Of Chimney Swifts and Chimney Caps

ChimneySwift23It’s nesting season, so that means chimney swifts are back! Chimney swifts often return to the same nesting site every year, so if you had them last year, you’ve probably got them again, cheeping away from inside your chimney. Swift nests are small, and don’t do any damage to the masonry inside your chimney; however, the abandoned nests and other debris are flammable, and can contribute to chimney fires if left during the burning season.

In 2010, the chimney swift’s conservation status was changed to near-threatened, and swifts are protected under Federal law. This means that reputable, law-abiding chimney sweeps are unable to remove the nests while swifts are still living in your chimney. However, the birds will vacate your chimney as soon as the young are old enough to leave the nest (generally by late August or early September), and we can clean your chimney out after that. Once the birds are gone and the nests have been removed, we recommend capping the flue to keep your unwanted houseguests from returning. Ideally, we recommend putting a cap of some sort on before the nesting season begins, but sometimes a family of swifts will move in and set up house before you have a chance to schedule your appointment, and we wind up having to wait until they’ve moved out again.

Single flue cap

Single flue cap

When it comes to capping the flue, there are a couple of different approaches you can take. The first is a simple single-flue cap (these are made in a range of standard flue sizes, so we’re fairly likely to have the size you need in our warehouse), which bolts onto the outside of your terra cotta flue tiles, and has both a cap to keep rain away, and a heavy stainless steel mesh to keep intruders from making your chimney their new home. A full-coverage cap, on the other hand, is custom-made to the size of your chimney, with a lid that extends slightly past the edge of the existing crown. As discussed in our previous post on maintaining your chimney crown, the full-coverage cap will not only keep rain and animals out of your flue(s), but will serve to protect the masonry of your chimney.

Full-coverage cap

A full coverage, multi-flue cap. The overhang at the edges of the chimney protects the wash.

Gas Appliance Repair

Sometimes when we go out to perform repairs on a gas appliance (logs, insert, or fireplace), we can’t get the appliance fixed on our first visit, or we replace a component and discover a new problem. We understand the confusion and frustration that can result from this. Unfortunately, this situation is sometimes unavoidable, for the following reasons:

First, although there are some common problems and parts among gas appliances, there are many, many different brands and systems out there, as well as a great number of proprietary parts. It would be impossible for our technicians to train on every brand and understand how each and every unit is put together. Additionally, many manufacturers will not provide tech support or their proprietary parts to dealers who do not sell their products. While we will work on brands we don’t sell, we cannot guarantee that we can solve your problem in one service call.

Second, even a fairly basic freestanding log set is quite a complex appliance, with several parts that have to work together to give you the lovely flame you’re looking for. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to diagnose which specific component is the problem in any given situation. For example, it may be that your wall switch has failed, but that your pilot assembly is also malfunctioning. However, since the wall switch won’t work, we have no way of diagnosing the faulty pilot assembly. Fixing one problem can sometimes reveal a second, deeper problem, which now needs to be addressed. For comparison, imagine a severe muscle sprain concealing tendon damage or a hairline fracture. The problems are related, but it’s much harder for a doctor to diagnose the underlying injury until the inflammation is addressed. Once we’ve solved the problem of the faulty wall switch, the malfunctioning pilot assembly shows up; it looks as if a new problem is happening, but it’s just that we had no way of knowing about it before.

Our technicians also sometimes encounter the dreaded Intermittent Fault, where a component of your hearth appliance has malfunctioned half the time you’ve been using it, and just happens to be working during our service call (this writer once had a similar problem with her computer, where errors would suddenly resolve themselves the second her computer-savvy friend sat down to take a look, only to reappear as soon as the friend had gone home). This is part of why we try to get as much information as possible when we’re scheduling your appointment; if we can describe the problem, and let the service technician know it’s only intermittent, that gives them additional ideas of what to look for, even if they can’t re-create the malfunction during their visit. Sometimes, though, the source of the problem eludes even our certified technicians, and we require more than one visit to fully resolve the issue.

