Archive | September, 2011

Firing Up the Fireplace

As I took up my favorite position on the front porch swing this morning, I watched the smoke swirling down from our chimney creating a fog in the trees in front of our house. It had been a long time since I smelled the sweat aroma of maple and birch burning in the fireplace. Today, September 24, 2011 is our first fire of the season in our fireplace. It’s a damp and cold 52 degees outside; a perfect time warming chilled bodies in front of the fireplace.

Fortunately, I had just cleaned the chimney yesterday. Now is a good time to pass along some information on using the fireplace in your home.

Keep Your Fireplace Chimney Clean

Most chimneys have a spark arrestor on top of them, which protects your roof from stray sparks and the chimney opening from rain or snow. Keeping the chimney free-flowing for a good draft, and to avoid problems with chimney fires, is something that needs to be done every couple of months throughout the heating season. It’s not that hard to do.  The amount of soot and creosote that collects within the cap is dependant on how dry your wood is. If you are burning “wet” wood, you will have far more creosote to clean out. But if you burn wood that has been split and stacked to dry for a summer, it will be dry and will produce much less soot build-up

Put on a pair of old gloves and remove the spark arrestor by twisting it while lifting up. Wiggle it back and forth to loosen it up if it appears to be stuck. Then take the cap to your garage for cleaning.

Spark arresters are made of thin stainless steel mesh. Keep your gloves on to protect your hands from getting cut while working with the cap/arrestor. Use a long-handled wire brush to gently clean the soot from the outside of the mesh on the cap. Too much pressure from the steel brush will bend the thin stainless steel mesh. The majority of the soot build-up will fall off and drop inside the cap. When finished with the steel brush, go around the outside of the cap one more time with a screwdriver to remove any soot that didn’t break loose.

Spark arrester caps are not built so as to allow the soot and creosote to drop out of the cap when you turn it right-side up. There are two methods that I use to get the soot out of the cap. Reach inside with a gloved hand and remove handfuls of the creosote particles. Additionally, you can use a fist to smash the piles of creosote chips inside to smaller pieces that will drop through the wire mesh.

Once all the soot snd creosote are out of the cap, it’s clean and ready to install back on the top of the chimney. Force it back onto the top of the chimney and twist it a few times to achieve a tight fit. Then go back to the garage and sweep the soot into a dust pan. Dump the soot into your garbage can. I throw it into the woods. It’s charcoal and feeds the things that grow in the woods.

Where to Put Your Fireplace. Today, You Can Put Them Anywhere.

Now what about the fireplace itself? Ours is a zero-clearance unit with blower and glass doors. A nice feature of zero-clearance fireplaces is that they can be put anywhere in your house. They come in wall units or corner units. They can be placed snug against any wall or into any corner. The firebox is encased in an air chamber so the outside of the fireplace never gets hot. No heat shields are needed for either floor or walls.

What IS important when placing a zero-clearance fireplace in your home is to choose a location such that the flue, which runs through your ceiling and rafters, will bypass the rafters and ceiling joists.

If you have a great room in your home with high beamed ceilings, it is virtually impossible to heat a great room with a whole-house furnace alone. The room is just too big. Use a zero-clearance fireplace equipped with a blower to heat the greatroom and let the furnace handle the rest of the house. Our greatroom is 24×40 with 16-foot ceilings. We have had the room temperature up to 82 degrees using just the fireplace to heat the great room. We keep the furnace floor registers in the great room closed since we don’t need more heat in the great room and that’s more heat that can be channeled to the rest of the house.

Once your fireplace is installed in your great room (I recommend professional installation unless you are an aggressive DIY person), you will probably want to frame it out with walls and cover the walls with cultured stone. This is not as hard as it sounds. But it is a complex procedure, which I’ll cover in another post.

When installing a zero-clearance fireplace it’s important to go downstairs and examine the floor under the fireplace. The floor under the fireplace will have to be capable of supporting a lot more weight once the fireplace is framed and finished with stone or brick veneer. Get a licensed carpenter to advise you on whether the floor joists should be reinforced to support the added weight. We built a closet in the basement under our fireplace and added some hefty wall headers to the closet in order to brace the existing floor joists to handle the added weight of the fireplace above.

