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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Masonry repairs should be done in the spring

By Marge Padgitt


Badly spalling bricks on a chimney
If there are pieces of bricks or stones lying around the yard or driveway, it could be a sign that masonry repair is needed. The first place to look for damages by cold, freezing rain, and wind is the chimney since it is the area most exposed to the elements.

Signs that repairs or rebuilding is needed are missing or deteriorating mortar joints, cracked bricks or stones, or faces of masonry popped off. This is due to the penetration of water into the masonry- and when water freezes it expands, which usually results in the face of a brick or stone breaking off.

Badly spalling bricks
Unfortunately, many chimneys are built with soft type bricks rather than hard type bricks due to the cost.  Soft bricks absorb moisture more easily than hard bricks. After a few years, the soft bricks will begin to show damage, but after 30 years any type of brick or stone chimney will likely show damages of some type, if only to the mortar joints.  In some cases, masons have found completely deteriorated bricks with hard mortar left behind. In other cases, the bricks are good but the mortar is severely deteriorated or missing altogether. When this occurs it is a sign that the wrong type of mortar was used.  For this reason, the Midwest Chimney Safety Council recommends that chimneys should be built or reconstructed using hard bricks and the right type of mortar which will last many years longer than those built with soft masonry units.

Mortar deteriorated so badly that
the chimney is falling apart
Mortar sets up better when the work is done in the spring when temperatures are moderate so the curing process can complete without issue. If the temperature is too cold, the mortar can crack and take a long time to cure. If the temperature is too hot the water in the mortar may migrate to surrounding masonry and shrink. Professional masons can control some of this by adding an accelerant in cold weather or soaking bricks in water before using them in hot weather, but they much prefer working with masonry in ideal weather conditions.

Cement cap with drip edge
The cement cap (crown) should be inspected in the spring to assure that it is in good condition with no cracks, deterioration, or lifting. The cap serves as a roof for the chimney and keeps the elements out of the interior chimney chase where rain can cause damage to the interior flue, smoke chamber, damper, and firebox. Any small cracks or gaps should be filled with high temp silicone, but if large cracks, severe deterioration, or missing sections of the cap exist a new cap should be constructed.  As of 2012, the International Residential Code required a poured formed crown with a drip edge to better protect the chimney from damaging rainwater. The old-style crowns with a slope but without a drip edge actually contribute to the fast deterioration of masonry at the top part of the chimney, so this newer style is a big improvement.
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Marge Padgitt is the CEO of HearthMasters, Inc. and HearthMasters Education in Kansas City, Missouri. Contact her at hearthmastersboss@gmail.com

Monday, January 20, 2020

Older Inefficient Wood Stoves Should be Replaced

From Burn Wise by the EPA:

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are more than 17.5 million fireplaces, 241,000 hydronic heaters, and 10.1 million wood stoves nationwide.  The EPA estimates that 65 percent (6.5 million) of the nation’s wood stoves are older, inefficient devices.

Smoke from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces contain a mixture of harmful gases and small particles. Breathing these small particles can cause asthma attacks and severe bronchitis,
aggravate heart and lung disease, and may increase the likelihood of respiratory illnesses. Particle pollution exposure can lead to a variety of health effects. For example, numerous studies link
particle levels to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits—and even to early death. Research indicates that obesity or diabetes may increase risk. New or expectant mothers
may also want to take precautions to protect the health of their babies because some studies indicate they may be at increased risk.
Some studies also suggest that long-term PM 2.5 exposures may be linked to cancer and to harmful developmental and reproductive effects, such as infant mortality and low birth weight.

Changing out one old dirty, inefficient wood stove is equivalent to the PM2.5 pollution reduction of taking five old diesel trucks off the road.

New 75% efficient insert by Regency
Benefits of replacing an old wood stove with an EPA-certified stove:
 saves money, fuel, time, and resources.
 up to 50 percent more energy efficient.
 uses 1/3 less wood for the same heat.
 cuts creosote build-up in chimneys that helps reduce the risk of fire.

After start-up, a properly installed, correctly used EPA-certified wood stove should be smoke-free. If you see or smell smoke that means you may have a problem.

To help reduce smoke, make sure to burn dry wood that has been split, stacked, covered, and stored for at least 6 months. Never burn garbage, plastics, or pressure-treated wood.

