Knowing the common problems with wood-burning fireplaces and how they can be fixed will help real estate professionals counsel clients on their pros and cons.

By Dan Steward

Dan Steward

Dan Steward

Although wood-burning fireplaces are no longer the main source of heat for modern homes, many home buyers still desire them. They associate fireplaces with cosy homes. Knowing the common problems with wood-burning fireplaces and how they can be fixed will help real estate professionals counsel clients on their pros and cons.

In Montreal, the executive committee of Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s administration views wood-burning fireplaces as detrimental to the city’s air quality. “Montreal’s estimated 85,000 wood-burning stoves and fireplaces are believed to produce nearly half of the island’s winter smog,” reported the CBC in April.

In addition, according to a study by Environment Canada reported in The Toronto Star, “Using a wood-fire stove for only nine hours…produces as much fine-particle pollution as does a car in a year.”

In April of 2009, the City of Montreal banned the installation of wood-burning stoves in new homes. The ban included devices retrofitted with more environmentally friendly components, the CBC reported.

There are ways that residents can eliminate the amount of smoke from a wood-burning fireplace, making them more environmentally friendly. First, they need to understand how the fireplace works. Smoke should be drawn naturally up the chimney at all times. If the fireplace smokes when it’s operating, it’s not designed properly, or there is something in the house that is causing the fireplace to smoke.

There are some configurations that are more likely to smoke than others. For example, chimney height has a big influence on how well the fireplace draws. A taller chimney will draw better. Also, the flue size should be at least 1/12 of the fireplace opening size in order to provide an optimal draw and eliminate smoke.

It’s common for the fireplace to smoke when the fire is first lit and when the fire has burnt down. This is called the cold-hearth syndrome. When the chimney flue is hot, it draws well, and when it’s cold, air flows down the chimney rather than up. Sometimes this can cause soot and cold air to pour down the chimney when the fireplace is not in use, even when the damper is closed. This is indicative of a less-than-ideal fireplace and chimney design.

Homeowners should also check for soot under the mantel. If there is soot on the underside of the mantel, it could indicate a fireplace with chronic back-drafting.

Solutions for smoking fireplaces include:

* Add glass doors: They reduce the effective fireplace opening size and the volume of air going up the chimney. These both improve the fireplace draw.

* Decrease the fireplace opening size: Anything that reduces the opening size of the fireplace will result in better draw.

* Extend the chimney: A taller chimney draws better. This is a good solution, but it is more expensive than the other suggestions.

* Convert to gas: If all else fails, consider installing a gas direct-vent fireplace. These fireplaces vent out the wall of the house. No chimney is needed.

A zero-clearance fireplace is a viable option for those who would like to have a fireplace added to their house. It has a light-weight insulated chimney. This means it can be added to the house without adding a foundation, making it an option for any floor of the house, and as the name says, it requires “zero clearance.”

In comparison, a conventional wood-burning fireplace is a massive structure made of masonry and non-combustible material – the firebox, the hearth, the chimney and the chimney liner. It is very heavy and needs a foundation. This type of fireplace is expensive to retrofit into a house that does not have a fireplace because it needs to be built from the footing level up.

There have been many fires due to improper operation and maintenance of wood-burning equipment. Knowing how to operate them is imperative to home safety. Here are a few safety tips:

* Hire a professional chimney sweep to get rid of any creosote build-up in the chimney because it is a highly combustible substance.

* Keep the flue clean by burning only seasoned hardwood. Don’t burn garbage and scraps of paper.

* Keep smoke in its place by stacking logs near the back of the fireplace.

* Make sure the damper is open before lighting the fire.

* Have the flue cleaned and inspected yearly (cleaned more often if you use the fireplace a lot).

* Keep the hearth area clean and clear.

* Use a spark screen in front of the fire.

* Don’t leave an open fire unattended.

* Make sure household smoke and CO detectors are functioning.

* Zero-clearance fireplaces need to be cleaned and inspected as well. They don’t tolerate a lack of maintenance well.

* For zero clearance, check the manual to verify if the fireplace can be operated with the glass door shut.

Real estate professionals should stay attuned to common problems associated with wood-burning fireplaces and how they can be fixed, in order to not lose a sale. In some instances, remember it would be best to consider the zero-clearance wood-burning fireplace as an option.

Dan Steward is president of Pillar to Post home inspections, which has almost 500 locations in nine provinces and 43 states. 1-800-294-5591;

Posted: 2010-02-17 07:57:29

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