Chimney Airflow Problems

Understanding chimney draft problems is not necessary for most people. Usually, if you notice smoke not rising from your chimney, you can call on a professional to fix the issues.

chimney draft problems

Draft problems can cause you problems!

This information is for those who really like to understand; it may be too much information for many people. I’ll do my best to keep it as interesting as it can be. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer or the owner of an old home, you’ll probably get a lot of out of it.

Understanding Chimney Draft Issues

To understand the problems, you need to understand what draft is. Draft is what we name the effect of how the air flows up the chimney. It’s measured in “inches of water column.” Draft then is the combination of volume, speed, and pressure of the flue gasses. And temperature of the gasses comes into play here as well.
For matters of this discussion, chimney draft is usually thought of as the speed at which the vented gasses travel up the stack, or pressure of the gasses. This can also be referred to as the stack effect. A common question might be “how strong is the stack effect?” Good draft conditions mean that the vented gasses are traveling up the chimney quickly rather than slowly or not at all.

How Does Chimney Draft Work?

The reason smoke (or other flue gas) goes up the chimney at all is because of the vacuum in the chimney. The question you should ask now is “a vacuum relative to what?” The general answer is that it’s relative to the air in the house. Don’t read too much into that because it gets tricky (for example, how does replacement air get into the house?- because the house environment is a relative vacuum to the outside. Yet the inside of the house is not a vacuum compared to the chimney.) Let’s keep this simple and just talk about the chimney. The pressure in the chimney is typically less than that inside the house. Thus, the draft effect is caused by air inside the chimney being pushed up the chimney by the house air.

And why is there a difference in pressure in and out of the house, or in and out of the chimney? There can be a few reasons, but the biggest and most important reason is the temperature difference from one place to another. Remember that when air is heated it expands? The same amount of air occupies a larger space, or you could say the same amount of space has less air (fewer molecules of air.)

The air outside the house in the winter is colder and heavier than the warmer air in the house. It pushes its way into the house (or is it pulled, depending on how confused you want to be.) The air in the chimney just came from a fire so it’s really hot and expanded and being pushed up the chimney to the cooler air outside where warm air rises, right? That’s buoyancy. Problems occur when these processes don’t happen correctly.

Diagnosing Chimney Draft Problems

Draft is measured with a pressure meter that has a probe which goes into the smokepipe. The meter should register a negative number, and generally speaking for residential heating appliances that number would range between -0.02 to -0.04. Zero or a positive number means the gasses are not going up the chimney. And too large a negative number can have its own set of consequences; but that isn’t usually the problem. Mostly “a draft problem” means the gases are not going up the flue, this is merely a minor chimney repair.

Causes of Draft Problems

Chimney Airflow Issues

Chimney Airflow Issues

Now there are other reasons for draft problems. One is called Dynamic Wind Loading. or “DWL.” DWL is caused when the wind blows on one side of the house and causes a positive pressure, and creates a corresponding negative pressure on the other side of the house.

If the windward side of the house is tight and the lee side (negative pressure side) isn’t, the vacuum resulting from the wind can suck air out of the house. And the most likely source of that air is the chimney; it’ll pull down on the chimney, smoke and all and keep it from exiting your house! Or if a gas furnace is being vented you won’t see smoke but you still get the carbon monoxide.

The way to deal with that is to tighten up the lee side of the house and then put in an outside-air source. There are kits for that or you can just crack a window on the windward side of the house.

Chimney Draft Issues Caused by Fans

Big Kitchen Vent Hood

If your ears pop when you turn on your kitchen fan, you’ll probably have chimney draft issues.

The other large reason for bad draft is when chimneys have to overcome fans in the house. Kitchen fans, bathroom fans, radon fans. It doesn’t take much of a fan to overcome a natural draft appliance (such as a fireplace or woodstove) Again, the best answer is to allow “make up air” into the house.

The problem with that of course is that you don’t want a draft across the floor and you hate to purposefully introduce freezing cold air into the very house you’re trying to heat. It’s a Catch 22, but I can tell you CO poisoning is a bad thing, and smoke in the house is a bad thing. You just may have to make some choices.

