Posts tagged with "General"

The History Behind the Hat – Part Two

This post is part two of a two-part series on the history behind some of the most common urban legends surrounding chimney sweeps. To read part one, click here!

So when we last left off, we talked about where the traditional top hat and tails look came from, and we mentioned our next popular myth about the chimney sweep – they make great wedding guests. You might think this has something to do with the formal get-up, but you’d be mistaken – it actually comes from a much different part of the chimney sweeps history.

history behind the Chimney sweeps in Darnestown MDLucky Catch


Legend has it that in the 1700s , King George II was riding in a procession when a wild dog burst from the crowd, yipping and snarling. The dog so startled the horse King George sat atop that it began bucking wildly and he lost control of its halter. As the horse bucked and jumped, a sweep came forward from the crowd and caught  the halter, calming the wild horse and potentially saving the King from grievous injury or death. The King is said to have declared chimney sweeps lucky from that point forward, and the custom of regarding sweeps as sources of luck spread rapidly throughout Europe.

Brides are thought to have an especially lucky marriage if they’re kissed on the cheek by a sweep the day of their wedding, and even shaking the hand of a sweep you meet on the street is thought to bring good luck. To this day, it is customary in German society to give gifts of figurine sweeps around New Years as signs of luck, and it is considered especially lucky to meet a sweep on New Years Day, a sign of good luck for the year.

In Great Britain it’s believed that a wedding with a sweep in attendance portents a happy and successful union, so much so that many families make a point of inviting their chimney sweep to their weddings. The practice is so common that it’s not unusual for a sweep to make himself available to rent as a wedding guest for more superstitious couples.

Do you have any old family superstitions that you still follow? Let us know in the comments!

The History Behind the Hat – Part One

Do you know why the traditional chimney sweep is adorned in a fine beaver top hat? The answer might surprise you. How about why chimney sweeps make good wedding guests? No?

Widely considered one of the oldest professions in the world, the chimney sweep has been a necessity since the urbanization of modern cities precluded by the Industrial Revolution. As urban areas became more densely populated and spaces began filling in with homes, chimneys multiplied like wildfire. The increase in population and chimney use lead to a boom in chimney sweeps. This sudden ubiquity of chimney sweeps and their sustained presence has led to quite a few urban legends attaching themselves to the profession.

history behind the Chimney sweeps in Darnestown MDThe Tails and Top Hat

One of the more iconic features of the chimney sweep is the traditional top hat and tails, still worn by many sweeps in the field today. Although there are no concrete sources of evidence on the origination of the top and tails look, popular wisdom says they originated from the hands of funeral directors in the 17th and 18th centuries onwards.

At the time, chimney sizes had been newly regulated to a very narrow set of dimensions following the Great Fire in London in 1666. This led to the practice of sweeps ‘employing’ boys to climb the narrow chimneys and sweep them; in fact, legend has it that the phrase ‘to light a fire underneath you’ comes from the practice of sweeps lighting small fires underneath reluctant boys to ensure the only way they were getting out was through the top of the chimney.

This, of course, was a deplorable practice and was very dangerous and unhealthy for the young boys. Sweeps apprentices were at risk for cancers, fatal falls, and permanent bodily injury from inhalation of soot. Worse still, they were routinely robbed by their ‘masters’ and left with little more than the soot sacks they carried for warmth. Funeral directors are said to have taken pity on the young boys and have given them the top hats and coattails of the deceased.

The top hat and coats were said to have given sweeps a measure of pride in their work, and soon caught on as the de facto uniform of chimney sweeps, which has stuck right into the present day.

Now, being well-dressed doesn’t necessarily make you a shoo-in for any wedding invitation – so why is it that inviting chimney sweeps is a popular wedding tradition? Find out why in Part Two!

Chimneys and Colonial Revival

If you’re a homeowner in the Washington D.C. area, there is a good chance you’re already steeped in Colonial Revival sensibilities. After all, the original proponents of this style scoured Virginia and Maryland for colonial prototypes. Your home, whether in Bethesda, McClean, Potomac, or anywhere, is your ultimate stylistic expression of personal values. The well-proportioned, stately, and classically-inspired colonial revival homes speak to the self-reliance and dignity of their occupants.