Firebox Etiquette

Back to the fireplace. Here are some tips to help you get the most heat and efficiency from your fireplace.

Zero-clearance fireplaces do not have grates in the firebox for holding logs. Fires are built right on the firebrick floor lining. So before you make a fire, be sure that the firebox is clean of old ash. Ash is an insulator. And if left to pile up in the firebox, it will prevent your fireplace from warming and burning correctly.

We vacuum our firebox each morning with a special ash vacuum that we bought from Plow and Hearth for $300. It’s a much cleaner and more efficient way to get rid of the ash. The alternative is to shovel the ash from the firebox into a bucket. This is a pain and it puts a lot of dust into your house. The fire vaccumm pays for itself many times over by helping to avoid the ash mess and dust. And it only has to be emptied into a plastic garbage bag for disposal, about once a month.

One other tip to remember – the blower compartment air input grill is normally located below the fireplace doors on the front of the fireplace. When you remove ash from the fireplace box, ash has a bad habit of getting into the blower chamber. This happens whether the blower is running or not. The ash that gets into the blower chamber  gets blown back into your house and causes all your furniture to have a constant layer of ash on it.

We found a DIY way to prevent this. We use a piece of vinyl cut from an old vinyl tablecloth and sized to cover the length and width of the air input grill. My wife, who is a quilter, sewed a couple of pockets at the top and bottom of the cover. In the pockets we placed small flat magnets, like the ones you often see used to hold things to your refrigerator door. When cleaning ash out of the firebox, the cover is placed over the air input grill and is sealed to the front of the fireplace by the magnets. This prevents ash from getting into the blower compartment. The vinyl is easy to clean. It’s inexpensive to make. And we just throw it in the closet when we don’t need it.

Let’s Build a Fire in the Fireplace

Start your fire in the morning with kindling, newspaper, and small pieces of dry firewood. We use scrap lumber for kindling. If you have birch trees in your area, birch bark is a superior kindling versus wood scraps or twigs.

Birch is a “weed tree” that has a short life span and eventually falls over. After they have been on the ground for a year, you can easily peel off large sheets of bark. We stuff a half dozen platic contractor bags full of birch bark and store them under the outside stair for starting fires in the fireplace. Walking through the woods in the fall collecting birch bark is one of our favorite pastimes. It gets us out of the house, it’s good exercise, and a walk in the woods is always enjoyable.

Let’s get your fire started. Once your newspaper, kindling, and wood are lit, close the glass doors and open both the draft and the flue wide open. If your fire bundle has been built well, you will get a blaze in short order. Let the flames go up the chimney for fifteen minutes. This burns the creosote out of the lower portion of your chimney and keeps it clean. If the blaze looks promising, shut the flue about half way in order to begin the process of holding the heat in your firebox versus letting all the heat go up the chimney. You will begin to feel (and smell) the fireplace warming up as the paint on the fireplace heats up.

Turn the draft down as far as possible without snuffing out your fire. The firebox on a zero-clearance fireplace is air-tight. So adjusting it’s only air source, the draft, frequently is important. Once your fire is going, you’ll find the right amount of draft after which you’ll be able to leave the draft adjustment alone. Think of your fireplace draft adjustment as if it were a furnace thermostat. The more heat that you want, the more draft will be required. It’s just like turning up your furnace thermostat. If it gets too hot in the room, close the draft a little more.

What about the flue damper? It should be wide open when you start the fire. But remember that the flue controls how much heat escapes up the chimney and how much heat is held in the firebox for dispersion into the room. Heat that escapes up the chimney is wasted heat.

Once you have a good fire, shut the flue damper completely. You can’t do this if you leave the glass doors open because it will force smoke into the room. You will get your best heating with the glass doors closed. So shut the flue damper to hold heat in your firebox. The damper has a hole in the middle and some clearance around the outside of it so threre is still enough ventilation room for smoke to exit up the chimney.

