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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Your house might be making you sick

As people close up their homes for winter, sealing every open gap, and installing thermal windows and insulation, they may be doing more than making their home energy efficient. They might be doing things that can make their family ill. 

A smoking fireplace is a sign of  negative house pressure
Houses need at least six air exchanges per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  These air exchanges are necessary in order to move out tobacco smoke, Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, Radon, and a host of other chemicals such as Formaldehyde that off-gas from furniture, carpet and woodwork.  These air exchanges bring in fresh air for the occupants to breathe. 

Exacerbating the problem are appliances that take air out of the house such as attic fans, range hoods, bathroom fans, clothes dryers, and central vacuums. If the house is tightly constructed replacement air needs to be introduced somehow. 

Appliances such as furnaces, hot water heaters, fireplaces, and wood-burning stoves need air for combustion, and they take house air for this purpose.  Open fireplaces are only -10 - +10% efficient, and use heated air from the home, causing the furnace to work harder.  Even if an outside air source is supplied to a fireplace in an attempt to use less house air, this is often inadequate, and is arguably not the best solution.  Cold air dumped on a hot fire cools it down, causes it to burn inefficiently, and to produce more CO.

High efficiency fireplace by Regency
High-efficiency gas fireplace inserts are approximately 75% + efficient and use no indoor air for combustion. Wood-burning fireplace inserts and freestanding stoves are generally 70%+ efficient and use much less house air for combustion than traditional open fireplaces do. These are good choices whether a home has inadequate air for combustion or not. Other methods to improve fireplace efficiency include installation of glass doors, use of a grate heater, and improvement in design.  A Rumford or Prior Fire style fireplace is a better choice than a standard style fireplace because it uses less air and is more efficient. Efficient fireplaces or inserts use less wood than standard fireplaces to produce the same amount of heat, so an added benefit is lower energy cost. 

Another problem that can occur in larger homes or homes that are tightly constructed is unbalanced house pressure.  According to Dr. David Penney, professor of Physiology and Adjunct Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health and Wayne State University, and creator of, Carbon Monoxide (CO) is the most commonly encountered and pervasive poison in our environment. Dr. Penney believes that long term exposure to low levels of CO (even those that don’t register on a CO alarm) are capable of producing  many debilitating residual effects on the human body. This is called chronic CO poisoning, or CO Poisoning Syndrome.

Symptoms of negative house pressure are moisture condensation on cold surfaces, smoking fireplaces or wood-burning stoves, difficulty lighting a fire in a fireplace, CO backup from gas and wood appliances, back-drafting of appliances (and CO), CO detector alarms go off frequently, and cold air infiltration through leaks.  Children and pets may be more affected than adults. If a person feels ill when at home, but better when outside the home, this is an indication that something is wrong with the house.

Health effects associated with CO Poisoning Syndrome are unexplained flu-like symptoms, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, joint pain, muscle pain, chronic fatigue, vertigo, numbness, eye and nose irritation, fainting, nausea, and in more serious cases, inability to wake up, asthma, cancer, irreversible brain damage, or even death. Other symptoms include cognitive and memory impairments, mood changes, depression, sensory and motor disorders, and in more serious cases, seizures, balance problems, and tremors. These symptoms can continue for weeks, months, or years after termination of CO exposure, so it is imperative to assure good indoor air quality at all times at work and at home.

Strategies to improve air quality:

1.      Install portable air cleaners
2.      Maintain humidifiers and dehumidifiers and empty water trays
3.      Replace air filters on schedule
4.      Turn on whole house fans or bathroom and kitchen fans with doors or windows open occasionally in spring and summer (not during cold weather)
5.      Install a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) to the furnace (assists the furnace only)
6.      Install a whole-house ventilator to bring in make-up air for appliances and fresh air to breathe
7.      Install EPA Certified high-efficiency gas or wood-burning inserts in fireplaces
8.      Be sure clothes dryers are properly vented outdoors and vents are cleaned twice per year
9.      Use a vented gas space heater or stove rather than an un-vented gas appliance
10.  Never use kerosene heaters inside the house
11.  Have a trained licensed HVAC contractor clean and tune-up furnaces annually
12.  Have a professional CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep inspect and clean furnace, fireplace, and wood stove flues annually and check for negative house pressure
13.  Have an energy specialist do a blower door test on the home, which will indicate leaking areas and negative pressure issues. Some cities offer this service for free. 
14.  Be sure to have a properly sized flue liner installed for a hot water heater if a furnace is replaced and vented out the side of the house. The water heater will no longer be able to vent on its own without the furnace and CO backup can result