Chimney Sweep in Cloverly MDRevival Style and the Chimney

As the name implies, popularity of Colonial Revival style homes was the result of a great deal of reflection on the part of American architects and homeowners. This look into the past yielded a wealth of construction and decorative elements upon which new technologies add to forge an updated stylistic approach. You’ll find dentil moulding on the narrow eaves as well as non-functional shutters by the windows, but most of the exterior ornamentation typically draws focus to the entrance. Appropriately, then, you will find the same Georgian, Federal and Classical accents on the fireplace mantle of your new Colonial Revival house.

Tending the Hearth

Few things symbolize self-reliance better than the hearth. The chimney atop your Colonial Revival home in Rockville means you have a created a warm, safe place for your family. Traditionally, family life revolved around the hearth and chimney. When not laundering the family’s garments, the fireplace also cooked their soups, puddings and sustenance as the children played and parents gazed into the embers. Their clothes, food, body – life itself – depended on a properly functioning chimney. To this timeless scene, the whole way of life, proper maintenance of the chimney was as essential then as it is today.

The early colonists’ lives depended on their chimneys and fireplaces. Revivalists take great care in making the fireplace the focal point of the room, with a decorative motif that echoes the entrance. Classical proportions and mouldings favored by the original American patriots pay a stately respect to this vital organ of family life.

Between annual visits by an accredited chimney sweep, homeowners can take a number of measures to ensure the safety of their families. Capping your chimney, for example, will prevent water damage, reduce down-drafts and ward off nesting animals.

Ranch-Style Houses

We see a lot of different types of homes as we perform chimney service through the DC metro area. One of the home styles we see the most often is the Ranch home. We see this home style so often, and have become so fond of it, that we’ve decided to write a little ode to the Ranch Home…

fireplace repair service in Chevy Chase MDHome on the Ranch

A cowboy’s work is never done. Like a good chimney that sticks it out for us no matter what, they’ll stick it out until you pay them to leave. They have no time to climb stairs, especially they’re in love with the moonshine (wink, wink) and it’s time to rustle up some grub. A cowboy could give a rusty horseshoe about setting the dining room table, if he had a dining room. He and the other hands take their meals in the seating area attached to the kitchen, though sitting around the fireplace is mighty nice. Guests are more than welcome to eat in the patio, but, for the most part, the ranch style home, is a paragon of American efficiency.

A cowboy shuns ostentatious displays. Appropriately, a ranch house dispenses with the exterior frills of say a Victorian home, one of the styles of residential architecture that waned as the American ranch house rose in popularity. The inside, as well, offered little in the way of finery. This was no home for the swells, partner. Low roofs and wide eaves helped abate the scorching heat in the Southwest’s ranches where it was a common sight.

Its simple, single-story floor plan made it spread like wild-fire in the housing tracts in the post-war baby boom. An L or U shape to the plan allowed ample space for a courtyard where middle-class families could entertain each other. Yep, on sunny afternoon in Washington D.C., it was tough to imagine anything better than spending a summer day in your ranch style home.

An Old Horse Changes Its Spots

fireplace repair service in Chevy Chase MD

By the end of the Second World War, enterprising architects had learned how to assimilate a wide variety of building materials and architectural influences into the basic concept of the ranch home. This may have contributed, in part, to the reaction against the ranch style home, but it also added to its overall durability. A ranch house is like a day on the range: it’s what you make of it.

Your ranch style house in the Washington D.C. area can easily absorb the various stylistic elements seen in the American Foursquare such as exposed rafter tails on its wide eaves, gabled dormers or entryways, tapered posts and, of course, a range of window treatments. Rustle up some native stones for a little exposed detail work around your centrally-located chimney, then see who calls you a lily-livered prairie dog. Yet the Colonial and Craftsman influences are only two style pallets available for you to outfit your new home. A few trips around the world have lent the ranch style home enough Mediterranean, Asian and Pacific flavor to last about as long as the human imagination will.

