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Friday, August 30, 2013

Be Prepared for Cold Winter

Farmer's Almanac predicts a very cold winter for 2013-2014 with large areas of below-normal temperatures over the Northern Plains and the Great Lakes.  Precipitation is expected to be higher than normal in the Midwest, Southeast and Southern Plains.

HearthMasters encourages people to be prepared for power outages by installing a wood stove or fireplace insert for heating. Gas furnaces do not work without a fan, which is run on electricity.

Hearthstone soapstone wood stove

Wood stoves or inserts may be used for everyday heating purposes as the primary source of heat or as a supplemental heat source to cut down on fuel costs.

Gene and I use a wood stove at our own house, and prefer using it to the gas furnace because there is low fan sound and it feels better than heated air coming through the registers.  Wood stoves produce convective heat, and radiant heat - like the sun - so the warmth penetrates the body, which helps people with conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia.

During 2013 a $300 tax credit may be applied to a high-efficiency wood stove purchase.  Stoves should be sized correctly for the home, placed in the correct location for even heating, and installed by a professional stove installer, who should also install the chimney or flue liner.  This is not a DIY project, and most cities require that a permit be pulled by a qualified contractor for the installation. An improper installation can be a fire hazard.

Wood-burning stove insert
Wood stoves are freestanding appliances and inserts are installed in existing masonry chimneys.  They cannot be installed in a manufactured fireplace.

Wood stove or insert flues must be swept on a regular basis - once per year for supplemental heating, and twice per season if used for primary heating.  In some cases, sweeping more often may be necessary. 

This wood is not seasoned yet - there are no splits
or cracks in the ends
Use of the proper wood is critical to the performance of the stove.  Use only dry, seasoned hard or soft woods such as oak, hickory or maple.  Less wood is used when hardwoods are burned because they are more dense.  Purchase or cut wood at least six months in advance of the burning season and be sure to check the moisture content before burning, which should be between 15 - 20%.  Wet wood does not heat, the moisture must be burned off first which delays the heating time. 

Inexpensive moisture meters can be purchased from us or a hearth retailer, but a quick way to tell if wood is seasoned is to look for splits or cracks in the ends of the wood or bang two logs together - if there is a hollow sound it is pretty dry.  Keep wood off the ground and covered to keep rain off, but leave the sides open for air ventilation.

Never use dry pine logs or discarded Christmas trees in a wood stove or fireplace because they burn very hot very quickly, and chimney fires often occur when this is done.   If using hedge, use only one stick of hedge and two sticks of other wood at a time.  Hedge burns hot and fast as well and can cause overheating and warpage of a wood stove, which is costly damage and a potential safety hazard. 

Chimney fires are caused by the accumulation of creosote in the flue which ignites from heat or a spark.  Avoid chimney fires by having the chimney swept on a regular basis.

See more information and homeowner tips at

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chimney Fires Common

Burnt creosote removed from a flue
Chimney Fires are more common than most people realize.  Every year, thousands of chimney sweeps sweep and inspect thousands of chimneys in the U.S. and find damages from chimney fires.  Most chimney fires go unnoticed by the homeowner, but the damage and evidence left behind shows that one or more occurred during the wood-burning season. 

These questions often come up when evaluating chimney damages: What is chimney fire damage?  And what other possible causes might there be for damages to a flue liner, chimney, smoke chamber, and chimney cover?  The MCSC has put together these guidelines in order to help insurance adjusters, engineers, and chimney inspectors determine the causes for chimney damages.  This is very brief outline, and we suggest that a copy of the book named above be obtained if further explanation is needed.

 · Most chimney fires occur without the homeowner’s knowledge—in fact, only very few fires are witnessed or reported to the fire department.

Cracked flue tiles from a chimney fire
      · When a sudden temperature differential of 500 degrees occurs in a chimney, the clay tile flue liners will crack due to expansion.  This differential cannot be obtained by the normal operation of a fireplace or wood stove, and has not been able to be duplicated in field study.  Studies show that a chimney fire is the most likely candidate for the cause of tile liners to break.  

     · Tile liners will break longitudinally first, due to the nature of their construction, then horizontal and diagonal cracks will occur in more severe fires.

Break in a flue tile
· A NON-creosote chimney fire can occur when flue gasses accumulate in the flue and will ignite when temperatures reach 1000 degrees. Note: Creosote ignites at 1000 degrees.

· Burnt, ash creosote may found in the flue and smoke chamber after a chimney fire.  This is lightweight, expanded creosote that can only be created by a chimney fire. 