 

HeatShield Flue Repair

 

As we discuss on our chimney repair page, an unlined chimney can be very dangerous. Houses built to code since the 1950s have terra cotta tiles or other flue liners, but these degrade over time, or suffer damage from earthquakes, chimney fires, or other extreme conditions. Even minor cracks in flue tiles can allow sparks, heat, and toxic flue gasses to escape into your home; the results can be anything from damage to the structural integrity of your masonry chimney, to carbon monoxide poisoning, to a house fire.

There are a variety of ways to reline a damaged flue to a masonry fireplace. Our preferred method is the HeatShield® flue repair system. Rather than a full poured liner, the HeatShield system is a high-temperature Cerfractory® material designed to fill mortar joints, cover cracks, or resurface your entire terra cotta flue. After determining the extent of repairs needed to your flue, Wooden Sun will use a foam applicator, custom-sized for your flue, to extrude the Cerfactory material into any joints that are missing mortar in your flue. If there are further cracks in the flue tiles, a second layer of the Cerfactory material can be applied to resurface the entire liner. Once dry, the HeatShield Cerfactory cement is rated to withstand temperatures exceeding 2900°F, well beyond the temperature reached by most chimney fires.

But how does the HeatShield system differ from the poured liners that Wooden Sun doesn’t install? Good question, and there are two primary differences. The first is that poured liners often require a lot more material to get a less durable liner, and a great deal of special equipment, which makes them more expensive than the HeatShield system. The application of the HeatShield Cerfactory material requires relatively little by way of installation equipment, and can therefore be installed at less expense than a full poured chimney liner. Additionally, the HeatShield system is specifically designed to address multiple levels of flue damage. Many poured or cast-in-place liner systems are intended for unlined chimneys, or terra cotta flues with such severe damage that the tiles have to be removed completely. However, most of the damaged flues we encounter during our regular service work are mostly sound, but are missing some or all of their mortar joints, or have cracks running through otherwise intact flue tiles. In these situations, our certified HeatShield installers will use only the amount of Cerfactory material needed to seal the damaged surfaces of your flue tiles, rather than creating what is essentially a new flue inside your otherwise intact chimney. While any damage to the flue presents a danger to the home and its residents, the HeatShield system gives us the flexibility to target the specific problems within your flue, without requiring you to spend money fixing a problem you *don’t* have.

Fire is a volatile thing, and not even the best sweeps, installers, or masons can ensure that nothing will ever go wrong. At Wooden Sun, we believe in taking every precaution to make sure that the heat and smoke of your fire are safely ducted outside so that the rest of your home is as protected as it can possibly be.

 

Fireplace Drafting Problems

Every fireplace season, we get calls from homeowners reporting that they can’t get their wood fireplace burning right, or that smoke spills back out into their house when the fire is going. So let’s take a look at what goes into your fireplace system, and what might be interfering with it:

Draft is the force pulling air from inside your house up through the chimney. Draft is primarily a function of the temperature differential between your fireplace and the outside air, as warm air from inside is drawn up the chimney to meet the cold air outside the chimney stack. The first implication of this is that it will be harder to start a fire on a warm day, since there won’t be a significant temperature difference to kick-start the draw of the chimney. It also means that when you first use your chimney after it’s been idle for awhile, you might have trouble getting the entry to the flue warm enough to get the smoke moving. If this happens, try holding a lit piece of newspaper or kindling up to the flue entrance right by the damper for a minute or two to quickly warm the flue and establish a draft. This can also be helpful on cold, damp days; humid air is heavier than dry air, so your chimney has to work harder to overcome that resistance.

If the flue is warm enough, the outside air cold enough, but you’re still getting smoke spilling back out into the house, the next culprit is likely to be a dirty flue or chimney cap. Creosote deposits will interfere with the airflow through your chimney, slowing it down and kicking smoke back into the house. Having your chimney cleaned and inspected every year or so helps keep this from ever becoming a problem, as well as heading off other potential chimney issues.