Fireplace and Chimney Parts and Anatomy

Anatomy of a Chimney

There’s far more to chimneys than meets the eye. While the average home owner is only vaguely familiar with the contents that extend beyond the hearth and the chimney, your fireplace and chimney could consist of up to 22 parts. Knowing about these parts and their functions can be useful in general maintenance, troubleshooting, or even talking with a fireplace and chimney expert about your service. Use the following guide to understand the various parts of your chimney, and be prepared for your annual chimney inspection!

chimney crown repair in Travilah1. Chimney Crown – Your chimney crown protects your chimney from water damage entering through small cracks. Without a proper chimney crown- or if you have a cracked one, rain water seeps into the bricks and mortar of your chimney structure. Even minute amounts of water can result in brick flaking, mortar deterioration, and unsightly salt deposits on your chimney. Without a good crown that has been sealed your chimney does not have any protection. Eventually, the bricks and mortar break up enough that the chimney is no longer structurally sound. You can read more about chimney crowns here.
2. Flue – A flue is simply a passage for conveying exhaust gases from an appliance to the outdoors. A flue may be a duct, pipe, vent, or chimney. An unlined chimney is technically
a flue, even though an unlined chimney is a fire hazard.3. Flue Lining – For a safe flue, a lining must be used to ensure minimal accumulation of flammable debris. This lining should be stainless steel or specially formulated lining tile. In our all about chimneys article we talk further about the importance of the flue lining and problems you may be facing with your flue lining.

4. Smoke Chamber – The purpose of the smoke chamber is to gently compress the byproducts of combustion into a smaller space (the chimney) without causing back draft. The use of sloping walls, in conjunction with good fireplace design and maintenance, helps facilitate this.

5. Chimney Damper – Chimney Dampers are lever or pulley activated doors within your chimney. They can be closed to prevent energy loss when your fireplace isn’t being used. They also help prevent rain water or animals from entering your home if your chimney cap doesn’t restrict this. Wondering how this relates to a chimney cap?

6. Smoke Shelf – This shelf is just behind the chimney damper. Flat, it catches falling debris and rain water, and helps with the transition of large volumes of smoke into the small chimney.

Chimney Chase – This generally refers to a factory made case used around factory made chimneys. This function is taken by masonry chimneys in homes that have them.

Anatomy of a Fireplace

7. Mantle – Also known as mantel piece or mantel shelf, this piece of hardware is more than a surface to display family photos and hang stockings. It’s primary use was to help catch smoke and prevent it from entering the home, but as fireplaces have evolved its use isn’t as important as it once was.

8. Lintel – This piece is place just above the fireplace opening. Lintels are used in archway, door and window openings to help bear the load created by opening such spaces.

9. Throat – This is the space just below the damper and just above the firebox, where the fire first passes through.

fireplace experts in Mclean VA10. Firebox – The firebox is the section of the chimney system in which a person builds a fire. A proper firebox is lined with firebrick, a substance of refractory ceramic, which can become cracked or weakened after years of use. This area of the chimney is often in need of repair. It is recommended to have a thorough inspection of the firebox every five years or so depending on fireplace usage.

11. Hearth Extension – This is the space that occupies the floor just outside of the firebox. It’s made of heat resistant material such as tile or brick to reduce the chance of fires.

12. Hearth – This is the space on which the fire actually burns. As with the firebrick, it must be able to handle both the potential corrosiveness of the burned material and the high heats it can be subjected to.

13. Ash Dump – Lies directly below the ash door dump, this is the space ash falls through once the ash dump door is opened.

14. Ash Pit – Below the ash dump, this serves as a collection space for dumped ash. It should be emptied frequently to prevent excess accumulation of flammable byproducts.

15. Clean Out Door – This door is used to clean out the ash dump. It frequently is located outside or in the basement to make ash removal easy.

16. Footing – This is the horizontal surface under the ash pit. Generally made of concrete, the chimney should be securely placed in relationship to the footing to prevent problems later on.

17. Foundation – The lowest part of the chimney walls, this is made of heavy duty brick or cinder block. It’s used as structural support for the rest of the chimney, and is exposed to potentially hot ash. As such, it should be sturdy.

18. Fireplace Face – This is the area between the mantel and the fireplace itself. Traditionally brick, it must be sturdy enough to handle the heat of the fireplace below it.

19. Ash Dump Door – This door allows you to easily remove ash from your firebox. Placed in the middle of your firebox, it can opened to dump the ash into the ash dump.