Marge Padgitt is the president of HearthMasters, Inc. chimney contracting company in Kansas City, MO. She is the editor of Wood-Fired Magazine, author of The Chimney and Hearth Pro's Resource Book and more books coming in 2016. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How to Choose the Best Fireplace for Your House

Homeowners have many options for gas or wood-burning fireplaces, but the choices can be somewhat confusing if all the facts aren’t readily available. The internet can be a good source for research, but there are a lot of sites that don’t provide accurate or thorough information so making a choice can be difficult. The following should help to assist homeowners in making the important decision about what type of fireplace to install in their home.

Open masonry fireplace

Masonry Chimneys and Fireplaces:

Cons about chimneys: Masonry chimneys need regular maintenance, like any other appliance in the home. A professional chimney sweep should inspect the chimney and flues annually and sweep as necessary to remove flammable creosote. All gas and wood-burning flues serving furnaces, water heaters, and fireplaces have annual wear and tear. The inspector will check for clogs, gaps, cracks, and correct sizing to be sure there is no Carbon Monoxide leakage or backup.
If the mason did not use the correct mortar between the tile flue liner sections, it will eventually wash out and need to be replaced. This can be expensive, and is unfortunately very common.
If soft bricks are used rather than hard bricks, the chimney will deteriorate over a short period of time, spall, and eventually need to be rebuilt.
Pros about chimneys: Masonry chimneys and fireplaces are very long-lasting, beautiful, and with the right choice of brick or stone and design of the structure, complement the home’s exterior and interior. The home builder should take a cue from the neighborhood and can’t go wrong with the choice of a masonry chimney if other nearby chimneys are also masonry.

Cons about fireplaces: If the fireplace is constructed in a standard squared box-style as most masons are used to building, the fireplace will be 0% efficient. Most of the heat will go up the chimney and only the area in front of the fireplace will feel warm. The fireplace takes a lot of combustion air from the house, making rooms further away feeling cold. The longer the fireplace is used, the colder the house will get.
Gas logs may be installed in a masonry fireplace, however, high-efficiency non-venting gas logs often have issues that prevent us from recommending them at all. Non-venting gas logs create moisture and sometimes mold, often create a bad odor that won’t go away, and must be installed in a fully functioning masonry fireplace and chimney. They are not a cure for a damaged chimney. Standard gas logs are also 0% efficient and require a clip on the damper to keep it open a bit so Carbon Monoxide will not overcome the occupants if the damper is accidentally left closed. With the clip, warmed house air escapes through the flue during winter.

Pros about fireplaces: If the fireplace is constructed in a Rumford style, with angled sidewalls, shallow depth to specifications, smooth curved throat and smaller flue, the fireplace will be about 40% efficient. The warmth generated is quite noticeable compared to a standard fireplace design. Only a few masons know how to properly build Rumford fireplaces so homework will be necessary to find the right mason.
High-efficiency gas or wood-burning fireplace inserts may be installed in a masonry fireplace. These units are very popular and will increase fireplace efficiency by 75%. There are different levels of quality, so choose a reputable brand rather than a cheap model that won’t perform well or last long.

Manufactured Chimneys and Fireplaces:
Direct vent gas fireplace
Courtesy of HearthMasters, Inc.
Cons: The manufactured gas or wood-burning fireplace is commonly used because of the low price compared to a masonry fireplace and chimney. However, these are temporary fireplaces and must be replaced after about 15 years. There are many different levels of quality with “Builders” grade being the cheapest and least durable. Unless the homeowner asks for choices, Builders grade is what they will get. The chimney chase is constructed out of wood and covered in stucco, siding or man-made stone. Wood chases eventually rot, and maintenance is needed on a regular basis. Annual inspection and sweeping as necessary is required.
High-efficiency wood-burning fireplace inserts should never be installed in a manufactured fireplace. To do so is against code.

Pros: Manufactured gas and wood-burning fireplaces are less expensive than masonry and can be installed quickly. If a high-efficiency model is chosen it will provide heat. Efficient models are closed systems and must be operated with the door closed, but a large viewing area is provided. A Class-A stainless steel chimney must be used with efficient fireplaces which raises the price, but the trade-off is lower energy bills and a warmer home.

