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.

Common Gas Fireplace Problems: You Probably Don’t Need to Panic

Following up on our recent post about how to address concerns about wood stove performance, here’s a post about your gas stove/insert/fireplace. Since the direct vent gas appliance is a closed system, drawing air from and venting to the outside, there’s much less variation from home to home and appliance to appliance. However, there are a few issues that can crop up with gas units, so here are some common service requests we get, with a couple of troubleshooting steps to try on your own:

My Fireplace Won’t Turn On

At the beginning of each fall, we get a lot of service requests from people trying to turn their gas fireplaces on for the first time in several months, only to find that those fireplaces won’t start. The first, and most obvious question: how are the batteries? Your gas appliance may have batteries in both the remote and the receiver, so it’s important to read your owner’s manual to figure out how many sets of batteries you need to check. It seems obvious, but we’ve gone out to fix several malfunctioning gas appliances, only to discover that the only thing the customer needs is new batteries. It’s worthwhile to keep a battery tester around the house to help you determine whether or not that pack of AAs in the kitchen drawer is still good.

If the batteries in your remote and/or receiver are good, the next step is to make sure the fireplace is getting fuel. If you have a propane tank or natural gas line, are the tank and valves set in the on position? Your gas appliance should have a valve in the firebox, or a key in the wall or floor nearby, and the propane tank will have a knob on the tank outside that opens or closes it. For problems with a natural gas line, contact your city utilities office, and for propane, contact your propane company.

And if you can get your fireplace going, but it keeps turning itself off suddenly, check to see if you’ve left it set in thermostatic mode. We often have that problem in the showroom over the summer, particularly with units we don’t turn on very often; we’ll set the remote to act as a thermostat over the winter, and then in the summer, the fireplace keeps automatically turning itself off!

The Glass on My Fireplace Looks Smudged

Each time you start your gas fireplace, you’ll notice some condensation on the glass. This is a normal part of the startup process, as the water vapor in the air inside the firebox begins to evaporate. This condensation will dissipate within a few minutes, as the firebox heats up and the flames turn yellow. Over time, you can get some buildup on the inside of the glass (residue from that startup condensation), but this is harmless, and easily cleaned off during your annual maintenance call.

My Fireplace Smells Weird

When you start your gas fireplace for the first time after it’s installed, there will be an “off-gassing” period as the residual factory paints finish curing. This, again, is harmless; open the window for your first couple of fires, and the gasses should dissipate fairly quickly. When you then start your fireplace, stove, or insert for the first time each year, you’ll get a slight odor for that first fire or two, as small amounts of dust that have built up over the summer burn off. This shouldn’t last very long; if it lasts more than a couple of hours, or if you start to smell gas or plastic, shut your fireplace off and call your local certified gas appliance expert.

 

Common Wood Stove Problems: You Probably Don’t Need to Panic

Every season, we receive several calls from concerned stove-owners, worried that their stoves are malfunctioning and/or dangerous. The good news is that many of these problems are not actually problems at all, and merely things your stove will do from time to time. Let’s address some of the issues you may encounter in your wood stove or insert, as well as some troubleshooting steps you can take before scheduling a service call:

Discoloration

Some change in the color of your stove can be normal. If you have a stove with porcelain enamel cladding, the enamel may darken as it heats up, then return to its original color as it cools (the bordeaux enamel from Vermont Castings, for example, darkens to a particularly vibrant deep red when the stove is going).

Some wood-burning appliances have a stainless steel firebox, rather than the traditional firebrick or refractory cement. Although this lighter, thinner firebox will transmit heat to your room faster, the lighter constructions means it’s also subject to a certain amount of warping and discoloration (which looks like rust, but doesn’t damage the material of your firebox). During a chimney sweep and inspection, we will inspect any warping or discoloration in the firebox, and assess whether or not it’s severe enough to cause a problem.

Drafting Problems

Sometimes, problems with draft can cause the smoke from your wood stove to come back into the room, rather than going up the flue as it’s supposed to. While a blockage in the flue or the cap may be responsible, there are some steps you can take before scheduling a chimney cleaning.

Image courtesy of woodheat.org

Image courtesy of woodheat.org

The most frequent cause of cool, smoky fires is wet wood, so the very first thing to check is your firewood supply. Firewood that has been properly seasoned (cut, split, stacked to allow free air circulation, and left in the sun and air for at least 9 months) has a moisture content between 15-20%. Dry wood will have cracking and splitting at the ends, as shown in the picture next to this paragraph. Also, if you hit two pieces of firewood against each other, wet wood will make a dull “thud,” whereas dry wood will make a hollow, resonant “thunk.” While this isn’t as scientific or precise as a moisture meter, it will give you a reasonably good idea of how dry your firewood is. Another way to check the quality of your firewood is to look at the smoke coming out of your chimney. At the start of a good fire, the smoke coming out of the chimney will be white; after the fire is fully established, you shouldn’t see very much smoke at all, only a slight distortion from the heat radiating out of the top of the chimney, and a little bit of translucent steam.