Chimney Terminology: Chimney or Flue or Vent?

Chimneys, Vents, Connectors & Flues: a terminology guide

Chimney terminology can be confusing. Whether you’re doing online research or talking to a chimney and vent professional, a sound understanding of associated terminology can help you ensure your chimneys and vents provide optimal protection for your home. This guide will help you understand chimneys, vents, connectors and flues.

Chimney flue liner repair in Middletown MDA chimney is a passage to carry the products of combustion outdoors. Chimneys are made to be able to vent all types of fuel: gas, oil, and solid. Chimneys may pass through the house (including the living space), be outside of the house in a chase (a surrounding to protect the chimney against weather), or be outdoors. Chimneys may be masonry or factory built. Factory built chimneys are generally stainless steel, and may be covered by a chase (for protection or decoration), or left as is.

While chimneys vent fuel, they are not considered “vents”.

Understanding Vents

Vents are used to carry the product of combustion for lower temperature appliances (those using gas or oil) outdoors. Vents may pass through the house, or run outside of the house, so long as they are protected from the elements. Vents need a degree of temperature protection, otherwise their low temperature combustion products may be too cool to properly vent. This could cause a dangerous amount of flammable byproducts to collect in your vent.

The top of a vent must be exposed to the outside to allow the byproducts to be released, but such exposure will not cause problems given the rest of the vent is properly set up and protected. Sometimes a vent fan is installed to help push (or pull) low temperature byproducts from the vent.

Vents are always factory built. They are not chimneys, as they cannot handle the high temperature of wood combustion. Some vents, however, may run through a chimney, given that anything else venting through the chimney is contained in a separate flue.

Understanding Connectors

Connectors are also known as “stovepipes” or “smokepipes”. They pass from an appliance to a vent or chimney. There are a variety of connectors available, and the type of connector needed depends on the type of fuel that needs to be vented.

Understanding Flues

A flue is simply a passage for conveying exhaust gases from an appliance to the outdoors. A flue may be a duct, pipe, vent, or chimney. An unlined chimney is technically a flue, even though an unlined chimney is a fire hazard. This can cause confusion, as many view flues not just as a passage for venting, but as a safe passage for venting.

chimney liner repair in Chevy Chase MDUnderstanding Chimney Liners

There’s a misconception that masonry chimneys are simply made of brick. This isn’t true. The uneven and porous surface of brick provides a space for combustion byproducts to accumulate. This is a major fire hazard. Rather, chimneys are lined, so the smoke passes over a smooth surface that helps prevent excessive accumulation of combustion byproducts and minimizes the chance of fire. Chimney liners are also called “chimney flue liners”. The terms are largely used interchangeably.

Traditionally, chimneys were lined by fireclay flue tile. This special tile is carefully laid inside chimneys to provide no ridges or spots for accumulation; the tile is finished to a smooth, nonporous surface. This classic chimney liner can be difficult to fix if tiles get damaged deep inside the chimney.

The most popular modern liner is stainless steel. These liners can be inserted in unlined or tile lined chimneys. They are inexpensive compared to tile liner, easy to install, and easy to replace should any damage occur.

With a proper understanding of the differences between chimneys, vents, connectors, flue and chimney liners, you can have a better understanding of your chimneys and vents, and can more easily discuss any problems that arise and how to fix them.

This guide is only the beginning, as there are many other aspects of chimneys and vents to consider. Next week we will discuss in detail different types of connectors, vents and chimneys to give a more in depth knowledge of what the difference between various types are.

Gutter Shields & Gutter Cleaning

Gutters do more than keep water from pouring off your roof: they protect your home from water damage. This water damage is seen in more ways than just a damp basement. Water can damage your roofing, seep into your walls and even find its way into you foundation. It can destroy your gutters and deteriorate masonry. Water is the main cause of daily wear and tear around your home. Despite this, many homeowners fail to properly maintain their gutters. To effectively divert water away from your home, gutter cleaning is a part of necessary regular maintenace unless you have a gutter shield installed.

Gutter cleaning in Colesville MDThe easiest way to keep you gutters functioning properly is to install gutter shields. Keeping your gutters clean is important all year long. After the first big winter storm and the remaining leaves have finally fallen, you won’t have to worry about braving the elements and an icy ladder to make sure your gutter can withstand the winters many freeze and thaw cycles.