Direct-vent Gas Fireplaces:
Cons: Not for the person who enjoys a real crackling fire. Gas line must be installed.

Pros: Direct-vent gas fireplaces do not require a chimney – just a vent through the wall. Today’s DV fireplaces come in many styles to fit any décor from traditional to modern. These units are very efficient and produce heat – and will work even if the power goes out.

Masonry Heaters:
Soapstone masonry heater from Finland
Courtesy of HearthMasters, Inc. 
Cons: The most expensive type of fireplace due to the expertise needed and time required to build. There are only about 28 Certified Heater Masons in North America. This is old-world technology that came to the U.S. about 35 years ago. The owner must purchase wood or cut wood. A central location is needed for the heater to work to its maximum potential, therefore, it is best used in new home construction. A larger footprint is needed for the masonry mass than a standard masonry fireplace.

Pros: Masonry heaters are the most efficient type of wood-burning heater available. While they look like a regular fireplace with a door, they are far from it. The appliance is site-built out of masonry with channels that trap heat and radiate it to the home. No gas, electricity, fans, or ductwork are needed to distribute heat.
Green home builders like masonry heaters because they use the renewable resource of wood and use less wood to produce heat than high-efficiency wood-burning stoves.

The chimney may be brick or Class A, depending on the look desired. A masonry heater requires little maintenance and produces only fly ash rather than creosote. An inspection and cleaning should be completed every three years by a professional heater mason/chimney sweep. 
By Marge Padgitt
President, Midwest Chimney Safety Council
President, HearthMasters, Inc.
Independence, MO 

Fireplace Décor Ideas for the Holidays

The fireplace is usually the focal point of the family room or living room, and especially so during the holiday season. A warm and inviting mantel and matching décor next to it will add to the ambiance of the room and create a conversation piece when guests visit.

No fireplace? No problem. Add a faux fireplace to any room and place battery operated candles in it for ambiance, then decorate the mantel and areas next to it as desired. Purchase a faux fireplace kit, build one yourself out of plywood and paint, or buy an antique mantel at an architectural salvage store or online.

For a visually pleasing arrangement be sure to keep the décor items sized in keeping with the size of the room and the fireplace. An 8-foot tall tree would look out of scale next to a small fireplace and room with low ceilings. Conversely, small décor looks odd next to a large fireplace over mantel that reaches 12 feet.

Keep the décor in the same color palette for a striking look. Some decor trends that are popular right now for the holidays are blue and white, all white, pinks and greens, and of course, the ever popular green and red.

Add interest to the mantel décor with a theme such as trains, antique toys, nutcrackers, porcelain dolls, or stockings. This is a good time to show off a favorite collection. Choose the theme first, then select décor items that will complement the colors for a pleasing and striking look.

For real wood or gas burning fireplaces remember to place stockings to the side or remove them when burning a fire in the fireplace. Have the fireplace inspected by a professional chimney sweep before using it for the season, and never burn a dry pine tree in a fireplace or a chimney fire could result. If the fireplace is non-working, place several real candles on a fireplace candelabra to add the desired effect.

Marge Padgitt is the publisher of Wood-Fired Magazine and president of HearthMasters, Inc. chimney contracting company in Kansas City, Missouri. Marge is an industry writer and author. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

How to Stack and Store Firewood

Experienced wood-burners have a few tried and tested methods for storing firewood that can prevent wood from rotting and dry it out efficiently. Choosing the right wood, and cutting, and splitting properly are also factors to take into consideration to prepare for the next season.

When cutting wood in the forest look for dead trees first before cutting down and good healthy tree. Make sure the tree has not rotted out, then cut into lengths appropriate for the fireplace or wood stove. Next, split larger logs in to pieces so that the interior wood is exposed to the air. Wood that has not been split will not dry out.  Spitting wood is good exercise, but there are hand mechanical, electric, and gas-powered wood splitters available from $150 to $1,000 to make the job easier.

The next step is to prepare a location for the stacked wood that is away from the house and open on both sides to allow for wind to blow through and dry the wood out. Place 2 x 4s or blocks on the ground lengthwise, then stack the wood loosely in rows. By not placing wood directly on the ground it won’t rot out.

Place rebar in the ground or other support at each end to hold the wood in place. Cover with a tarp or lean-to to keep weather off of the top of the wood while allowing air to circulate through the ends.  Let wood dry for at least 6 -12 months before burning.