Sometimes, the weather outside can be the problem. Damp, heavy air provides more resistance to draft, and it will be harder for your chimney to get a good draw at these times.  And a good draft requires a difference of temperature between the indoor and outdoor air, as the warm air inside your stove is drawn up the flue towards the colder air outside. If the temperature outside is above 55°F, this temperature difference will not be high enough, and it’ll be hard to get a good draft going. You can help your chimney out by pre-heating the flue (holding a burning rolled-up newspaper as near to the flue opening as you can get, for example), but some weather conditions will always interfere with wood stove performance.

Depending on where in your house your stove is installed, some problems with draft may be unavoidable. All homes have a neutral pressure plane, above which air is trying to leave the house, and below which air is trying to get into the house. Many basement fireplaces, unfortunately, are in negative pressure planes, which means they can sometimes experience backdraft from the flue connected to an upstairs appliance. There are steps we can take to reduce this backdraft, like extending one flue so that the smoke isn’t as readily pulled back into the house, but it’s an unfortunate reality that your wood stove may not perform equally well in all parts of your home.

Uncommon Stove Problems: Contact a Professional

While many stove issues are comparatively minor, there are some situations that require the immediate attention of a certified wood service professional. If the wall in front of your chimney, or surrounding the thimble where your stove plugs into the wall, becomes hot to the touch (some warmth is ok, but the wall shouldn’t be too hot to touch), or begins to discolor, stop using your stove immediately, and call your local certified stove technician. If the wall is hot or discolored (turning brown around the thimble, for example), this indicates that pyrolysis is occurring, and often that you have had (or are having) a chimney fire. We inspected just such an installation last year; the flue liner showed evidence of multiple chimney fires, and the wood studs in the wall were beginning to char around the edges. We removed the damaged parts and relined the chimney, but this could easily have started a house fire if left unresolved.

The bottom line is that your wood stove is a complex system, and it’s important to pay attention to how it’s working. If you notice something unusual, don’t panic! There will always be variations in the way each stove performs in different environments, and most of these variations aren’t cause for concern. But as always, if you’re unsure, feel free to call your friendly neighborhood Wooden Sun technicians, and we can discuss your stove problems with you.

Have a safe, warm, and happy fireplace and stove season!

 

 

On the Care and Feeding of Your New Awning

So you’ve just gotten a fabulous new awning/canopy/solar shade. First of all, congratulations on all of your newly-usable outdoor space! We hope that your new awning beautifies your home and improves your summer afternoons for many years to come. By keeping direct sunlight from entering your home, your new shade product should also keep your home much cooler, significantly reducing your air conditioning bill. Although both Aristocrat and Eclipse shading products are made with a coated, durable aluminum-frame construction and sturdy marine-grade fabric, some basic care and maintenance will help to extend the life and beauty of your awning or canopy.

Routine Maintenance

You should clean your awning on a regular basis, before dirt, bird droppings, or roof residue have a chance to get embedded in the fabric. Loose dirt can be brushed off with a soft brush, and you can hose the fabric down without having to remove it from the frame. To remove stains, use a mild natural soap like Ivory® Flakes or Woolite® in lukewarm water (no more than 100 degrees F). Do not use harsh soaps, detergents, or chlorine bleach. Allow the fabric to dry completely before you retract your awning, and don’t let water pool or puddle on the fabric. When retracting your awning, make sure no twigs, leaves, or other debris get rolled up in the material. We recommend retracting your awning in strong wind, hail, rain, or snow, particularly in winds of over 20 mph. The fabric should roll off the top of the roller tube, never from underneath; if your awning fabric is unrolling from below the tube, rather than above, please schedule a service call.

At the start of the outdoor season, it’s a good idea to hose down the aluminum arms of your awning and wipe them with a soft cloth, to make sure no dust or grit has accumulated during the winter. Although the framework is self-lubricating, it’s a good idea to lubricate the moving parts yearly with a dry silicone spray lubricant to maintain optimal, quiet operation. If unusual creaking occurs when you operate your awning, try lubricating it before calling your dealer. The most prevalent place where an awning needs lubrication is at the end of the roller tube, on the side opposite the motor or gear. Be sure to keep the spray away from the fabric.

Preparing Your Awning for Winter

You should retract your awning for the winter season. If your awning has a hanging valence, you should remove this and store it in a dry space, following the instructions below. Do not store the valence in a plastic bag, as this can trap moisture.

Valence removal and replacement

Awnings and fire do not mix.

Awnings and fire do not mix. (click to enlarge)

A Final Note

Please, readers, don’t store or use grills or smokers underneath your awning. This picture shows the damage that can result from having such a high heat output underneath your awning or canopy. In addition to posing a danger to your home and family, this is a sad fate for such a lovely awning.

 

 

Grill Safety & Maintenance: Refresher Course

Ed. note: It’s that time of year, so here’s our grill safety and maintenance post once again.