We install Leafproof nailless gutter shields. These specially designed gutter shields require no nails, yet prevent leaves and even seeds from entering and clogging your gutter system. Leafproof gutter shields are made of solid aluminum. The Leafproof system installs under the first two rows of shingles to lay flush with your roof and uses waters natural surface tension to transfer water down an S bend. This slows the speed of the running water and allows water pressure to push the leaves and debris off your roof as the water drains into your gutters.

Leafproof outperforms other gutter shield systems. Mesh or screened shields tend to catch debris in the shield creating a backup of water and debris which can damage your shingles and renders your gutters useless. Heavy snow or ice tends to cause mesh shields to cave in. Vinyl shields are susceptible to warping and can be chewed through by rodents and small birds looking to build a nest in your gutters. Domed shields create an unsightly profile for your home. Domed shield also  need to be nailed or screwed in place, which increases the possibility of leaks. Combination gutter shields leave gaps where nests can be built, and often expose the edge of the roof to water.

For this reason, we at High’s Chimney provide Leafproof gutter shields for our clients in Washington DC, northern Virginia, and Maryland. Their superior performance gives you peace of mind that your gutters are protecting your home from water damage all year round. So if your gutters “leaf” much to be desired, give us a call. Our professional and knowledgeable staff would love to work with you to ensure your home is as beautiful as it is functional.

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

Let’s start with a few definitions.

Appliances 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.)

Chimney repairs in Glen Echo MDHow 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 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:

  • chimney vent system in germantown mdThe 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.

This Old Chimney Part 2

Problems With Older Chimneys Continued

In this two part series, we’re discussing typical problems that owners of old homes have with their chimneys. This Old Chimney Part 1 begins the conversation that we’re continuing this week.

Smokey chimney & chimney cleaning Poolesville MDChimney Smoking Issues

If you see smoke on the face of the fireplace above the lintel (The thick metal bar that holds the bricks across top of the opening,) it is a sign that the chimney is smoking. This is fairly common issue with old chimneys. There are a few reasons why chimney airflow problems occur.

Older houses are usually not very air tight; in fact they’re more likely to be drafty. But maybe the house has new windows and doors, the walls are tight etc. so maybe the house can’t breathe. This can cause a change in air pressure that hurts the drafting process that causes smoke and gasses to rise up the chimney. It’s unlikely that an old house can be sealed up so effectively, but it is a possibility.

More likely is that the flue is either blocked or was never properly sized. Proper sizing means that there is a relationship between the size of the flue and the opening of the fireplace. Think of this in a ridiculous extreme: if you had a flue the size of a soda straw you would not expect a fireplace to draft properly. There are ratios that work or don’t work. That ratio can be changed with a smoke guard. These are commonly available from hearth shops and chimney sweeps. Glass doors usually will help a chimney smoking problem as well.

Gaps in the Chimney Bricks: Fixing Fireplace Air Leaks

There’s often a space between the bricks on the front of the fireplace (the wall, or the “face bricks”) and the structure of the fireplace itself. Sometimes that gap is on the floor by the hearth (in front of the wood burning fireplace too.) Not good. These gaps are probably caused by the old house settling over time.

You should inspect the fireplace carefully with a bright light to see if any wood is visible. If so, stop all action and call in a professional CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep. Wood in this area can cause fires quite easily and is a real safety hazard. If you don’t see anything, then get a chimney sweep to pack the gap with ceramic wool and refractory cement. Packing the hole yourself with typical cement won’t work because of the extreme temperatures in the fireplace.

Common Hearth Issues

Did you ever wonder how the hearth “stays up” that is to say: what supports all that weight? What’s under those bricks and that heavy firebox? The answer could surprise you- sometimes very little! Or sometimes, commonly found in old houses, there’s wood. Not good.

Go to the basement and look up to see what’s supporting the hearth. If you have metal I beams then great (I’d be surprised if you do.) Perhaps it’s supported on a masonry foundation, and that’s good. Or if you see cement that’s probably fine too, while it’s not clear what’s holding the cement in the air (though something obviously is) at least it’s not combustible.