Wet wood at more than 20% moisture content uses a lot of energy to dry the wood out before it will burn. For this reason, an inexpensive moisture meter is a good investment.

Bring pieces of wood indoors several days before burning and place a couple of feet away from the side of the wood stove to dry it out even further. To start a fire, place 2-3 large logs on the bottom, then 2-3 medium sized logs, then very small pieces of wood, and finally kindling. Add a couple of pieces of Fatwood to the top and light the fatwood with a match. This is the top-down burn method which has been proven to be cleaner burning and longer lasting. Fatwood is the center part of the pine tree and lights very easily.

Cut utility bills by using wood-fired 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. Now is the time to have such an appliance installed before the busy fall season hits hearth stores and chimney sweeps. Some stove manufacturers such as Regency offer summer purchase incentives and rebates.  

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 pocket book because less wood is needed to produce the same amount of heat as older stoves.

Freestanding wood stove by Regency
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.

Masonry heater by Gene Padgitt
Masonry heaters are arguably the best type of wood-burning appliance. They use old-world technology which is a series of channels installed inside the appliance that trap heat, then transfer the heat slowly through the mass of 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 build a masonry heater since he/she has taken specialized training on this unique appliance. The MHA has more information on these efficient site-built appliances on their website at  

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 provided needed warmth in a cold area, and since heat rises - the floors above will be heated as well.

Fireplace insert by Regency
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 NationalFireplace 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
Marge Padgitt is the publisher of Wood-Fired Magazine and is an industry author. She is the president of HearthMasters, Inc. chimney contracting company in Kansas City MO

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

National Chimney Safety Week brings needed awareness to the public

For National Chimney Safety Week September 9 to 18, 2015 the Midwest Chimney Safety Council reminds homeowners and restaurant owners to be diligent about maintaining their chimneys serving fireplaces, furnaces, boilers, wood stoves, and restaurant ovens.

The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission released the latest statistics for residential structural fires which indicates that 21,200 hostile fires were attributed to fireplaces, chimneys or chimney systems in 2012, with an average of 22,700 occurring annually from 2010 to 2012.  According to the National Fire Protection Association 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. 

While these numbers continue to decline due to public-awareness efforts by the Midwest Chimney Safety Council, the Chimney Safety Institute of America, chimney sweep companies and firefighters, the message is still not getting to everyone. 

Mr. Charles Stanley of Lee's Summit, Missouri experienced a chimney fire in early 2015. "I didn't know that a chimney flue needed to be swept at all, much less annually. I burned wood in the fireplace for eleven years without having it swept out, but after an experience like this I won't forget to have the chimney cleaned," said Stanley. The fire was contained to the chimney structure, which sustained over $20,000 in damages. A local chimney company removed the damaged flue liner and installed a replacement liner, then repaired damaged bricks on the interior and exterior chimney. Charles said that had he known that chimneys needed regular service he could have avoided the chimney fire. 

From the NFPA
The National Fire Protection Association recommends annual inspection of flues of all types that serve gas or wood-burning appliances, and sweeping as necessary to remove flammable creosote. Creosote should be removed when ¼” has accumulated on the flue walls. Depending on the amount of wood burned restaurant ovens usually need monthly or bi-monthly sweeping, open fireplaces typically need annual sweeping, and wood stove flues and chimneys may need sweeping two or three times during the burning season.

Creosote accumulates when any type of wood is burned including hardwoods. Gas appliances don’t produce creosote, however, the flue needs to be in good condition or it could be a carbon monoxide hazard. Common issues with gas flues are gaps or cracks in flue liners, clogs in liners, and missing flue liners. Correct flue sizing is critical to proper operation. This is something a professional chimney sweep can check when doing an inspection.

The MCSC recommends that a professional chimney sweep who is certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America do the inspection and sweeping. CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps are trained in sweeping methods, inspections, codes, and clearances. The proper equipment is needed to do a thorough inspection and remove creosote, which involves a chimney camera system and other tools of the trade.

There are now over 1,500 CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps across the United States with more added annually. To find a professional chimney sweep visit the Midwest Chimney Safety Council website at or the Chimney Safety Institute of America website at

Marge Padgitt is the president of the Midwest Chimney Safety Council and a 30+ year industry veteran. She is a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep and NFI Woodburning Specialist. Contact Marge at margepadgitt (at) 


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Home Buyer Beware!