Maintenance

When the glass doors become sooty, clean the soot off with a spray oven cleaner and paper towels. The doors are easier to clean when they are warm. Don’t let the oven cleaner spray fall on brass or perwter areas of your fireplace. If this happens, wipe the over cleaner off quickly with a damp cloth. After you are finished with the oven cleaner, wipe all the surfaces of the door with a damp cloth while using a small bucket of water. Finally, use the same paste cleaner on the glass that you use to clean a ceramic kitchen cook/stove top. This puts a silicone coat on the glass that inhibits soot adhering to the glass when fires are burning.

If a firebrick breaks, you can find new bricks at any fireplace shop. Replace the broken ones. The purpose of firebrick is to protect the firebox from burning out. Without firebrick, the metal inside of your firebox would eventually burn/wear away.

The blower unit is in a cavity below the firebox. Remove it once a year and blow the ash off of it with a compressor. Oil it lightly and put it back in the blower compartment. Blowers are replaceable, should one fail to operate.

The temperature sensor, which also sits in the air compartment, has a magnet on it which allows the sensor to adhere to the underside of the firebox and sense the temperature inside the firebox. If your blower unit fails to start, this sensor should be replaced. Any fireplace shop will have what you need and they are not expensive.

The wall or stove-mounted rheostat, which controls the speed of your blower, will likely be the first component to fail. If the speed of your blower is constant regardless of how you adjust the rheostat, it needs to be replaced. They are also relatively inexpensive.

With a little cleaning, good fire-making skills, and some dry firewood, the amount of heat that you can produce with a zero-clearance fireplace is incredible and it’s cheap. Enjoy your fireplace and the beauty of burning logs whenever you can. When theres noting else to do on a cold winter’s day or night, just watching lthe logs burn in your fireplace and basking in its heat may be all the entertainment that you need.

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Red Squirrels, Maples, and the End of Summer

Per my usual habit after dinner, I went out to sit in the swing on the shed-roof front porch so I could try some new Toasted Cavendish tobacco in one of my favorite briarwood pipes. We forbid such activities indoors. No mind. I can always find entertainment from my reserved seat on the front porch – the porch swing.

When we built our log home on the banks of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage in Northern Wisconsin, we marked all the trees on our 1.5 acre lake lot so that the heavy machine operators, necessary to build a new home, would know not to remove or damage the trees. We’re tree-lovers.  This part of the State is covered with 98% hard and soft maple, 1% basswood, and 1% white birch trees. We allow a ring of trees of grow within 20 feet of the house on all sides. The rest of the lot is forested all the way to the lake’s edge. And I mean forested! You can count the maples of all sizes in the millions. They grow like weeds here. We have a tiny area of grass-covered yard. We always wanted to live in the woods and that is what we have accomplished. I’m sure our neighbors think that we are a bit eccentric. The neighbor on the south is from Chicago and the one on the north is from Alaska. Go figure.

The summer’s entertainment had consisted of watching the bats that hang out under our porch shed-roof and the huge, colorful  gypsy moths that are attracted to our porch lights. The bats put on quite a show as they swooped to and fro to consume as many mosquitoes as possible. The bats left suddenly for some reason. And after their departure, we also noticed that the pesky mosquitoes also disappeared. What bothered me about this was that the weather did not change. Rains remained consistent, thus providing breeding places for mosquitoes. The mosquito population did not change. Nothing changed. Both just left suddenly. Now I feel the need to find out why. I’m a sucker for research.

Back to the evening’s entertainment. As I sat on the porch swing enjoying the silent end to an August day and my pipe, I was distracted by the sound of debris, falling occasionally through the leaves of the trees directly in front of the porch. There was no wind or rain, although the sky was overcast and it had rained that day. I got out of the swing to get a look at the top of the trees beyond the shed-roof of the porch.

And there he was. A tiny red squirrel navigating from branch to branch and harvesting the seed pods of the maple trees. The seed pods of maple are often referred to as “helicopters” due to the whirling motion they make as they fall from the tree; a tiny seed with an over-sized, single helicopter blade attached. Two trees over, another red squirrel was also at work on those seed pods.

Now you might think that this is no big deal and that I should find more useful and interesting content for my posts. You would be correct. BUT, remember the adage, “Take time to stop and smell the roses along the path of life”?  I often remind myself to do just that, as should you.  So if you derive nothing else of value from this post, consider it a reminder to take a break from your chaotic life, find a comfortable chair, place it on your porch, and spend some time examining the content and substance of your environment that you pass by every day, but never notice.