But if your hearth is supported by sitting on a piece of plywood, you need to change that. More than one house has burned down because of that sort of thing.

Improving the Smoke Chamber of your Old Fireplace

chimney inspection in Glenwood MD

Above the damper area is the smoke chamber. This is the area where the wide fireplace funnels up to the smaller flue. The bricks are stepped in, or corbelled. That’s a rough surface, and it makes for a) less draft, b) more heat transfer though the wall c) a dirtier chimney. And modern codes say they should be parged. Parging is the practice of spreading some sort of cement over the corbelling to smooth out those square steps. This is not something you can do yourself. Somebody has to open the back of the smoke chamber (take bricks out) and reach through the hole to parge. Alternatively there are materials that can be sprayed (sort of like Gunnite, only it’s a different material.)

Call a chimney sweep and ask him if he’s able to spray or parge the inside of the smoke chamber. You may need to make a few calls to find somebody, because the work isn’t easy and it’s not fun. But it’s worth doing- the smoke chamber is usually the weakest part of the system next to the chimney itself.

If you’re lucky, that area is already parged and the parging is holding up well.

Common Old Chimney Problems

Well, that wraps up our conversation on old chimney problems. Have questions? Old home stories? Let us know in the comments section!

This Old Chimney Part 1

Common Issues Found In the Chimneys of Old Houses

Problem with chimney masonry in Fulton MD

If you own an old house or at least an older house, you will have different considerations than those who own newer homes. Newer homes are more likely to be built following modern codes and with materials that conform to modern published standards.

This means newer homes are more likely to be safe. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your old home is unsafe, however. You just have to know what you’re looking for and bring certain conditions up to proper safety standards. This article will guide you through the considerations specific to your chimney and educate you about your options.

Types of Fireplaces in Older Homes

By “old” we mean houses more than 60 years old. The fireplaces and chimneys in older homes are almost certainly masonry based. The metal, factory built hearth systems are found mostly in houses built after the 1950s. Most masonry chimneys are made with bricks, though there are also block chimneys.

Why You need To Improve Your Old Chimney Before Using It

Lack of lining is one of the most common issues that we see in older chimneys. As a flat statement, any chimney that is not lined should not be used for any purpose. You may say, “Well, it’s been there for 80 years, so why change it now?” and that’s a reasonable question. In some cases the answer is that nothing has changed – the situation has always gotten worse! The reason why your chimney’s condition has gotten worse is because most things wear out over time and a chimney is certainly no exception to that rule.

Additionally, the fact that furnaces and stoves of 2011 require a more capable chimney to support them makes unimproved, older chimneys more or less obsolete.

Why Chimney Linings Are So Important

Here are a few reasons why chimney linings are so important:

  • Unlined chimneys have bad draft characteristics. These bad draft characteristics cause the appliances they serve to work less than optimally.
  • Unlined Chimneys may leak noxious gases into the living space.
  • If used for gas, modern appliances have such low-temperature flue gasses that they produce huge amounts of condensation. With an unlined chimney, the condensation is allowed to adhere to the actual masonry. This ruins wall paper in the house, and the freeze-thaw cycles in the winter slowly demolish the masonry chimney.
  • If the chimney is used for wood burning, the condensation can also help form tar and creosote, which is flammable. In this case, they pose an unnecessary fire danger.
  • When you make a change to the construction of a structure, the system must come up to building code standards. So if you have a new furnace or boiler, a woodstove or insert, the chimney must be lined at that time.
  • You may find yourself without insurance if you make changes without improving the chimney. Check with your insurance company if you intend to disregard the advice here or consult a certified chimney sweep.

Basically, have your chimney lined as soon as possible.

Block Chimneys in Old Houses

Block chimneys do work, but as a general statement they are less than desirable. Block chimneys are really meant to be surrounded with bricks. They are more subject to cracking, leaning and leaking; most any problem you can imagine. As a general statement, if you have a block chimney built right against the house it’s probably not legal and if you have a wood-frame house you probably ought to just tear it down. However, if you can build brick around all four sides, unlikely in most situations, you can get the clearance to combustibles called for in the codes, the chimney can be serviceable.

