Six Things to Check Before You Cozy Up to the Fire

Winter is fast approaching and there are six things to check before you cozy up to the fire.  It’s not particularly glamorous or fun but there are definitely things that you need to check out on a yearly basis before you even begin to think about chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . .

Spring and early summer are the very best times to have your annual fireplace inspection and generally the cheapest.  Still, if you’ve put it off till now it’s not too late.

The degree of maintenance will depend on what kind of fireplace you have.  A masonry fireplace is one constructed entirely of bricks or stone and mortar and are almost always found in older or more rustic homes.  A factory-build fireplace consists of a metal firebox and chimney.

If you are not sure which you have there are a couple of easy clues. First, the hearth or floor of a masonry fireplace is usually constructed of bricks joined with mortar.  Factory-built fireplaces use refractory panels made of a pale grey heat-resistant stone.

Look up through the damper – a masonry fireplace will have a large void called the smoke chamber but a factory-built unit will connect directly to a round, stainless steel pipe.

Finally, take a look at your chimney.  If you have a square cap or no cap at all, it’s pretty sure you have a masonry built fireplace.  On the other hand, a round cap is a sure sign of a factory built unit.

Now that you know what you have, let’s look at the six things you need to check.

Foundation: supports the entire structure of a masonry fireplace and can weigh several tons

  • Should be inspected when buying a new home, if you have questions check with a home inspector

Firebox: recessed area where the fire is built.

  • Are the bricks or mortar loose or cracked?  If so, you run a risk of the fire not being properly contained as it burns.
  • For a factory-built fireplace, look for cracks in the refractory panels.  If there are gaps through which you can fit a quarter, then the panels need to be replaced.

Damper:  mechanism that separates the interior of the fireplace from portions exposed to the exterior of your home.

  • The damper must be closed when the fireplace is not in use to prevent heat and cool air from escaping.  Before using the fireplace, test the lever to see that the damper opens and closes properly.  If must be able to open and stay open for proper venilation once a fire is built.

Flue:  passageway through which smoke and sparks are carried up and out.

  • A flue will accumulate creosote, a natural build up of carbon which can ignite on its own and cause a fire.   The flue should be inspected annually (something you can do).  Take a yardstick and scrape some of the soot from the inside.  If the buildup appears to be more than a quarter-inch thick, then you need to call a chimney sweep for a good cleaning.

Chimney: structure surrounding one or more flues and all related components.

  • Make sure the roof flashing is in good repair, directing water away from the chimney structure and that masonry chimneys are in good condition with no loose mortar.

Chimney cap:  keeps pests and damaging elements out and has a spark arrestor to prevent floating embers from causing a fire.

  • If you chimney does not have a cap – and many masonry units do not, it pays to invest in one to keep out water, birds and squirrels.  A damaged or leaking cap should be replaced.

So there you are, six things to check before you cozy up to the fire.

Wait!  You don’t have a house with a fireplace?  Call me at 703.927.4554 and let’s find you one.

Michael