Air Flowing Down Your Chimney

Finally, sometimes air actually blows down the chimney, but less frequently than you’d guess- it’s usually something else. But maybe your chimney is short and next to a larger part of the house or a bigger building. The same problem occurs if your house is located at the base of a mountain. If you have this problem, a Vacustack is a good solution if you can’t raise the chimney to the proper height.

27 thoughts on “Chimney Airflow Problems

  1. Pingback: Eco-friendly Habits in Fireplace Use | Basic Chimney Sweep

  2. mike

    we have an eight sided structure with a central firepit and hood. The chimney goes straight up 16 feet the the center of the structure. Some smoke pours out the chimney, but the hood seems overwhelmed and most fills the room. We have air coming in form underneath and it sounds like a rocket. Our thoughts were to first check the pipe for obstruction at the top, than try restricting the incoming air from beneath, and finally (most expensive) going from a 6″ diameter pipe to 8″. All the while we are wondering if we put fire clay over the hood and supports, would the thermal mass help in venting the smoke up the pipe. (the plan is to make the hood and it’s supports resemble a tree and roots while being able to see the fire from all directions) The structure is tight, twenty feet across with a four foot depression for the rock fire pit and the space from the masonry to the hood is 18″. Any insights would be appreciated.

    Reply
    1. Dale Howard Post author

      Mike,

      This is one of the more interesting questions I’ve gotten. Yes, do check to for obstructions; always the first thing to do. As to building thermal mass on the hood, that’s smart thinking but probably won’t do the job for you. I’m shooting from the hip on that of course, but would bet money I’m right. Just not enough bang for the buck available with it is my guess.

      Here are two suggestions. First, make sure you don’t have a make-up air problem. The outside air inlet you have now sounds to be too small if it sounds like a rocket. And you mention the structure is tight; if it’s tight enough, you can’t draw replacement air. The way to check that is just open a door or window on the windward side of the structure and see if it alleviates the problem. And if it does, you then have a decision to make about how to introduce the cold outside air into the fire without the discomfort of a draft. If opening the door helps, I’d suggest you install a larger diameter outside air inlet.

      And my guess is that you probably will wind up with a larger chimney too. Not being there I don’t know for sure of course, but from what you describe (four foot diameter) it sounds like you can have much more fire than a 6″ flue would ever handle. To wit, try small fires as well. You may find out more replacement air and a smaller fire will be enough.

      Hope this helped, good luck Mike.

      Reply
  3. TJ JOHNSON

    I have a freestanding natural gas fireplace with a b vent system. my question is i was told i only had to go up 36″ then i coud run the vent through a outside wall is this true or is there a serten hight it has to go. to get the gase to vent out

    Reply
  4. Marcia

    Hi
    We built a firepit into our screened lanai and a metal hood over top which goes thru our flat roof and then an 8″ chimney pipe goes around 6 ft. up so it sticks out over the roof with a turbine spinner on top. Spinner goes real well and fast as it is not attached but when properly built on top it will no longer spin. It is all properly put together and straight on but problem rains that it will not spin even if there is plenty of wind. To our dissappointment it will (as expected) also not function as intended when burning wood in our firepit and the lanai fills with smoke, any ideas ?
    Tnx,

    Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      Hi Marcia,

      The short answer is just to replace the cap. There’s more aggravation
      and expense in trying to preserve the one you have. So said, you might
      want to try a different type of cap as well.

      Those turbine caps are chronically problematic. Seems like they should
      be great, and they definitely look cool, but somehow they usually just
      aren’t that great. If downdraft is a problem I suggest a Vacustack. If
      it’s just there for the rain, a regular Weathershield will work for
      you. Both of those are brand names that should be know to any sweep you
      call, or available online if you plan to put it on yourself.

      Hope this helps, good luck!