Old Brick and Mortar Chimneys

Old brick chimneys have their own set of problems. Fortunately, older bricks are often actually better than newer bricks. It’s the way they were fired that makes the biggest difference. That’s why you see some houses from the 1800s or even 1700s where the bricks are still in great condition. Yet you’ve also probably seen modern houses with the faces of the bricks popping off. So if you have an old house, you probably have pretty good bricks!

Shifting Ground and your Old Chimney

The ground is always moving a little bit. Fortunately houses are actually a bit elastic, or at least allow enough give that they don’t split in half when the ground heaves an inch. But over time, those stresses can break bricks. If you have that problem in your chimney or walls of the house, it’s probably visible. Broken bricks are just a fact of life sometimes. You might need to replace them eventually.

Old Masonry Chimney Degradation Due to Weather

Sun, wind and rain are hard on any masonry work, especially the mortar. There are so many different types of mortar and concoctions of mortar cement that there’s no guessing how long your mortar is supposed to last, but suffice to say 60 years on a chimney is a long time.

When the mortar wears out it’s either time to rebuild or re-point. Re-pointing is the process of grinding out about an inch of the old and broken up mortar and putting in new mortar without removing the bricks. Unless your chimney is quite large, it may be just as easy to dismantle it and rebuild using the same bricks.

Waterproofing Your Old Chimney

One thing about those great old bricks is that they soak up water from the rain. On the sunny or windy side of the house that’s probably not a problem because they dry quickly. However, in shady areas the bricks can hold water and in the winter that water can freeze. This type of problem is usually visible. There are good water-proofing materials such as ChimneySaver by Saver Systems which do not block the pores of the masonry. Whatever you do, don’t use silicone, such as Thompson’s, because silicone blocks the pores and it has a shorter life due to UV light breaking down the silicone.

chimney crown repair in Glenwood MDYour Old Chimney Crown (Or Lack Thereof?)

There’s another aspect of the chimney that’s almost always lacking on older homes, and that’s the chimney crown. The crown is the cement part on top of the chimney that keeps the rain from going into the structure below. The crown catches more sun, wind and rain than all the rest of the chimney, and it is usually not as thick as a brick. Crowns are almost always cracked. I can’t think of one crown I ever seen that wasn’t cracked. If the crown is bad enough, it needs to be taken off and re-laid. If it is cracked but still structurally sound there are good materials to coat the crown, which will save money.

Regardless, you should have the crown coated with CrownCoat by Saver Systems or some similar product. If you put up a brand new crown, coat it so it doesn’t break up again.

How to Deal with Lack of Clearance to Combustibles

Clearances to combustibles is something they didn’t worry about in the old days. It is quite common to see wood beams or 2x4s right against the masonry of a chimney. When there are fires in old homes, it’s also common to find that some of this wood ignited. Oddly enough, the process of pyrolization takes place over many, many years. The unscientific definition of that is that the ignition temperature of wood gets lower over time. In other words, it takes less heat to catch it on fire 50 or 100 years later than when it was new.

Chimney Insulation

The way to deal with that is to make sure you have a liner installed to zero-clearance (insulated). The only alternative is to tear out the walls and cut away the wood. Practically speaking, nobody is going to do that, and even if you do, there’s no guarantee you’d get it far enough away. Take a look in the attic and remove wood you find against the chimney up there. That’s not so hard to do.

Removing Debris and Blockages From Your Chimney

At the base of an old heater flue, usually in the basement, there can be all kinds of debris. Sticks and leaves, dead birds, or maybe a lot of soot. Old oil furnaces may have released sulfuric acid in the chimney for years and worn the chimney out from the inside. Aside from that though, the bases are often just blocked by debris. Just be sure to have a chimney sweep come out to make sure it’s open. If you have a flue that was converted from oil to gas, you would be venting carbon monoxide into the house. Be sure to have this checked, and especially if you or your family have a lot of colds or headaches because this could very well be carbon monoxide poisoning.

With regards to that debris in the chimney, many older homes are “finer homes” that are surround by trees or perhaps in a semi-rural setting with lots of animals and leaves. That being said, a chimney chase cover is smart to prevent debris from building up as well as protection from harsh weather conditions.

Read Part 2 for more on old chimney problems!