Photo of Zero-Clearance Fireplace

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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