Summertime, and the grilling is easy! Everybody loves food cooked outdoors, whether on a gas, charcoal/pellet, or electric grill or smoker. But, as with any heating or cooking appliance, grills require regular maintenance, and some basic safety precautions to keep you, your family, and your home safe.

Grill fire

This picnic has ended badly.
Image: Countryside Fire Protection Dist., Vernon Hills, IL

Let’s start with the safety precautions:

  • Never use your grill indoors; carbon monoxide can build up in an enclosed space, posing a significant health hazard to everyone in the home.
  • Grills should never be used underneath a deck or balcony, or directly next to a wooden structure. Keep your grill away from flammable materials, and make sure that all children and animals stay at least three feet away from it.
  • When starting a gas grill, the lid should always be open. If the flame has gone out (blown out by the wind, for example), turn off the grill, wait 15 minutes for the propane to dissipate, then re-ignite the pilot.
  • Before you use your grill for the first time each year, be sure to check the gas line and connections. You can do this by applying a soap-and-water solution to the hose, gasketing, and connector valves. If bubbles form, there is a leak. Turn the gas off immediately and wait to see if the leak stops. If it does stop, be sure to have your grill serviced by a professional before trying to use it again; if the leak does not stop, call the fire department. If you smell gas while cooking, get away from the grill and call the fire department.
  • If you’re storing your propane grill during the off-season, disconnect the gas tank and store it outdoors, never in the house or garage.
  • And, of course, always read the user manual that comes with your grill, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding use and proper maintenance of the grill.

As to maintenance:

  • Clean cooking grids and drip trays thoroughly. Grease and salt speed up corrosion, and pooled grease can easily ignite.
  • In addition to checking for gas leaks, check all valves and connectors for rust and other corrosion. Remove all rust with a wire brush, and apply a rust-proof paint or sealant to the area.
  • After you finish grilling, leave the grill on high for about 10 minutes; this will vaporize most of the remaining drippings and grease (although you should still clean your grill thoroughly at the beginning and end of grill season).
  • Protect your grill with a fabric-lined grill cover. A tarp or other non-breathable cover can trap moisture inside, speeding up the rusting process.
  • Finally, have your grill cleaned, serviced, and inspected by a qualified technician once a year.

Enjoy your grilling, and have a safe and happy summer cooking season!

Maintaining your Chimney Crown

Chimneys degrade from the top down, as the crown at the top of the chimney is gradually eroded by the weather. As the crown is subjected to rain, sun, and the freeze/thaw process, it gradually begins to erode, forming cracks on the surface. This is particularly true for us here in central Virginia; with warm days followed by frequent cold snaps (as we had this past winter), water gets into even small gaps in concrete or masonry, and expands as it freezes, damaging the material (you may have noticed the same problem affecting the roads).

Chimney wash

A chimney crown/wash

Once the cracks appear, the process accelerates.  Water gets into these cracks and eventually works its way down to the layer of bricks. Sometimes it can find its way into your home. After enough degradation, bricks can become loose and even fall off of the chimney completely, putting nearby people and animals at risk of being struck by falling masonry. It’s less costly to repair a wash before the process has gone too far than to restore a chimney that has experienced significant degradation. To protect your chimney, there are a number of possibilities, depending on budget and the level of protection you desire. A note about terms: a “wash” (sometimes called a crown) is a layer of concrete or mortar, applied over the top of the chimney, which slopes down to direct water away from your flue and onto your rooftop.

This wash is badly damaged and the flues are unprotected

This crown/wash is badly damaged

One possibility is a crown sealant, which is a plasticized coating applied to the crown to keep water from soaking into the masonry. It lasts approximately 10 years, and then needs to be reapplied. Depending on the size of your chimney, crown sealant usually costs no more than a few hundred dollars and protects your chimney crown for 10 years. The sealant cannot be applied if the crown is badly damaged. In that case, the crown will need to be restored, usually by removing the old cement and making a new crown. However, the crown sealant only protects the top of your chimney. If you do not have any sort of cap on your flue, your flue will be subjected to both the weather and critters. Critters can be an annoyance, but if your flue tiles degrade significantly, it can lead to the need for re-lining the chimney.

Single flue cap

A single flue cap protects your flue from critters and weather

A single flue cap fits over the top of your flue to keep out snow, rain, and animals (birds’ nests are hard to remove without destroying the nest, and raccoons are hard to remove without damage to everybody involved). A stainless steel flue cap is the least expensive option for protecting your flues, generally less than $200 for a stainless steel cap with a lifetime warranty.

The best option, both for protecting your crown and your flue/s, is a full-coverage, multi-flue chimney cap, which extends past the edges of your chimney crown, sheltering your chimney top from the elements and reducing your long-term maintenance costs considerably. These caps come with a lifetime warranty, in either stainless steel (can be powder coated in a variety of colors) or copper. Cheaper painted steel chimney caps are available but they do not last a lifetime. The cost of these caps depends on the size of your chimney but typically run between $400 and $600.

Full-coverage cap

A full coverage, multi-flue cap with a hip ridge top (also available in flat style). The overhang at the edges of the chimney protects the wash.