Sometimes, even a warm, squeaky-clean flue will refuse to draw properly, depending on how your home and chimney are constructed. A short chimney will oftenflue extenders have problems drawing properly; this can be addressed by adding a flue extender or chimney pot to the top of your flue. This flue extender can help address another cause of smoke spillage, negative pressure. We often have homeowners report that when they use their upstairs fireplace, smoke spills out of the fireplace directly below it. This is because basements, which are partially or completely below grade, are negative pressure zones, which try to pull air in from outside the house (think of it as a very weak vacuum cleaner); positive pressure zones, in upper levels of the home, are where the warm air is trying to escape to the outside. Since the two flues are directly next to each other, extending one flue may be necessary in order to get the smoke away from that negative pressure zone.

A flue extender can also combat the problem of stack effect, which occurs when your chimney termination is lower than a nearby rooftop. Hot air wants to go to the highest point in your house; if this point isn’t your chimney, the smoke will be drawn back into your home as it tries to reach the highest point in your building envelope.

Additionally, adequate replacement air can be a challenge for wood-burning appliances in newer, more energy-efficient homes. In an older, leakier house, cold air is pulled in around windows, doors, outlets, and even through the walls. While you normally want to keep that cold air outside, your wood stove or fireplace needs the replacement air to maintain combustion. In tighter modern houses, an outdoor air kit may be needed. This kit is simply a 4″ diameter duct that runs from the outside directly into your wood appliance, providing enough air to keep the fire from choking out and filling your house with smoke. An alternative to the outdoor air kit is to crack a window or door while the fire is going. For obvious reasons, this isn’t a great long-term solution, but it’s a wonderful diagnostic tool. If you consistently get smoke spillage from your fireplace, try cracking a window during your next fire; if that fixes the problem, it’s quite likely that either negative pressure or insufficient combustion air is your culprit, and an outside air kit may be the best solution.

Not every chimney problem has a simple solution, but there are often steps you can take to make it easier for your chimney to do its job. If your chimney isn’t working as it’s supposed to, it’s important to remember that it’s part of a whole-house system, rather than an isolated appliance, and the root of the problem may lie somewhere else in the house, rather than in the chimney itself.

Harvest Season on the Grill!

Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association Offers Nine Tips to Put a Little Barbecue Flame on Your Fruits and Veggies This Fall

Harvest season has arrived, which means it’s time for grilled fruits and vegetables! From grilled sweet corn to delicious mushroom burgers to fresh grilled peaches, there’s almost no produce you can’t take to the next level by throwing it on the grill. The Hearth, Patio, & Barbecue Association has 9 great tips to spice up your fall grilling and make the most of your lovely fresh produce. Check it out after the jump:

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What Do Efficiency Ratings Mean, Anyway?

Whether you’re comparing wood or gas appliances, you’ll see an efficiency rating listed in the product information. Between uncertain fuel costs and increasingly strict air quality regulations, more and more consumers are looking for the most efficient heaters they can find. But what do those ratings mean? How are they measured?

The bad news is that there isn’t one standard rating system used by manufacturers, nor are they required to tell you which system they’re using. The good news is that by learning a bit about what the ratings mean, you can put manufacturer claims in context and compare apples to apples when buying a stove or fireplace.

What does “efficiency” actually mean?

In the simplest terms, the efficiency rating on an appliance tells you how much of your fuel will become usable heat in your home. A pound of wood, gas, or pellets contains a certain amount of potential energy; some of this energy will be used in starting and sustaining combustion, some of it will go up the chimney (carrying away particulates and other undesirable byproducts of combustion), and the rest will come out into your home as heat.

Wood Heat: EPA vs. Real-World Performance

Wood stoves and inserts are sometimes advertised with two efficiency ratings: EPA and cordwood/real world performance. EPA testing procedures are focused mostly on particulate emissions, and are very highly standardized. These tests use milled lumber (often pine), precisely stacked, with the stove draft set to its lowest (and smokiest) setting; this is also referred to as a “crib wood” test. While this is useful for determining how much air pollution a stove will generate, it has very little to do with how efficiently your stove will convert firewood into usable heat in your home. Many companies choose to do their own testing with cord wood (usually hardwood) and realistic venting setups, in order to give their customers a more accurate idea of stove performance. Unfortunately, there’s no requirement that companies tell you which efficiency rating they’re listing. For environmental impact, focus on the emissions listing (gm/hr of particulates released into the atmosphere) rather than the listed efficiency rating. For real-world efficiency, a good rule of thumb is that 67%-75% is a good range for quality non-catalytic stoves, with catalytic stoves occupying the 75%-83% range.

