Fireplaces – The Ins and Outs

There is nothing better than sitting in front of a fire on a cold winter day.  As you will discover there is more to a fireplace then just putting wood in and lighting it on fire.  If you own a fireplace, you are probably aware that it can be the best feature of your house, but also the worst feature in your house.  Yes, it is great to sit in front of a blazing fire, but it also causes heat loss, smoke build up and more.  Below are some good tips and tricks you can use to make a fireplace the best feature of your home and at the same time cut down on the negatives.

This has happened to all of us, we build a blazing fire only to find out it is actually cooler in the house than warmer.  Here is another one, when the fire is going, we actually feel a cold draft circulating inside the house.  There is a simple solution to these two problems.  A house will feel colder and more drafty for two reasons.  First a fire needs oxygen, so as it burns, it pulls more oxygen towards the fire, but the biggest reason is hot air rises.  As the air rises, it needs to be replaced with more air to fill in the void.  The only place it can find more air is inside the house, so this air is pulled into the fire and that’s why we feel drafts or even cold air.  A simple solution is to make smaller fires.  I know, it fun to have bigger fires, but actually a smaller fire makes more sense.  A smaller fire does a couple of important things.  First, it slows down how much air is being pulled up the chimney.  Since the air is moving slower up the chimney, the fire actually has more time to radiate heat into the room and this will actually cause the room to get warmer, even though the fire is smaller.  A smaller fire will also cause less drafts in the house, which will keep the house warmer.

Another way to make sure you have more heat radiating into the house is to always keep around 1/2″ of ash on the fireplace floor.  If you start a fire with out any ashes on the fireplace floor, the fire now has to work hard to warm up the floor below, which can take a long time.  All this time you do not have as much heat entering the house since it is working on warming up the floor.  Remember, heat always travels to cold, not the other way around.  The ashes on the floor act as a good insulator, which will help radiate heat more effectively.

You want even more heat?  Well burn hardwood instead of softwood.  Burning hardwood does two things.  First, hardwood burns slower and hotter than softwood, so it will produce more heat that can radiate into your home.  The second and most important benefit of hardwood is that it will not create as much of a soot build up as softwood does.  You still need to clean your chimney on a regular basis, but the build up is a lot less.  Chimney fires happen because of soot build up.  The hot air rises and starts to cause the soot to build up.  As soon as the soot reaches its ignition temperature, it will ignite and start to burn.

Since we are talking about wood, let’s discuss where to get wood.  Look at your surroundings, maybe a neighbor cut down a tree.  Maybe it is worth your time to take the tree and split the wood yourself.  Remember, it takes about 6 months before split wood will dry and become usable.  A great place to get free wood is at a construction site.  No, not the lumber, but the trees.  Some job sites will take down trees in order to erect the building.  These trees will sometimes sit there for awhile.  Just make sure you talk with the contractor before you go on their land.

Have you ever noticed that when you are having a fire, you get smoke that comes out the sides?  I am not talking about the occasional downdraft or the times you don’t have the wood arranged properly in the fire place.  This tends to happen in older homes.  The reason for this is the fireplace opening is too tall.  The smoke cools down to quickly and therefore doesn’t properly rise.  We had this happen to an older home about a year ago.  We used a simple solution that any homeowner can perform.  We laid down a layer of firebrick on the bottom of the fireplace.  This raised the level of the fireplace and basically eliminated the problem.

Since we are talking about smoke bellowing out of the sides, we all have smoke build up on the outside of the fireplace.  The best way to clean this is to use warm water with a mild detergent and this should take care of the mess.  If the water still leaves some behind, i get out my magic eraser and this always does the trick.  The brick will look brand new.

** If you have a gas burning fireplace, make sure you install a Carbon Monoxide detector in case of a failure.  The detector will alert you in case there is a back up in the chimney or a downdraft.

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Eric is a huge Cubs fans and no, he is not related to Chevy Chase. While he loves remodeling his house, his passion is spending time with his wife and two children.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. I have a fire place and always run a blazing fire, but never heats the house. I am going to check these tip this year and will get back to you to see how they work.

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