Buyer beware: always have chimneys inspected by a professional chimney sweep

The Midwest Chimney Safety Council recommends an inspection of all chimneys and flues at the time of purchase of a home by a professional chimney sweep.  Home buyers may be in for a big surprise and major expense if they don’t have an inspection completed prior to closing of the sale.
Home inspectors do not inspect the interior or exterior chimney as a normal part of a home inspection. Most home inspectors do not have the necessary equipment or training to do chimney inspections, therefore, it is wise to have a professional do the job.

Unfortunately, many home buyers have found out after the sale that their chimney or fireplace is unusable. A typical inspection of a masonry chimney will reveal that the interior flue has missing mortar joints due to exposure to rain, moisture and acidic flue gasses. The older the home, the more likely there are problems.

In many cases, the seller has had a chimney fire without knowing it, and the interior clay tile flue liner is cracked and broken. Other typical findings are damaged smoke chambers, rusted dampers, missing chimney covers, poor flashing, and damaged cement crowns. Issues at the top of the chimney can’t be viewed without using a ladder, or in some cases, scaffold. Home inspectors don’t normally climb ladders or own scaffold.

The average chimney repair job runs into thousands of dollars. In the greater Kansas City area, the average relining job which involves removal of the damaged liner, scaffolding, and installation of a new flue liner costs between $8,000 to $18,000.  In a recent case, an inspection of five chimneys and eight fireplaces in one home revealed $50,000 in damages.

In a 2012 transaction in Kansas City Missouri, the seller had a chimney flue relined with a new flue liner but the installer put a liner in that was too small. Months later, when the new owner started a fire in the fireplace it smoked badly and caused smoke damage to the entire home. An inspection by a professional chimney sweep revealed that the liner installed was too small for the chimney to draft properly. Because the contract was with the previous owner, the new owner had no recourse and had to pay $14,000 to have the steel liner extracted, then the old tile liner extracted, and a new properly sized flue liner installed. Flue sizing is extremely important to the operation of the appliance and if not done correctly can cause major problems such as smoking, odors, and Carbon Monoxide back up.
If damages are found prior to closing the buyer will know exactly what condition the chimney and fireplaces are in and how to proceed with the negotiation. If damages are due to a chimney fire the seller’s insurance will cover the damages, however, it is wise for the buyer to choose the company who will do the work because sellers usually want to go the least expensive route and often hire unqualified chimney companies to do the work.

A typical Level II inspection with an internal chimney camera involves running the camera through the damper and into the smoke chamber, then the flue. This type of inspection can reveal damages to masonry, mortar joints and flue tiles that can’t be seen using the naked eye and a mirror. A professional chimney sweep who has been trained in this type of inspection will be able to identify potential hazards, fire risks, and Carbon Monoxide risks.

The MCSC recommends that all flues be inspected including fireplace flues, furnace and boiler flues, and chimneys serving wood and gas stoves and inserts. If a chimney flue has an accumulation of creosote, the creosote must be removed so that the inspector can see the flue liner. Creosote is very flammable and should be removed by a qualified chimney sweep.

Visit or for more information or to find a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep.  


Marge Padgitt is the editor of Wood-Fired Magazine, and CEO of a chimney contracting company in Kansas City, MO. Visit for more information. 

Choose and store wood correctly

Choosing the right type of wood and drying it properly is important to the operation and performance of a wood-burning appliance. Green firewood may contain 50% or more water by weight. It produces less heat because heat must be used to boil off water before combustion can occur. Green or wet wood also produces much more smoke and creosote than dry wood. For these reasons—never burn wet wood.