· Isolated scorched areas of the flue may be present (although not always) and are positive indications of a chimney fire, since accumulating creosote does not avoid particular areas.

Burnt creosote on a flue tile
· Tar glaze may have melted away from the fire. Some creosote may melt and flow away from the combustion zone and may be found in the smoke chamber or damper area, or around the thimble entrance of a stove pipe, or around a chimney cover.

· Fires of long duration may cause thermal expansion of the masonry such as the cement crown, facial wall, and exterior chimney, which will result in clean breaks in the masonry. 

· Holes and mortar bond breaks may be found in the smoke chamber area and flue after a chimney fire due to expansion.

· The chimney cover may be warped, discolored, or damaged.

Myths regarding tile flue liner damages:
· Thermal fatigue (p 4-11) (years of expansion and contraction) cracking: no evidence is found to support this idea.

· Lightning: (p 4-9) lightning can damage flue liners, but there is usually other damage to the chimney such as blown out bricks at the top of the stack.

· Moisture– (page 4-12) Rain entering the chimney from the top of the flue and from condensing flue gasses: Washed-out mortar joints and spalling (flaking) flue liners are caused by moisture. No evidence has been found to support the suggestion that cracked tiles are the result of moisture damages, however, if the chimney was not constructed properly with air space between the flue and surrounding masonry, and water leaked into the chimney between the flue and masonry and froze, it is not inconceivable that the expansion might cause a liner to crack horizontally.

· Settlement: (4.3.3) “Settlement is an overly-used diagnosis of distress in masonry structures of all types.” However, it does occur.  Look for inadequate foundation or footing and uneven settling.  Also look for shifted or offset flue tiles, which shows movement. 

Pre-Fab Fireplaces: From a Fire Investigator’s Point of View

By Gene Padgitt, CFI and Marge Padgitt, CCS

 As a chimney business owner since 1982, and as a State Certified Fire Investigator since 1999, I have had the opportunity to investigate the cause and origin of many residential fires related to chimneys.  One of the major causes of chimney-related structural fires in my opinion is the Pre-Fabricated Fireplace.

Lets address failures due to improper installation by installers first.  I can’t tell you how many investigations I have done where this is the scenario: The header is installed right on top of the firebox, the wall studs are installed touching or nearly touching the appliance, combustible walls are installed touching the firebox.  And that doesn’t begin to address any part of the system above the firebox, which can include improper termination caps that restrict cooling of the pipe, improper clearance to combustibles at termination, or to the chase itself. 
Builders habitually do not properly train fireplace installers, as can be attested by every chimney sweep/technician across the country.  How many fireplaces of any type are 100% correct?  How many do you see that have a major problem?  There are many hidden violations that a normal inspection will not show, and it can be expected that at least 50% of the fireplaces will have a header or stud in the wrong place just waiting to ignite, or a missing attic insulation shield. 
Missing parts can be a major fire hazard.  At a recent fire investigation a local installer admitted to installing all of his fireplaces without attic radiation shields, and had been doing so for 25 years.  Attic insulation or radiation shields keep blown-in insulation from falling in around the pipe or onto the top of the fireplace, where it can smolder and ignite nearby combustibles.  That means there are a lot of unnecessary house fires that are likely to happen in Kansas City.  How many other installers have done the same thing - throwing out parts that they thought were unnecessary?  How many installers are not properly trained or NFI Certified?   

In addition, installation requirements may be too lax as I have also seen instances where all clearances were adhered to by nearby wood structure pyrolized and caught fire anyway.  Therefore,  the clearance to combustibles requirement by many manufacturers may not be stringent enough and should be expanded.  What this exact measurement should be I don't know, but any extra air space would surely assist greatly with the problem.  
Improper installation caused this fire 30 minutes after
the homeowners moved in
A multi-million dollar loss at a Kansas City, Missouri apartment complex  was due to improper installation.  This story was related to me by a Kansas City Fire Marshal—I did not see it myself.  He told me that they discovered that a pre-fab fireplace was installed with absolutely no clearance to combustibles and was sitting on wood studs.  In fact, ALL of the fireplaces were installed in this manner by a large contracting firm in each of the 300 apartments that were only 6 months old.  One of the units caught fire underneath the fireplace and caused a fire that swept through one entire section of apartments.  The builder was called back to remove and properly install all of the fireplaces.  10 million dollars in property damage was paid by the insurance company.