      Reply
  5. Andy

    Hi. Thank you for educating us! I hope I can describe my issue clear enough. I have a new Vogelzang Durango wood stove (it’s a box stove style, 26″ depth by 11″ width/height firebox). I put it in my home where my previous EPA stove sat, and an older catalyst stove before that. Both of those burned fine. This stove puffs smoke out of the front when lighting it cold, and after it’s hot too, if the door is opened. If the fire is tall some flame will also leap out the front a few inches. Not all of the time, and maybe not all of the smoke, but at least 50% time/quantity. The exit port for the firebox is in the top front of the stove, where the door opens. I have checked all the joints and even added foil tape to them to see if there was a leak by chance. Did not make a difference. I’ve looked for obstructions and there aren’t any. I have 6″ Duravent double wall pipe from stove flue collar to ceiling (almost 6 feet), and then it expands to an 8″ stack (13 feet) to the cap above the roof. Stack top is 3 feet above highest portion of roof, which is about 17 feet away. Called manufacturer and sent pictures of system. Adjusted some interior insulation and fiber boards above the reburn pipes. Manufacturer says system seems very good, possibly too good. It thinks I possibly have too much draft due to too much chimney. Really? Too much draft is causing it to billow smoke from the open door? Wouldn’t too much draft cause it to burn more aggressively? Again, my two previous stoves had no problems. It lights and burns fine. I have two temp gauges, top of stove reaches 850 deg F, and 18″ above collar on pipe reaches 250 deg F within 15-20 minutes. Please help. Manufacturers phone agent (didn’t sound very sure of herself) suggested if draft was too strong it can cause symptoms similar to poor draft. Is that true? Thank you very much! Winter is almost here! andy

    Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      Hi, not sure I’ll be much help either, but I will say the too much draft explanation is foolishness. There is such a thing, but it doesn’t make smoke come out the front door. Your chimney system does sound OK. The 8″ is unnecessary, and actually reduces draft, but don’t worry- it’s not the cause of the problem.

      I don’t know that stove, but the stove opening in the front of the stove is a little unusual. You already checked and fiddled with the upper burn chamber, but that’s still a good place to double check. It usually isn’t the stove i.e. it’s usually something wrong with the venting, but not always. You should check again for obstructions in the systems, including inside the stove.

      Also: you have no horizontal stovepipe to be running downhill, but is there any chance the baffle is not running uphill or at least level (toward the back of the stove i.e. away from the front door? Surprisingly, it doesn’t take much downhill slant to be a big problem. If the floor is unlevel that could do it. Check this as well.

      Things to consider: did you tighten up the house? New windows, insulation etc.? Any new fans? Even radon fans can depressurize the house. Any competing appliances that weren’t there before- new furnace or clothes dryer or fireplace etc?

      Wish I could be more positive about what it might be. Perhaps when you figure out what it is you’ll add a response to this message; whatever it is will be very interesting and educational.

      Good luck! Let us all know how it goes.

      Reply
  6. Andy

    Oh, let me add it misbehaved the same when I cured it outside with 4 good burns. Cold to hot and hot to cold. At the time I only had a 4 foot segment of pipe on the collar, and it was on my patio with the wind partly blocked, so I assumed it was due to that. So I installed it anyway.

    Reply
    1. Andy

      Hi. I checked the stove top as you advised. It was level. I checked the pipe again and it was clean/clear. So I removed the thick insulation awkwardly from the firebox’s top (thru a tiny open where the smoke escapes) and trimmed it because it seemed slighlty too large. I stuck it back in (even more awkwardly) and then it started burning fine. Poor installation and quality control/inspection of the maker, US Stove. The door’s locking mechanism is also screwed on too tight (making it a real bear to open and close), so that doesn’t surprise me. For $900 it should be better. The insulation must have been slightly bunched up, blocking the air flow exit. But after the kinks have been worked out it heats and burns great. Thanks for your help!

      Reply
  7. John roberts

    Hi I had an Adams fire surround and living flame gas fire and and never had a problem. I then bought a beautiful marble fire place using the same gas fire when the weather was very cold it lit but would not draw called the fitters in they could no do any thing. So I have to leave the pilot light on all the time to keep the chimney warm I have fitted a rotating cowl but that does not help cab you help please
    Ej roberts

    Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      From a lot of distance and with limited facts, I think I’d look at two
      things. One, if you have a bigger colder mass with your new marble
      fireplace *maybe* it’s drinking up the heat and you can’t get the
      chimney warm without unusual effort. In which case leaving the pilot on
      is good. I can tell you prefer to turn the pilot off, but there is a
      case for just leaving it on all the time and maybe especially in your
      case. In any event, the few bucks it costs in wasted gas could be well
      spent money if it takes away the hassle.