(Note: just to make this even more confusing, the EPA is currently in the process of revising its compliance and listing standards. While this process is ongoing, look for “cordwood/actual measured efficiency (CSA)” in your stove literature.)

Gas Heat: Steady-State vs. AFUE/EnerGuide

Gas stoves, inserts, and fireplaces are rated in two different ways. The Steady State efficiency rating, which offers a higher and more impressive number, is taken only once, after the appliance is fully heated up and burning steadily. While this number is technically accurate, it has very little to do with how your stove will perform over the course of its lifetime, and under real-world conditions. We prefer to work with vendors who list the EnerGuide, P4, or AFUE (annual fuel usage estimate) ratings. These efficiency readings reflect performance over the entire burn cycle, from ignition to cool-down, and use realistic venting setups. If you’re looking at efficiency ratings, and seeing numbers in the high 80% range, you’re probably looking at the steady-state efficiency of the fireplace. The more honest EnerGuide, P4, and AFUE rating systems give numbers ranging from around 60%-70%. A 65% efficiency rating is actually quite good, and an 85% rating, although it sounds much better, probably doesn’t reflect an actual increase in real-world efficiency or performance.

To sum up: efficiency ratings can be confusing, and don’t always give a complete picture of how an appliance will perform in your home. However, with a little bit of time and research, you can put those numbers in context when comparing different products, and make a more informed decision about which stove, fireplace, or fireplace insert will be the best fit for you!

 

Introducing Orion Coolers!

Orion cooler2

Click for larger image

Whether you’re tailgating, camping, or just enjoying a day at the park (with, say, your Kamado Joe Jr. Smoker), the Orion Cooler, now available at Wooden Sun, has you covered!  The Orion’s impressive features include:

  • 35% more insulation than comparable coolers, holds ice longer (check out Orion’s field notes page for user experiences)
  • Standing Pad
  • 6 Tie Down Points
  • 4 Aluminum Bottle Opener Corners
  • Lockable/Certified Bear Resistant (seriously, this cooler doubles as a Bear Box on camping trips!)
  • Low Profile Camming Latches
  • Motorcycle Grip Carry Handles
  • Camo Colors (6 standard colors, plus the Home Team custom series)
  • Rugged Rotomolded Shell
  • 
Made in the USA
  • Smart, Real-World Sizing (25- to 85-qt)
  • 
Drain Plug
  • YakAttack Tracks / RAM Integration for easy
  • 
Highly Functional Tray System
  • Sectional Divider/Cutting Board (optional)

Add in a Wetterlings axe or hatchet, and you’re set for anything from an afternoon of rafting to a week in the backwoods.

Charcoal: What Should I Use? For Us, Natural Lump Charcoal Is the Only Way!

May is National Barbecue Month, and what better way to kick off the celebrations than an in-depth exploration of charcoal, its different forms, and how it got that way? But wait, I hear you say, charcoal is charcoal is charcoal, isn’t it? It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Here, then, is an overview of the two most common kinds of charcoal, and the difference between them.

The charcoal briquettes you get at the grocery store are actually compressed chunks of ground charcoal and sawdust, as well as non-wood products such as coal dust, limestone, starch, borax, and sodium nitrate (not exactly what we want in our food!). The advantage charcoal briquettes have is their even size and density, which allows for a more predictable burn rate in less expensive grills. The disadvantage of briquettes is that they produce far more ash than lump charcoal, and this ash can choke the fire, limiting the heat output. With a small charcoal grill, this may not be a problem, but the volume of ash produced means that briquettes won’t work in ceramic smokers like the Primo or Kamado Joe. They also cannot be easily used for more than one cooking session. Additionally, briquettes have no flavor of their own, and so impart no flavor profile of their own to the food cooked over them.