Firewood should always be purchased dry or allowed to dry before burning. The best way to assure this is to purchase or cut it down it at least six months in advance and leave it in the woods, then stack it and leave for another six months so you know it is dry. Leaving the cut wood in the woods for six to twelve months allows the oils to dissipate and any bugs or critters will leave the wood and not travel home with you.
Stack wood in an area that gets a lot of sunlight rather than shade. Orient wood so that the cut ends face the direction of the prevailing wind. In the Unites States wind usually moves from west to east but if you live in a valley it may be different based on warm air rising, so face wood in the direction the deer move.
Be mindful of what your woodpile looks like as the neighbors may complain to the city if it is unkempt, or offer praise your it is straight and neat. If you really want to impress passersby, stack the wood in a cool design (there are some amazing creations on the internet).
The woodpile should be kept off of the ground to avoid rot. This can be accomplished by using bricks, blocks, or treated 4 x 4’s placed  lengthwise on the ground.
Arrange wood with gaps between the pieces so that air can circulate. Stack split pieces bark side up to shed moisture. To support the pile use a purchased holder or standing trees, fence posts, or rebar driven into the ground. Stack in one log thick ricks for faster drying. The old myth about keeping the wood pile some distance away from any buildings to avoid termites and carpenter ants is not true. The queen lives underground and without her the critters are harmless. However, brown recluse spiders do love woodpiles so that is reason enough for me to keep the wood pile at least 25’ from the house. Always use gloves to handle wood to avoid an unwelcome bite.
Be sure to make a roof of some type, whether from a tarp or even a roof built of shingles to keep water and snow off of the wood, keeping in mind that the sides need to be open to allow for air movement. More industrious wood burners may want to build a more sturdy and permanent structure with posts and a roof.
When bringing wood indoors for use, leave it near the stove or fireplace for a couple of days to further remove moisture (keep wood at least 36” away from the opening).
The difference between soft woods such as fir, cedar, or alder and hard wood such as white oak, mulberry, or walnut is density. The heavier hard woods contain more heat per volume, therefore less wood is needed and loading (putting wood on the fire) is needed less often. This is especially important for wood-burning stove users because the burn time is longer.
Some firewood dealers sell "mixed hardwood" or mixed soft and hardwood” firewood. This may or may not be desirable, depending on the proportion of low- density hardwoods that are included., so be sure to ask what types of woods will be in the mix. Softwoods are less desirable, so the price will be less than hardwoods.
When purchasing firewood be sure to ask if you are getting a full cord, face cord, rick, or pickup load as the volume varies greatly. A full cord measures eight feet wide by four feet deep and four feet high and is 128 cubic feet in volume.     
Firewood has been bought and sold this way since colonial times. A face cord, sometimes called a rick, measures eight feet wide by four feet high by depth depending on cut length. Cut length is usually 12—18” long. You may request cut length at the time of purchase to fit your stove.   
A pickup load is generally 64 cubic feet in volume depending on if it is stacked or piled in. A randomly piled load will have less wood content. Ask the wood dealer if he will split the wood for you and if not, you will need to split the larger pieces so they will dry out properly.

Basically, all wood has the same BTU’s per pound, but serious wood-burners who use an appliance such as a wood-burning stove or masonry heater burn hardwoods which offer a longer burn time and less time splitting. Hedge and Hemlock are not recommended due to the amount of sparks emitted. Hedge burns very hot and can damage wood-burning stoves. If you must use hedge, mix with other wood types.
To be sure wood is dried to 20% or less moisture content use an inexpensive moisture meter to test it. If no meter is available bang two pieces of cut wood together. If they sound hollow and loud, the wood is dry. If the sound is a low thud the wood is still wet.
You’ll need an ax, a set of splitting wedges, and a maul in order to split your own firewood. To make the task easier, purchase a manual or hydraulic log splitter ($40—$200), or a gas-powered long splitter ($1,000 +).

Make kindling by splitting some cordwood up into very small pieces. Dry pine is great for kindling purposes. Fatwood is a very good fire starter with only 2-3 pieces needed to start a fire using one match. Fatwood is derived from the heartwood or center of pine trees and is loaded with pine resin which is very flammable. Harvest fatwood from the center of pine stumps or purchase from hearth dealers or chimney sweeps. 
Marge Padgitt is the publisher of Wood-Fired Magazine, and CEO of a chimney contracting company in Kansas City, Missouri. Her website is 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Spring preparation tips for wood burners

As difficult as it is to think about cold weather during the nice spring and summer months when the trees are green and the flowers are in full bloom, wood burners need to start prepping for fall now.
Since wood needs to be cut, split and stacked months in advance so that it dries out properly, now is the time to get that project completed, and get some exercise to boot. There are several types of log-splitters available that can make the job much easier. Prices range from $150 for a hand-operated splitter, to $3,000 for a professional gas splitter. 
Wood should be stacked off the ground, away from the house, with a covering over the top but not on the sides-- so wind can blow through and dry the wood out. For the serious wood-burner, a wood shed with a permanent roof will offer years of protection from the elements. Wood should be kept away from the house because creepy crawlies like brown recluses like to hide in between the logs. Check wood with an inexpensive moisture meter to be sure it contains less than 20% moisture content before burning.