Research estimates 70 percent of smoke from chimneys can actually reenter your home and your neighbor’s home. (Pierson et al 1989)

Consider using a HEPA filter in the same room as your stove or fireplace. A study from the University of British Columbia indicates that HEPA filters can reduce indoor particle pollution by 60 percent.


Avoidable Chimney Fires Account for Loss of Life and Property

Chimney fires account for over 50,000 home structure fires annually.

The National Fire Protection Association estimates that in 2011, heating equipment was involved in an estimated 53,600 reported U.S. home structure fires, with associated losses of 400 civilian deaths, 1,520 civilian injuries, and $893 million in direct property damage. These fires accounted for 14 percent of all reported home fires.

In 2013, one home structure fire was reported every 85 seconds. (NFPA)

Note that these statistics are for structural fires only, and do not include chimney fires that are contained to the chimney. The cost for damages to chimneys is unknown but estimated to be high.

The leading factor contributing to home heating fires was a failure to clean creosote from solid-fueled heating equipment, primarily chimneys. (NFPA) All chimney fires can be prevented by having  regular sweeping and maintenance performed by a professional chimney sweep, who will remove flammable creosote and inspect the chimney. The NFPA suggests annual inspection and sweeping as necessary for open wood-burning fireplaces, and bi-annual sweeping for wood stoves and wood-burning fireplace inserts.

The United States Fire Administration estimates that wood stoves cause over 4,000 residential fires every year.

Confined fires, those fires confined to chimneys, flues or flue burners, accounted for 87 percent of residential building heating fires. (USFA)

Thirty percent of the non-confined residential building heating fires occurred because the heat source was too close to combustibles. (USFA)

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 150 people die on average per year from carbon monoxide poisoning, related to the use of combustion appliances, including wood stoves, in the home.

_________________________
Marge Padgitt is a veteran chimney technician and owner of HearthMasters, Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri. Contact her at www.chimkc.com.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Cut utility bills by using wood-heating appliances

A good way to cut utility bills during cold weather is to use a wood-fired heating appliance such as a masonry heater, wood-burning stove, or wood-burning fireplace insert. 

Today’s modern wood-burning heating appliances are very efficient and clean-burning, unlike their older predecessors. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates wood stove emissions and has strict requirements that stove manufacturers must follow. This is why replacing an older, dirty-burning wood stove is good not only for the environment but good for the pocketbook because less wood is needed to produce the same amount of heat as older stoves.

Fuel costs can be significantly less than oil, gas, or electric heating appliances, especially if there is a nearby supply of inexpensive cordwood. For homeowners with their own land and trees, the concept of no cost for fuel other than physical exertion is very attractive. For those wanting to live off-grid, have an emergency heating alternative, or just lower fuel costs, the addition of a wood-burning appliance is a good solution.

A soapstone heater by Tulikivi
Masonry heaters are arguably the best type of wood-burning  
appliance. They use old-world technology consisting of a large mass of masonry and a series of channels installed inside the appliance that trap heat, then transfer the heat slowly through the masonry. Masonry heaters are large and need to be centrally located for maximum benefit. The Masonry Heater Association of North America recommends that a Certified Heater Mason construct a masonry heater since he/she has taken specialized training on this unique appliance.  There are also pre-made kits available through such companies as Tulikivi, but these need to be built by trained experts. The MHA has more information on these efficient site-built appliances on their website at www.mha-net.org.

Fireplace insert by Regency
Fireplace inserts are appliances that are installed inside an existing masonry fireplace. They use a small stainless steel flue liner and can be used either with or without a blower. By installing a new EPA approved efficient wood-burning fireplace insert the fireplace efficiency will be increased by approximately 75%.

Freestanding wood-burning stoves are also very efficient and clean–burning. They work by emitting radiant and convective heat and are best situated in a central location in the home. A stove can be installed in any room with the proper floor and wall protection. A wood stove installed in a basement can provide needed warmth in a cold area, and since heat rises - the floors above will be heated as well.
Freestanding stove by Hearthstone

As far as chimneys go, a Class A stainless steel chimney can be used to vent gasses, or an existing masonry chimney may be used with a stainless steel liner installed.  A professional installer will know which type of flue liner or chimney to use with a particular appliance.