Traditional charcoal kiln. Image courtesy of Kamado Joe.

Traditional charcoal kiln. Image courtesy of     Kamado Joe.

Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is made from hardwood which is burned slowly in a low-oxygen environment over a period of several days, through a process known as pyrolysis. (Readers may remember from our chimney safety post that pyrolysis can occur when clearances to combustibles are not met for wood stoves or fireplaces, or when venting materials aren’t connected right; essentially, this means that an improperly-installed wood stove can gradually turn your wall studs into charcoal! Pyrolysis: bad for houses, good for cooking.) This low-oxygen environment is created when wood is either placed into an oven/kiln, or covered with earth and straw, then closed off and left to burn slowly and steadily until the wood is fully oxidized and hardened. The hard wood chunks are then broken down into lump charcoal, which is filtered to remove crumbs and dust.

Because it has no fillers or binders, lump charcoal produces less ash than briquettes, burns hotter, and heats about 20 minutes longer per pound of fuel. Here at Wooden Sun, we use 100% hardwood charcoal in our grills and ceramic smokers, and feel that for flavor, lump charcoal really can’t be beat. We also like to cut the air off after cooking, let the fire die out, and use the remaining charcoal for the next grilling session, which is very difficult to do with charcoal briquettes. A bag of good lump charcoal should have very little dust (there’s always some that settles in the bottom during shipping, but more than a little indicates that your charcoal supplier hasn’t adequately filtered their product before packaging), and only a few small chips.

Whichever form of charcoal you choose for your outdoor cooking, steer clear of lighter fluid. It can impart a nasty chemical flavor to your food, as well as being environmentally unfriendly. There are a variety of fire starters available out there (usually made with some combination of paraffin and compressed sawdust), and products like the Looft Lighter and BBQ Dragon will keep hot air moving over your charcoal to get it up to temperature faster.

 

-P.S. The links below aren’t actually relevant to your choice of cooking fuel, but your blogger encountered them in the course of her research, and found them too interesting not to share:

Spring Inventory Reduction Clearance Sale!! Up to 80% Off!

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Big changes are afoot here at the Wooden Sun! Over the summer, we have plans to remodel our store, bring in new product lines, and expand our work into more outdoor projects! To make room for new products and displays, we’re putting all of our showroom units on sale, at discounts ranging from 10%-80% off our usual retail pricing. From April 15th-May 22nd, come into the Wooden Sun showroom for big discounts on a wide range of gas & wood stoves, fireplaces, fireplace inserts, and outdoor cookers! And be sure to look for our grilling accessories, on clearance from 10%-25% off retail price!

At the same time as we bid a fond farewell to our old inventory, we’d like to welcome the Kamado Joe line of ceramic grills and smokers to the Wooden Sun family! Every Kamado Joe cooker comes standard with cooking racks, rolling cart, grill lifter, and ash tool, so you can get started grilling right away. These grills will also be included in our sale, at 10% off retail.

Check Out Our New Masonry Stove!!

Soapstone new

Buck Stove model 21, Soapstone wrap by Alberene Soapstone

We’re very excited about our newest offering, a compact masonry heater! One of the masons from Alberene Soapstone brought all the soapstone blocks up to our showroom, and he and Kim spent a couple of hours getting those into place all around the stove.

Soapstone is a wonderful material for a heating appliance. A very dense stone, it retains a lot of heat, and releases it slowly over time. While the stove heats up more slowly than a steel or a cast iron stove would, it retains that heat longer, and therefore continues to heat the room long after the fire has gone out.

 

The narrower blocks create visual interest.

The narrower blocks create visual interest.

Unfortunately, the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having lately means that we haven’t had very many chances to fire it up, but we’ve been able to have one or two small fires, and can report excellent heat retention! The time it takes for the soapstone to fully heat up means that this heater isn’t the best option for occasional fires, or if you need to warm up a room quickly, but if you want to maintain cozy, even heat over several hours, consider the beauty and practicality of soapstone!