      The other thing is the standard question: did anything change? Did you
      tighten up the house; put in a kitchen hood, a radon fan etc? Anything
      de-pressurizing the house or not allowing it to breathe that wasn’t
      there before.

      Hope this helped some. Let us know how you make out.

      Stay warm!

      Reply
  8. JR

    On our first floor, we have a wood burning fire place. Works great. There is a place to drop ash to the basement that can be cleaned out by opening a door in the basement wall. However, there is a second door in the basement wall that leads to top of chimney. This a separate “duct” than from where the fire vents. I know because I have dropped a rock into the “duct” from my roof. When I have a fire, a smokey smell comes into the basement through this secondary door. What is the purpose of the “duct”? Could that have been a vent from an old furnace? Can I seal if off?

    Thanks in advance for your help!

    Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      From what you describe I guess it’s a second flue, though you may be trying to indicate something else when you use the word “duct”. Assuming it’s a second flue, yes you can seal it off.

      The fact that you get some smoke in the basement via that flue is likely because smoke is drawn back down through the flue. A house has to get replacement air from someplace, and a second flue is usually a pretty good place for that. It would be a good idea to get a Certified Chimney Sweep or Certified Chimney Professional to come look at it.

      The other possibility is that there is crossover between open mortar joints (or outright holes in the chimney) in which case the fix is replacing the liner. Get somebody to look at it and find out what’s happening there.

      Good luck with it!

      Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      Yes, it is probably the cause. There may be a different reason, but from what you describe raising the chimney should be the first thing you try.

      Raise the height to two feet above a line that is ten feet from the house.

      Good luck with it.

      Reply
  9. Glenn

    I’m selling my house,and needed inspection done It was brought to my attention that ,. I have near the base of my chimney on the roof a (5 inch duct work vent exposed without a CAP!

    So I went to my neighborhood HDEPOT and no knew what I was talk,ingredients about.
    Am I just asking the wrong Question? Help!!!!

    Reply
  10. Ron Martin

    We have a wood burning fireplace in my home.The pipes that run up to the chimney have separated. How do I fix it without having to tear everything apart?

    Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      Ron,

      You aren’t going to like this, but you can’t fix it with minimal
      effort. You actually have to get in there to do it. And you aren’t
      going to like this either, but you really need to do it- this is a
      situation that actually causes houses to burn down so you shouldn’t
      decide to just live with it.

      If all that isn’t enough bad news, here’s more: it is usually necessary
      to just replace the chimney vs fixing the old one. That said, truth of
      the matter is that it may well cost less to just replace the entire
      system including the fireplace. I won’t go into it that here, and I
      know it doesn’t make sense, but it cost the least to replace the entire
      system including the fireplace. It makes the best job regardless.

      Wish I had a better word for you and I know you weren’t expecting this
      answer, but at least now you know.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  11. Joseph

    I have commercial building with exhaust fans for cooking . Exhaust any heat being pulled down and out flu causing safety’s to trip out. Hot air unit with draft inducer fan. How can I correct this issuers . Hot air unit are brand new . Installers get no help.

    Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      Joseph,

      Not sure I understand, but I do I have an idea. If I understand what you’re telling me, you have fans over the stoves/grill etc in the kitchen and you have a fan/draft-inducer on the heating unit. And the safety keeps tripping for some unknown reason?

      If so, I think the motor is pulling too hard against a vacuum in the building and overloading, so it trips off. Too many fans. The answer then is to introduce replacement air. The problem with replacement air is that is cold- same temperature as outdoors and nobody likes a cold draft. But since you MUST have it, then you need to figure out the least offensive way to introduce it into the building.

      Opening a window isn’t a real solution, but it is a way to find out if the cutoff switch stops tripping. Tell everybody to wear a coat and try it for a few hours. If it solves the problem, then figure out how you’re going to get replacement air to the heater. Probably running a duct from outdoors to right near the unit is best so you avoid a draft. There are also high-class automatic dampers that cut off the air when it’s not called for (made by Field Controls). A good HVAC company can probably help with that.