You can learn a lot from the wildlife that share your living space. It is late August; the conclusion of the hottest Midwest summer on record.  The time and method at which the red squirrels harvest the maple seeds can have a lot to say about what we can expect for winter in the upper Midwest. I’ve heard from hunters that the whitetail deer coats are especially heavy this year. My oldest son, who lives 200 miles south of here, saw a flock of geese flying south two weeks ago. That’s much too early. Signs of an early or severe winter? The wildlife are always aware of impending weather changes long before the long-range weather forecasters can give us their best guess.

As I puffed on my pipe and watched the two red squirrels drop what they didn’t want from the tops of the maple trees, I wondered why the empty seed pods were not whirling down to the ground as they always do. Instead they fell quickly and landed with a thud. So I got out of my porch swing again and took up a position below one of the squirrels so that I could see what it was discarding. They ignored me, which is the response that I expected.

It wasn’t long before seed debris began landing all around me. I picked up several items that the squirrels had discarded. They were seed pods alright, but they were empty. Two pods joined together at the seed tip, each with one helicopter wing per pod projecting out the backside of the pod. Besides being empty, the pods were green. The type that we see helicoptering or spinning slowly to the ground in fall are larger, single pods and dryed out to a tan color. That explained why these pods did not whirl slowly to the ground. A glance up into the tree at the squirrels convinced me that they were holding the seeds from the pods in their cheeks and discarding the chaff. But some of the double-pods still held a seed which told me that either they planned to retrieve these from the ground later or they were in a hurry to gather their food stores and didn’t have time to perfect the process.

They were assembling a cache of food that they would later hide for use over the long winter. How they remember where they put all this stuff has always been a mystery to me.  But the fact that they were doing it in late August told me that the summer is truly over and it’s time for all mammals, including me, to make preparation for six months of Northern Wisconsin winter.

That thought was a rude awakening. Upon moving here I learned of two popular local axiom’s used to describe Northern Wisconsin weather. If you don’t like the weather here, just wait ten minutes. And the second axiom, Northern Wisconsin has two seasons – winter and July. So the end of summer is a big deal here. And that evening, those red squirrels were an early, painful, reminder that the “big deal” was about to happen.

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Summers End in the Northwoods

I haven’t lived in Wisconsin’s Northwoods all my life. I actually grew up in Central Illinois, attended college at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, raised a family and pursued a career in Central Wisconsin near Stevens Point, and then retired to the Northwoods.

The point is that the Northwoods environment and climate are still new to me. And hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something about that environment and climate that truly amazes me.

For example, we have four seasons here. Instead of gradual change from one season to the other, it will go from summer to fall like someone threw a switch. Bam! It’s Fall. Happened overnight. Or Bam! It’s blazing hot and summer. Just like that.

The unprecedented heat wave that gripped the Central USA for so long this summer broke only two weeks ago. In our area, hot humid air was rapidly replaced by cool, dry Canadian air which reaches us once it crosses south across “always frigid” Lake Superior. I heard the weatherman on TV say, “Don’t worry folks. Summer is not over yet. This is just a brief breath of fresh air and then summer temperatures will likely return”. They didn’t. But who’s complaining?

I recall saying to my wife last week that the maple leaves have not started to change color yet. Therefore, that must mean a late or mild winter. That’s good. But then she picked out one tree about six miles south of here on State Highway 182 and said, “Larum’s maple in front of their house has had red leaves for about a week. It’s always the first to change color”. That killed my argument.

Today, I woke up to a thick fog over the lake, 60’s and 98% humidity. I track these things with a La Crosse weather station and all kinds of sensors on the roof of my house. Meteorology is a sideline hobby of mine. My wife, who watches the news (I don’t. Too depressing. Too much bad news), said it was supposed to be hot and humid today. I’ll believe that when I see it. At best, our weather for the last week has been mild and sunny during the day and downright chilly in the evening. Just yesterday, I donned a leather coat and turned the heat on in the car for the 45 minute drive to Minocqua.