The Midwest Chimney Safety Council suggests hiring a professional to do any type of wood-fueled appliance installation. In some areas, it is a code requirement to have a licensed professional install a wood-burning appliance.  The National Fireplace Institute has a list of NFI Certified wood-burning specialists on their website, and the Chimney Safety Institute of America has a searchable database of CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps.                                                                                                                     
For more information on fuel cost calculators visit http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/woodstoves.html     
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Marge Padgitt is a chimney industry veteran, author, and publisher living in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit her website at www.chimkc.com or contact her at hearthmastersboss@gmail.com

Keep wood stoves in good working order for the winter season



Wood-burning insert by Regency
(available at www.chimkc.com)
Wood stoves and inserts can be a great way to heat a home during winter months but problems can develop if they are not properly maintained on a regular basis. Unlike gas, electric, or oil heating appliances, wood stoves need attention more often than once per year in order to function properly.

Wood burning stoves and fireplace inserts are designed to keep most of the heat inside the home, rather than allowing heat to escape up the flue as a regular open fireplace does. However, not all wood-burning appliances are the same. Older models are much less efficient and produce more emissions that pollute the environment. The basic difference between newer and older models is the baffle system and secondary burn chamber, which in new models burn more of the flammable gasses. According to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbeque Association, pre-EPA approved stoves should be changed out to newer EPA approved and U.L. listed stoves for better efficiency and cleaner burning, which is better for the environment.

Woodstove owners should first learn how to properly operate the appliance by reading the manual or asking their chimney sweep. By loading the proper amount of cordwood and adjusting the combustion air inlet to achieve a hot-burning fire, the stove will operate according to expectations. Hot fires are more efficient. Next, the chimney flue and pipe connector need to be clear of debris which may include bird nests, leaves, twigs, or creosote in order for the stove to draft properly. The stove connector and flue should be cleaned out at least twice during the burning season because accumulated creosote on the flue walls reduces draft.

Flue liner with burnt creosote that has
been on fire
Expanded or burnt creosote which occurs during a chimney fire can completely block off a flue and cause smoke to back up into the home. If this occurs suddenly the stove operator should shut down the air intake and get out of the house, then call the fire department even if flames are not visible on the exterior chimney.  Regular maintenance by a professional chimney sweep will reduce the risk of a chimney fire. According to the Midwest Chimney Safety Council, all types of wood create creosote, so there is no way to avoid it, however, creosote reduction is possible by the use of a chemical such as Ant-Creo-Soot before each burn cycle, and proper operation of the stove.

For more information visit www.chimkc.com.

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Marge Padgitt is a chimney industry veteran and writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. Contact her at hearthmastersboss@gmail.com or through www.chimkc.com


Monday, December 30, 2019

Biomass Tax Credit - don't forget to claim it!

Happy Holidays from HearthMasters - and the Federal Government!

If you purchased a wood-burning stove or insert in 2017 - 2019 you may be eligible for a $300 tax credit.

Every year, many taxpayers fail to take advantage of the tax credits for which they're eligible. HPBA works to ensure that the $300 biomass stove tax credit is not forgotten. Rewarding investment in more energy-efficient technology can benefit not only individuals but also can positively impact the air quality of entire communities. The U.S. federal government offers a tax credit to tax-paying homeowners who purchase a wood or pellet stove that is at least 75 percent efficient.

The biomass stove tax credit has been extended for purchases made before December 31, 2020. You can claim this credit on your tax return if you made a qualifying purchase since December 31, 2017 and up to December 31, 2020.

What is it?
A $300 tax credit for purchasing a biomass stove that is at least 75 percent efficient. This includes wood-burning stoves and inserts, pellet stoves and inserts, and other types of stoves. 

How to Claim It:
Complete eligible purchase by December 31, 2020.
Retain the receipts from your purchase as well as the manufacturer certificate stating the stove qualifies.
Claim the credit on your federal income tax form.