      Another suggestion: I think I might get a new HVAC company, one with people who can troubleshoot problems. BTW, even if I didn’t understand correctly, there’s still a strong chance it’s a replacement-air problem. It usually is.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  12. Josh

    So I have two wood stoves in my house both hooked into same flue. I have a quadrafire 3300 on the main floor with flue straight up and through my cathedral ceiling. It’s worked great for 4 years. This year I wanted heat in my basement so I bought a used magnolia model 2015, put it in the basement below the existing stove slightly off to one side and ran the pipe up through the floor joists alongside the main floor stove and have it connecting the main flue approx 18″ above the main floor stove at a 30 degree angle via a Y pipe. Both stoves run at the same time wonderfully, I can also run one or the other without issue. Problem I’m having is smoke billowing out basement door when I open to put wood in. Even when the pipe is nice and hot and I open the door really slow. The upstairs one does a little, never used too. Upstairs stove has outside air kit, open or shut it doesn’t change. I’ve sealed up my house pretty well with window plastic kits. I’ve tried opening windows for negative air, no change. I have a vacustack in place as my house in built into the river valley wall and I get some pretty gnarly NW winds. But wind has no bearing on the smoking out door issue. Your thoughts?

    Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      You do have an interesting one. And I don’t have a definitive answer, but will try to help you think it through.

      Starting with what we do know, it’s clear that when the stove door is open, there is a relative negative pressure in the house, and more so in the basement than on the first floor. Stating the obvious then, there is a stronger draft through the house than the chimney. It is possible that the attic has a large enough mass of warmer air to overcome the draft in the chimney. This seems very possible since the problem is worse with the basement (larger mass of warm air above it) and that the upstairs stove has outside air (minimizing the effect on it.)

      Hearing that the house is tight but that opening a window doesn’t help is interesting. Something to double check: open a window on the opposite side of the house instead of the one you opened before. You might have dynamic wind loading in which case opening the wrong window would only exacerbate the problem.

      There are fans to be aware of: kitchen fans, attic fans, bathroom fans, radon fans.

      With both stoves operating on the same flue, the BTU input on the chimney may be sufficient when it’s clean but with, say, 1/2″ of buildup in the flue an 8″ flue becomes a 7″ flue and may be too small. All the more for a 6″ chimney that is reduced. See if cleaning the chimney makes a difference. You may actually need a larger flue in that case. (Most people need a smaller one, but you’d be the exception here)

      There are some thoughts for you; hope one of them pans out. Let us all know how you make out!

      Reply
  13. Ruth Currence

    I have an Ashley woodl burning stove in my house. However, its not big enough to heat every room. Our new house is 2,763 square foot. We want to buy either a Heat Blaster or a Summers heat wood furnace. Here’s my problem-the opening in the back for the stove pipe in the furnaces is 6 inches taller than my opening in the chimney? Would it still draw ok if we would put a movable joint in the pipe and move it out further from the flue?

    Reply
    1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

      The fast answer is no, don’t do that.

      The reason is that smoke absolutely won’t go downhill, not even a little
      tiny bit. I learned that the hard way many years ago. I’ll spare you
      the details but I was lucky the people didn’t shoot me because I filled
      their house with smoke. And check this- it was only a 2% downhill. You
      are talking about a great deal more than 2%. Don’t do it.

      The solution is inconvenient: move the hole in the wall up. It’s some
      work I know, but just bite the bullet and do it because you have to
      anyway. Sorry I can’t give you a happier answer.

      This of it this way- at least you didn’t get the house full of smoke!
      That’s worth something. Good luck.

      Reply
      1. Ruth Currence

        How can I move the hole in the wall up? Who would I call to get this done or could I do this myself?? What type of saw blade would I need? I have a brick house with plaster board on the walls!!
        Thank you!!!

        Reply
        1. High's Chimney Service Inc.

          It’s actually a relatively small job, and probably a chimney sweep that
          does masonry work or a general handyman will be the most economical way
          to get it done. Basically one bricks up the old hole and creates a new
          one in the new location. The drywall may or may not be a hindrance, but
          it’s not hard to finish up drywall that gets damaged in the process either.

          If you get a chimney man in there, may as well have him install the pipe
          too. The codes say you should have the chimney inspected before
          changing appliances anyway.

          Good luck!

          Reply

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