victorian row houses in Georgetown, Washington DC has preserved much of its architectural history. These homes have weathered decades (or centuries) of use, remodels and updates while still possessing an undeniable charm. The sturdy construction of these historical buildings plays a large part in their continued existence, but constant monitoring and maintenance is what keeps these charming homes instead of quaint historical exhibits.

Routine inspections and preventative maintenance can help keep houses old and new running smoothly. For many components of your home this can be a simple process. For example, wear around your windows and persnickety plumbing are easy to spot. For other parts of your home, such as your chimney, a little effort is required.

Chimney Masonry Maintenance

Most responsible home owners ensure they have a proper flue with optimal draft and that the major components of the fireplace are functioning properly. This diligence causes the illusion of security; so long as no major problems occur, their chimney must be healthy. In reality, without a watchful eye, water damage can compromise the integrity and safety of your chimney long before you notice the problem. While the rest of your roof is protected from the elements, your chimney is exposed to the worst of Mother Nature.

While the brick itself generally fares well against such odds, without water proofing the mortar is heavily susceptible to water damage. Specifically, mortar absorbs moisture. As the temperature changes, freezing and thawing cycles cause this water to expand and contract, which will cause cracking. This damage is often subtle, and by the time you notice crumbling mortar you will likely need masonry chimney repair. As it progresses the mortar will erode out from between the bricks, causing their weight to shift. This causes additional stress on the masonry, and exacerbates any existing cracks or stress points. Without proper care, mortar erosion will cause an unsafe and unsightly chimney that will need major masonry chimney repair. At this point a chimney professional will need to repoint the brick, and apply a waterproof sealant to prevent future water damage.

Masonry Chimney Relining

Chimneys suffering from masonry damage can let an excessive amount of water into your chimney’s interior. If you actively use your chimney as a vent, this can affect your flue, fireplace, and any appliances that vent into the chimney. For example, rain running down a used flue will mix with creosote and other deposits, causing a corrosive solution that can deteriorate your flue. This corrosive solution can drip down onto fireplace hardware, such as dampers, and rust them. Even if your chimney is perfectly clean, rain water will settle into any joints or cracks in your flue, where temperature changes will cause it to expand or contract, causing damage. This will cause a premature need for chimney relining.

Even if you don’t use your chimney as a vent, masonry chimney repair is important. Crumbling mortar allows moisture to permeate to the interior of a chimney. Inside the chimney, it will run down the joints in the masonry, leaking into cracks. This compromises the structural integrity of your chimney, which is never safe. Relining and repointing the interior of a masonry chimney is an expensive and time consuming process. To be able to work in such tight spaces, it’s often necessary to punch holes in the chimney to be able to ensure the proper work has been done.

If you have questions about masonry chimney repair or suspect you might need masonry chimney relining, contact us at High’s Chimney. We want your home to be a healthy, safe place to live. We offer free consultations on masonry repair, and our real time online scheduling service makes it easy for you to pick a time that works with your schedule. Being proactive about problems as they arise, such as masonry chimney repair and relining, is the best way to ensure your home remains a safe and stylish place for you and your loved ones to enjoy for years to come.