Any dry wood will do- but hardwood will burn for a longer time since it is denser than softwood. By using hardwood less time is involved in loading up the wood stove or fireplace insert, but softwoods will burn nicely. Stay away from dry pine and hedge, however, because they burn so hot and fast there is a greater risk of a chimney fire or damaging a wood stove or fireplace.

Another maintenance task that should be completed in the spring is chimney sweeping. The Midwest Chimney Safety Council suggests that a professional CSIA Certified chimney sweep do the job. Professional sweeps are trained to check things that the layperson may not be aware of such as proper chimney and connecting pipe installation, clearances to combustibles, wall and floor protection. If used for primary heating purposes, wood-burning stoves and insert flues or chimneys should be swept at least twice during the wood-burning season and once after to be sure that flammable creosote is removed.

Chimney sweep at work. HearthMasters, Inc. 
All wood creates creosote- even dry hardwood, and removal is critical to avoid chimney fires. Chimney fires can not only damage chimneys and connecting pipes, but may escape into the home and cause a house fire.

Check exterior masonry chimneys in the spring for damaged, missing, or spalling bricks (brick faces popping off due to moisture penetration), missing or deteriorated mortar joints, bad flashing or gaps in the flashing, cracked or deteriorated cement crown, and missing or improper chimney covers. Apply masonry water repellant sealer on a dry, calm day to help slow down the deterioration process.
For a prefabricated chimney check the wood chase for wood rot, holes from woodpeckers or squirrels, rusted metal chase tops, and damaged chimney covers.

All of these chimney maintenance items are best addressed in the spring and summer before cold weather sets in and makes work more difficult and expensive.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is your chimney tall enough to work right?

By Marge Padgitt

Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves only work right when everything is built or installed correctly, and that includes the height of the chimney. There are several factors to take into consideration when planning for the termination height of a masonry or factory built chimney system. 

When building, or rebuilding, a chimney the builder should check the height to be sure that it not only conforms to National Fire Protection 211 Standards, which is the standard used in the industry for chimney construction, but also conforms to International Residential Code requirements. Both the standard and the code require that a chimney be three feet taller than the high side of the roof where it exits, and two feet taller than anything (roof, trees, dormers, etc.) within ten feet.  This is the first step in determining what the finished height of the chimney should be. If a fireplace smokes, the height of the chimney could be a factor.

Short flues: Additionally, keep in mind that a short flue (under 12’) may not draft correctly, so the chimney height may need to be extended if a fireplace is on an upper level of the home. It is generally accepted in the industry, although not a code requirement that flues under 12 or

15 feet in height may not draft well.  This may mean that the chimney height needs to be taller than code requires so it will function properly. 

Stack effect: The second factor to consider is the construction of the home. If a chimney is located on a room addition or end of a house, and the main section of the house is taller than the chimney, the house will act like a chimney and pull air upwards. This can cause what is known as “Stack Effect,” and pull smoke back in to the house from the fireplace while it is in operation, and smells when it is not in use.  For this reason, always plan the location of a chimney carefully. 

Trees: If trees or branches are within ten feet of the chimney they can affect draft and cause downdrafts.  If necessary, have trees and limbs cut back further than ten feet away.  

What not to do: Don’t ever add a section of tile flue liner to the chimney to make it taller without extending the exterior brick chase at the same time. Flue liner joints must be below the exterior in order to prevent them from falling over, and if installed incorrectly can be a hazard. 

Homeowners may want to consult with their professional chimney sweep before adding a room addition or constructing a new home to determine the best location for the chimney and fireplace. In some cases, the chimney simply cannot draft correctly due to the location and house construction, and it may need to be built higher, or removed altogether. An alternative fireplace, such as a direct vent gas insert, may be a good alternative to an open wood-burning fireplace in

some cases. Direct vent fireplaces are closed sealed systems that use outside air for combustion and are not as affected by the house construction as open fireplaces. 

Marge Padgitt is a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep and NFI Certified Woodburning Specialist. She is a 30-year industry veteran and has written over 200 articles. Marge is the author of The Chimney and Hearth Pro's Resource Book and The Homeowner's Chimney and Fireplace Manual. See more info at