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!

 

 

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!

Company Road Trip: Update

The Hearth, Patio, & Barbecue Expo was great! The HPBA show is an annual opportunity for us to meet with other Hearth & Patio retailers, manufacturers, and distributors to exchange ideas and discuss the current state of the industry. We’ve never taken the entire company before, so this was a brand new (and exciting) experience for most of the staff.

As part of our commitment to ongoing education and training, Wooden Sun employees attended a variety of classes and training sessions. Josh Thornhill, our warehouse manager, is now an NFI-certified gas technician (congratulations, Josh!).We’re waiting on the results for two of our other employees (including your faithful blogger), who took the woodburning certification exam. The certification exams required a full day of class work and a four hour final exam. The whole Wooden Sun team also attended a variety of courses on sales, job site safety, customer service and maintenance and  troubleshooting procedures for wood and gas products.

HPBA trade show

HPBExpo show floor. Photo courtesty of HPBExpo on Facebook

The trade show portion of the week was, of course, amazing. We caught up with our vendors and distributors (or, in some cases, met them in person for the first time!), got some refreshers on the products we sell, and enjoyed a sneak peek of upcoming product releases. We found some new-to-us vendors and products to explore, for both our indoor and outdoor categories. Several of our current distributors are releasing new products and product lines this summer or fall; watch this space for ongoing updates about exciting new products you can find in our store.

HPBA outdoor burn

The BBQ Dragon in action. Photo courtesy of HPBExpo.com

 

Even in the chilly weather, the outdoor burn area was going strong. Grills, smokers, pizza ovens — everything was fired up and producing amazing food (it was also nice to be able to stop at a firepit every few feet to take off the chill). As hearth professionals we were, of course, obligated to sample several different vendors’ offerings, to see which products we might be interested in bringing to our outdoor kitchen and patio line.

All work and no play make for a dull road trip.  Fortunate enough to arrive and leave in the good weather that bookended the storm that had I-40 snarled for 32 miles, we all had a great time in a snowy Nashville. The next time you are in Nashville, we would heartily recommend Morton’s Steak House, especially if you can get a high quality supplier like Olympia Chimney to take you out for dinner! Some of us also took a turn as rodeo stars on the mechanical bull at the Tequila Cowboy, bathed in the Nashville sound at Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Bars (three floors, each with its own band), or tried to break into the music scene at a karaoke bar, which will remain unnamed in case they have video of the performances.

From stoves and fireplace accessories to grills and patio furniture, there was something for everybody at the HPB Expo, and we enjoyed our time there. We went to Nashville filled with questions and excitement, and came back filled with new information, freshly-polished skills, and lots of great products and ideas for the future!

 

 

 

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.

Hearth and Chimney Safety

Chase after chimney fire

Outside of chase after fire was extinguished.

Chimney fires are a serious matter, and can cause hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in property damage.  In the last three years, approximately 72,500 chimney fires occurred in the United States, causing about $92 million in property damage and resulting in 30 deaths.   In November of 2013, a chimney fire damaged a home in Louisa County (see photo to the right).  The fire was not catastrophic only because some residents were home and awake. This fire was caused by a wood stove being placed too close to combustibles (osb board). The combustibles were behind a stone facing, which is a common problem. Many people think stone acts as a heat barrier. In fact, stone is a very good conductor of heat and the heat was simply transferred to the board underneath, which spontaneously caught fire after a process called pyrolysis lowered the combustion temperature of the wood.  Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and ensure proper clearances! When a manufacturer refers to a “heat shield” or “protected surface” it means a noncombustible material with a 1″ air space between the combustible and the heat shield — it must be open on 3 sides or at the top and the bottom allow air to freely circulate behind the heat shield.

While there are many possible factors contributing to any chimney fire, the most common is the buildup of creosote, whether glazed or powdery, which results from incomplete combustion of a wood fire.  In addition to burning well-seasoned wood in a responsible fashion, it’s important for homeowners to make sure to have the chimney and fireplace cleaned and inspected each year by a certified hearth professional.  Not only will the sweep make sure that the chimney is clear of creosote and other buildup, but he or she can provide information about any damage (loose pipes, damaged masonry, etc) which may interfere with the safe, efficient operation of wood-burning appliances.

Laurelwood Condominium Fire

Damage to the three units was catastrophic. All three had to be completely gutted and rebuilt.

In early February of 2012, several units in the Laurelwood Condominiums at Wintergreen Resort were damaged by what initially appeared to be a chimney fire.  Investigators later determined the fire to have been the result of sparks coming from the firebox and getting into a gap between the firebox and hearth extension in one of the units.  A protective metal strip was not installed as required by code and the manufacturer. Wooden Sun has been retroactively removing the hearth and installing the missing metal strips, a costly but necessary repair.

Installing fireplaces safely is important!  Make sure to check the required clearances to combustibles for your wood-burning appliance, use adequate hearth protection (insulated hearth pad, stone hearth, etc), and never leave an open fire unattended.  Additionally, a spark guard or screen door can keep burning embers in your fireplace where they belong, rather than on your carpet or furniture.  Finally, always remove fireplace ash to a metal container, rather than plastic or wood, and never place the container on a combustible floor after removing ashes.  Embers can remain hot for days, and any ashes should be treated as though they had burning embers in them.