As far as homeowner use of the appliance, this is a bigger problem than many people imagine.  I have seen $500,000 homes burned to the ground because homeowners simply do not know the difference between a masonry chimney and a pre-fabricated (manufactured) fireplace and treat them the same.  There are far too many people who burn fires nightly, and some who I consider to be “pyromaniacs” burning anything they can get their hands on in their fireplace.  Pre-fabricated fireplaces are designed to be used for small, ambient fires only, as stated in most owner’s manuals. 

But how many homeowners actually read the manual?  And when the house is sold to another party, is the manual handed down to the next person?  Most people have never seen a fireplace operation manual.  Realtors certainly don’t know what to tell buyers—all the buyer cares about is that there is a fireplace in the house, which, incidentally, is one of the most asked for features by buyers of real estate.  How may of those buyers are moving from a house with a masonry fireplace or wood stove and burn wood in their new pre-fab in the same manner? 

Here’s a case in point: Ten years ago I was called by the Fire Marshal of a Missouri city to investigate a fire involving a chimney.  When I arrived, I was told by someone that the fire was “suspicious” and the new homeowner was suspected of starting the fire himself.  This information should never have been given to me, but I did my job without considering this.   

I found out that the homeowner had just moved into the home on a Friday and the gas company failed to arrive and turn on their heat on that day, so they had to go the entire weekend with no heat.  The homeowner decided to use the fireplace as a heating source and kept the fire burning for nearly three days.  On Sunday, the interior walls ignited and eventually burned one side of the house down.  I showed the evidence to the Fire Marshal and insurance adjuster, who realized that I was correct.  The house was three years old, and the homeowner had not been given an owner's manual on the pre-fab fireplace, which is designed never to be used as a heating source. 

- Prefabricated (Manufactured) Fireplaces are designed for small, ambient fires only
- Never replace the grate with a larger grate or overloading and fire can result
- Only use replacement parts from the manufacturer
- Never use masonry glass doors on a manufactured fireplace
- Have the fireplace chimney swept and inspected annually by a professional chimney sweep
- Use steel studs around the firebox and use all parts that come with the installation kit

Monday, August 5, 2013

To Vent or Not to Vent- that is the question

Excalibur gas fireplace

Many of our customers have asked us to take out their vent-free products due to a horrible smell, water running down the windows and walls, stains on walls, soot on walls, baseboards, and ceilings, mold and mildew issues, headaches, and being ill while in the house and using the logs.
When burning gas several by-products of combustion are produced: Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, Formaldehyde, and Water.

Manufacturer instructions say to use non-venting gas logs four or less hours per day and to operate the logs with a window open. Since these are listed as heating appliances and most customers purchase the logs as a heating source, this seems impractical in the middle of winter. The American Gas Association Research Division (AGARD) recommendations for proper usage of a vent-free appliance include that the appliance is not to be used as a sole source of heat or in confined spaces or bedrooms. What happens when there is a power outage? Homeowners are tempted to use the logs continuously.
During the combustion process moisture is created. When a 40,000 BTU vent-free appliance is used to heat it can produce over six gallons of water a day. If the homeowner notices condensation on windows and walls the vent-free appliance may be the cause. We call these appliances “Room Vented” for this reason. The condensation will be absorbed by the drywall, wood flooring & furniture, and may cause structural damage to the home. The excessive moisture may cause mold and mildew which creates problems for people with allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems, or create new health problems. 

The situation is worsened in tightly constructed homes without adequate make-up air to provide air for the appliances, and for people to breathe. Visit for more information on make-up air.
Carbon Monoxide is a very real issue. CO is always produced during combustion, and with room-vented heaters it is vented into the room at so called “acceptable' levels. Even at low levels, CO can be dangerous to children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, small children, the elderly, animals, birds, and people with upper respiratory conditions. See Dr. David Penny's website at for more information on CO.

Regency direct vent fireplace
Instead we suggest using a direct-vent gas log insert or fireplace. These types of appliances are vented through the wall or up an existing chimney. They are sealed systems which use outside air for combustion, thereby increasing the efficiency of the appliance and eliminating the need for opening windows while the appliance is in use. No by-products of combustion are vented into the room, so toxic gasses and water are vented directly to the outdoors. Direct-vent is a much better choice.

Vent-Free VS Direct-Vent
Must operate with window open
Has its own combustion air supply
Is a High-efficiency appliance
Toxic gasses vented into the room
Moisture/water vented into the room
Can produce bad smells
Should have an annual service check-up and cleaning
Can be used in a masonry chimney
Can be used in a manufactured fireplace