For more information visit:

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Beware of Flammable Nest Hazards


By Gene Padgitt, CFI, and Marge Padgitt

Many house fires occur due to flammable bird or squirrel nests in or around chimneys. On Monday, February 10, 2014, Gene found a nest that was built on top of a direct vent gas fireplace vent on the exterior of the house.  The nest and wood house siding was charred, which means that the nest was trapping heat in an area that needed to be clear of obstructions. Heat chemically changes the structure of wood over time and lowers the ignition point. Where wood normally ignites at approximately 500 degrees, wood exposed to heat over time may ignite at only 180 degrees or lower. In this case, the homeowners were lucky to have had service done to their appliance when they did or it would have gone unnoticed and eventually caused the house to catch fire.

Shortly after the above inspection, Gene inspected another direct vent gas fireplace and found another bird nest packed tightly inside the holes in the vent. The homeowners had no idea that birds could get behind the vent cover and build a fire hazard inside the vent. It is a good thing they decided to have us do an annual gas appliance check and tune-up or it wouldn’t have been found.


Flammable bird nest material
in a Direct Vent gas fireplace
vent. Homeowners should check
the exterior vent before using
each season. 
Birds and squirrels love to build nests inside and on chimneys where they have some protection from the elements, and heat to keep warm in the winter. Unfortunately, nests are built with flammable dry twigs and other materials that can easily catch fire and cause a chimney or vent fire that may become a house fire.

In 2013 we did a fire investigation involving an unlisted decorative shroud on top of a wood chimney chase serving a manufactured fireplace. The shroud contained over five-gallon buckets full of squirrel nesting materials that were packed down inside the shroud and not visible from the ground. The materials trapped heat inside the area, which in turn ignited the combustible framing. According to the International Residential Code, only shrouds listed for the particular manufactured appliance may be installed.  Unfortunately, there are many architects and builders who design unlisted shrouds to cover ugly chimney termination caps which do not have a listing and are potential fire hazards.  As chimney sweeps we need to be diligent about checking for listed and labeled shrouds and removing those that are not listed.

We had an unbelievable case about 18 years ago which involved the removal of over 20’ of squirrel nesting material inside a clay tile flue liner. It took two men two trips to get all of the material out with many types of equipment. They were almost to the point of tearing the chimney down when they finally broke through the packed materials. The squirrels apparently used the same location year after year and built a new nest on top of the old nest until reaching the top.  Luckily, the homeowners had not used the fireplace for many years and called us to inspect it before using it. 
In yet another fire investigation case in 2012, Gene found the cause of a fire to be bird nesting material packed inside an older model manufactured chimney pipe that was designed without adequate protection against birds.  Birds built the nest between the inner and outer pipe sections and on top of the chase top.  This blocked the air-cooled chimney and caused it to overheat, ignited nesting materials, which in turn ignited nearby combustibles several inches away.  This is something to look for in older model pre-fabricated fireplaces, and unfortunately, there are many of these types of fireplaces still in use.

In 2013 we did an inspection of a manufactured fireplace unit that had bird feathers and nesting materials coming down the flue and through a gap at the bottom of the pipe. Further inspection revealed that nesting materials were packed between the inner and outer chimney walls. We advised the homeowner, who only wanted a screen installed to keep the birds out, that the entire system was a fire hazard and needed to be replaced. This started a huge controversy and she left negative feedback on Angie’s List.  I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the house burns down. The sad part about this case is that another chimney company did install a screen on the chimney cover for her and did nothing else.  What we say when this happens is “They just bought that chimney,” which means to fire investigators that the last person to touch it is the first person the insurance companies go after.

Chimney swifts are especially drawn to dark, cool masonry chimneys and build their nests with mud and twigs on the sidewalls of flues and smoke chambers. In the U.S., the Chimney Swift is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Neither birds nor nests can be removed from chimneys without a federally-issued permit. Other birds build nests on the smoke shelf or damper. All nests are flammable and are a fire hazard. Unfortunately, the Migratory Bird Act prevents homeowners or chimney sweeps from removing nesting birds of any type inside chimneys, and substantial fines may apply per occurrence.

Homeowners can prevent the entry of birds into masonry chimneys by installing a masonry chimney cover with a bird guard screen on top of the flue or a multi-flue cap. A chimney cover serves dual duty by also keeping rain which deteriorates mortar joints out of the flue.
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Gene and Marge Padgitt own HearthMasters, Inc. chimney and fireplace restoration company in Kansas City, Missouri.