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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