So yes, someone flipped a switch in the Northwoods again and now it is fall. I confirmed that this morning while sitting in the front porch swing waiting for the fog to lift. A gentle breeze from the southeast blew the fog away. But it also caused brightly yellow-colored basswood leaves to fall from high in the canopy, of the otherwise green forest, which surrounds my log cabin on the banks of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage.

I must admit that I find the end of another summer to be a bit sad. Summer in the Northwoods is such a pleasant time with long days of delightful weather, endless outdoor recreation, and cool nights filled with the sounds of crickets and the scent of campfires as island campers on the Flowage make dinner.

Labor Day is a couple of days away – the official end of summer. The resorts that border State highway 51 leading south through Minocqua, Hazelhurst, and Tomahawk will host their “end of summer” parties and place signs along the highway that bid farewell to tourists and the season until next year. The hundreds of resorts and tourists shops will close for the winter and the Northwoods will return to being a ghost town during the winter season; habituated only by those of us who live here year round.

That changeover began, if only in my mind, today when I saw the basswood leaves falling to the ground. Winter will bring new inhabitants as the skiers, snowmobilers, and ice fisherman move in. And before you know it, someone will throw a switch again and just that quickly, summer is here once again.

8

Falling Basswood Leaves and Summer’s End

I haven’t lived in Wisconsin’s Northwoods all my life. I actually grew up in Central Illinois, attended college at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, raised a family and pursued a career in Central Wisconsin near Stevens Point, and then retired to the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

The point is that the Northwoods environment and climate are still new to me. And hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something about that environment and climate that truly amazes me.

For example, we have four seasons here. Instead of gradual change from one season to the other, it will go from summer to fall like someone threw a switch. Bam! It’s Fall. Happened overnight. Or Bam! It’s blazing hot and summer. Just like that.

The unprecedented heat wave that gripped the Central USA for so long this summer broke only two weeks ago. In our area, hot humid air was rapidly replaced by cool, dry Canadian air which reaches us once it crosses south across Lake Superior’s vast waters, which never warm. I heard the weatherman on TV say, “Don’t worry folks. Summer is not over yet. This is just a brief breath of fresh air and then summer temperatures will likely return. They didn’t. But who’s complaining?

I recall saying to my wife last week that the maple leaves have not started to change color yet. Therefore, that must mean a late or mild winter. That’s good. But then she picked out one tree about six miles south of here on State Highway 182 and said, “the maple in front of the Larum’s house has had red leaves for about a week. It’s always the first tree to change color”. That killed my argument.

Today, I woke up to a thick fog over the lake, 60 degrees and 98% humidity. I track these things with a La Crosse weather station and all kinds of sensors on the roof of the house. Meteorology is a sideline hobby of mine. My wife, who watches the news (I don’t. Too depressing. Too much bad news), said it was supposed to be hot and humid today. I’ll believe that when I see it. At best, our weather for the last week has been mild and sunny during the day and downright chilly in the evening. Just yesterday, I donned a leather coat and turned the heat on in the car for the 45 minute drive to Minocqua.

So yes, someone flipped a switch in the Northwoods again and now it is fall. I confirmed that this morning while sitting in the front porch swing waiting for the fog to lift. A gentle breeze from the southeast blew the fog away. But it also caused brightly yellow colored basswood leaves to fall from high in the canopy, of the otherwise green forest, which surrounds my log cabin on the banks of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage.

I must admit that I find the end of another summer to be a bit sad. Summer in the Northwoods is such a pleasant time with long days of delightful weather, endless outdoor recreation, and cool nights filled with the sounds of crickets, and the scent of campfires as island campers on the Flowage prepare their dinner.

Labor Day is a couple of days away – the official end of summer. The resorts that border State highway 51 leading south through Minocqua, Hazelhurst, and Tomahawk will host their “end of summer” parties and place signs along the highway that bid farewell to tourists and the season until next year. The hundreds of resorts and tourist’s shops will close for the winter and the Northwoods will return to being a ghost town during the winter season; inhabited only by those of us who live here year round.

That changeover began, if only in my mind, today when I saw the basswood leaves falling to the ground. Winter will bring new inhabitants as the skiers, snowmobilers, and ice fisherman move in, and the boaters, campers, and hikers move out. And before you know it, someone will throw a switch again and just that quickly, summer is here once again.

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