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Safety: Be sure the fireplace and chimney are in shape this season

Posted: January 14, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: January 14, 2012 1:55 a.m.
 

OK, we’ve been having a warm spell lately in the Santa Clarita Valley. Even so, many nights have been cold enough to induce the “fireplace urge,” and more wintry weather is sure to come. So, now is the time to get your fireplace and chimney in shape for all that toasty snuggling ahead.

For advice on this, we again turn to Chimney Saviors. The company is a father-and-son business started by Richard Balliger Sr., with a combined experience of more than 60 years in the construction and chimney industry — and they recommend having your fireplace and chimney inspected, and cleaned or repaired, as necessary.

“It’s important to be sure fireplaces are in safe, operating condition,” said Richard Balliger Jr. “And NFPA 211 recommends yearly cleaning and inspection for each fireplace.” NFPA 211 is the National Fire Protection Association “standard for chimneys, fireplaces, vents and solid fuel-burning appliances.”

Balliger noted that most chimney checkups don’t lead to extensive repairs. And to keep things that way, here’s what Chimney Saviors recommends:

 

Inspection/repair

Firebox: “Make sure the firebox is safe, that the walls are not cracked or blistering,” Balliger said. The mortar and joints should be nice and solid. The walls of the firebox and floor of the firebox (inner hearth) should be in good operating condition with no cracks. “They’ll be absorbing most of the heat,” he said.

Smoke chamber: “The smoke chamber takes the smoke from the firebox to the flue,” Balliger said. And you look for the same issues as with the firebox, making sure it is in safe operating condition.

Flue: “We look at the flue,” he said. “If it is metal, we make sure all the joints are properly connected and there is no buildup of soot or creosote.” He added that, if the flue is masonry, it will be cleaned and checked for obstructions — and all the joints, mortar and masonry are inspected to ensure all is in good condition. “Generally, we do a smoke test to be sure it drafts properly and is not leaking.”

Spark arrestor: When Chimney Saviors does an inspection it includes the very top of the chimney. “We look at the spark arrestor. It can get clogged over time,” Balliger said. “The spark arrestor is important to keep sparks and embers from leaving the flue and starting a fire on the hillside or on your neighbor’s roof.”

Crown: The crown on top of a masonry chimney is also inspected. If it is leaking, water can get into the chimney and cause damage. “A lot of times it leaks and people can’t figure out why they have water leaking inside,” Balliger said.

Chimney exterior: If the chimney is masonry, Chimney Saviors examines its exterior bricks to be sure the bricks aren’t cracked — “that the chimney is not broken,” he said.

Balliger explained some of the problems that can arise when things aren’t right with your fireplace and chimney. “If you have cracks in the smoke chamber, separations or voids, the heat can transfer into the chimney and into the walls of the house — and over time — start a fire,” he said. “It is important these are repaired to keep all the smoke and heat contained in the firebox and chimney.”

 

Burning wood

Balliger offered advice on using your fireplace to burn wood. “Always use a good fire grate, one that stands about two to three inches above the hearth. This allows good air circulation under and around your logs to promote a good hot fire with less smoke,” he said.

And be sure there are no large gaps in the grate, where “large char” can fall through.

He also offered an interesting tip about fire/fireplace size.

As you might expect, he recommends small fires in small fireplaces. However, he explained that large fireplaces need large fires to work properly and draft the smoke well. Small, cool, smoky fires may back-smoke out the front of larger fireplaces.

When the wind is blowing wildly (as it often does in the SCV), any fireplace may experience back-smoking. “The wind blows over the chimney and pushes the air down,” Balliger said.

“First, heat the flue up with something that burns hot and fast, like newspapers,” he said. “It pushes all the cold air out of the chimney. Then start your fire. It’s less likely to back-smoke.”

Balliger said to start your fire with small materials and work toward bigger — gradually adding larger logs as the fire gets going.

He said that wax type fire starters are fine if they are used as designed. He felt the same about wax logs, though he added, “They don’t burn real hot. If the chimney doesn’t draft well, it could back-smoke.”

He also offered one very important caution about wax logs. “Never mix wax logs with real wood. It will get too hot.”

 

Safety and efficiency

In regard to fireplace safety, Balliger said, “Keep your wood and other combustibles away from the face of the fireplace when you are having a fire. And have a spark screen that fits properly. It prevents sparks from popping out and onto rugs.”

To keep your fireplace working efficiently, Balliger said to keep the ash buildup to a minimum. “When ash builds up it starts affecting the fire. It needs good air circulation to burn. Try to clear it before it gets up past the bottom of the grate.”

 

Who does repairs?

To do extensive chimney repairs, you need to be licensed with the California Contractors State License Board — and get a city permit. Balliger emphasized that using a licensed contractor is important “for any repairs more than $500.”

But he recommended using a licensed contractor for smaller jobs as well, especially if pricing is comparable. “Most chimney sweeps are not required to be licensed,” he noted, “but it’s a good idea to use a company that is licensed with the California Contractors State License Board.”

He said the board, working on the consumer’s behalf, makes sure the contractor performs up to standards.

“If you use an unlicensed contractor and have problems, you really don’t have any recourse,” he added. “Our company does small repairs and chimney sweeps, but you have the benefit of a licensed, fully-insured company. It’s all above board.”

 

It’s a gas

This year, Balliger emphasized the increasing use of gas-burning fireplaces. And he noted that, “All new fireplaces (in the SCV) must be gas fired, direct vent only,” he said. “No wood is burned, however, they look just like the real thing. Gas fireplaces have come a long way. They can really put out a lot of heat, and warm a house, much more efficiently than an open faced wood burner. And they can be turned on and off with a remote.”

He also said gas fireplaces burn clean, and there’s no ash, soot or smoke to worry about. They are easy to start and turn off when time is short, as opposed to a wood fire, and gas fireplaces save money in the long run, as opposed to purchasing seasoned firewood.

 

Gas log sets

A gas log set is a kit you install inside an existing wood-burning firebox. The average set includes six to seven logs, and come in a variety of wood simulations, such as oak, birch, red oak, and pine. They have sets that look like the wood is actually charred and burned or sets that look like fresh cut wood. They have materials that simulate glowing embers that give the log set a realistic appearance.

“We only recommend quality log sets such as Real-Fyre Peterson logs,” Balliger said. “They are made here in Southern California. You can find them online to view the different types. When the logs start getting black from carbon buildup, it is time to have the log set serviced.”

He added that gas log sets look deceptively simple to install, but many dangerous mistakes can be made by first-timers, so it’s best to have a professional install the log set to ensure it is done correctly and that it operates properly.

 

Inserts

Another alternative is a wood-burning insert. Wood-burning inserts fit inside an existing firebox. Inside you burn wood, either pellets or small-sized logs. They are efficient, burn a long time and reduce emissions. Balliger said inserts are expensive up front, but return your investment quickly if used to primarily heat the home.

Balliger finished by reminding that, if you have a wood-burning fireplace, take care of it. If it needs to be removed due to damage, you will have to replace it with a gas-fired fireplace.

“Of course, we specialize in keeping those old wood-burners in tip top shape,” he said.

Chimney Saviors has been operating locally for 18 years and is licensed under Right Way Builders Chimney Saviors. License classifications include general, masonry and pre-fabricated equipment. A fireplace inspection is $195. A cleaning is $125-$135. Both for $225. Call (661) 205-5180 or (805) 338-3858 or visit www.fixthatchimney.com.

jwalker@the-signal.com

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