By Mitch Kuffa
With Winter here, many of us will begin lighting up our old natural fireplaces. If you stop for a moment and think about the ramifications of building an open fire inside your house, you will quickly realize the many concerns that may arise.
Here are some of the things you should know about your natural burning fireplace.
The hearth (which is the area of the floor of your house that is directly in front of the firebox) should be made of a solid fireproof material such as: marble, brick, ceramic or similar. Also, it should extend the minimum of 16” beyond the face of the fireplace opening. And the hearth should extend a minimum of 8” on each side of the firebox. In general, hearths have the tendency to slightly separate or crack where they meet the vertical wall or the face of the fireplace and should be sealed tightly in those areas so that any hot cinders cannot fall into a crack and reach any wood, framing or sub-floor.
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The requirements for clearance to combustibles varies from area to area, but in general, any combustible should at least be 6” away from the firebox opening (such as wood trim, mantles, etc.). An additional inch of clearance is needed for every 1/8” of any combustible material or trim that protrudes.
Combustible mantles are usually the areas of most concern and should preferably be approximately 12” from the opening. If the side panels of the mantle project out more than 1-½” from the fireplace face you will need additional clearance. The bottom line here is that you obviously don’t want anything combustible near the fire.
You should provide a means to open/close the firebox from the chimney itself. This mechanism is commonly called a damper. Many older fireplaces have no damper, but if the fireplace chimney is left open and there is no fire, the open chimney will have the tendency to “suck” the heat right out of your house. There are damper kits available that can be added to older chimneys which are usually installed by brick masons or chimney cleaners. If your chimney has a damper, check it out before lighting a fire. Many times they are so dirty that they do not stay open and in some cases will not stay shut. It is not uncommon to find old metal damper that’s warped from excessive exposure to heat. These warped mechanisms will not always function properly or seal tight. Also, many times the damper handle or pull-chains are broken or missing.
What is the condition of the firebox itself? This is the area that the fire is actually built-in. Many times the firebox bricks are loose, cracked or have openings in the mortar joints. Any such deficiency should be sealed or stabilized and there are specific products on the market for this purpose that are fireproof, economical, and easy to use.
Did you know that the higher the chimney, the better it will draw? On my own old historical house, I have an active fireplace attached to both a 2-story chimney and a 1-story chimney. I can light a fire in the 2-story chimney with no problem, but I always have to look outside (to see how much wind there is) before I light the fireplace with the shorter chimney. The higher that hot air can rise undisturbed, the faster it goes and the harder it is for the outside environment to push it back (which is commonly called back drafting).
Please realize that your chimney occasionally needs to be cleaned. This is especially the case if your burning wood or coal which allows creosote to build-up inside the chimney. Creosote is combustible and this is what causes chimney fires.
Make sure that any outside trees or vines have not grown close to the chimney. Did you know that the top of your chimney should be at least 2 feet higher than anything within a 10-foot radius? This requirement is commonly violated.
If you happen to have a very old fireplace that does not have clay flue liners inside the chimney, special care should be taken in reference to the condition in that area. The reason being that if there are no flue liners, the inside of your chimney is probably only exposed brick. Mortar, under long exposure to heat and age, can deteriorate. As this occurs, some of the bricks can come loose, mortar can fall out and there could be openings up inside your chimney that you cannot see. These openings occasionally allow combustibles (such as wood framing, siding, or similar) to become exposed and could cause a house fire. There are chimney liners available that can be installed. You may want to have the inside of your chimney inspected by someone knowledgeable in this area.
Finally, if your fireplace has an “ash dump” — an opening in the bottom of the firebox, make sure that it has a proper fireproof cover or door. These ash dumps often open into the basement or the exterior of your house and it is not a good idea to allow hot cinders and ashes to fall randomly into those areas. I have found raccoons, birds, bats, branches, etc. that have entered during the warm summer months and have left nests or are still present
Finally, make sure all fires are out on Christmas Eve (so Santa doesn’t burn his you know what).
That’s it. Stay warm.
Mitchell J. Kuffa Jr. has been in the construction industry since 1967. In that time, he has worked as a construction superintendent, general superintendent, and construction manager for several large developers in the State of Michigan.
He has been a licensed Michigan residential builder since 1977, was an incorporated general contractor for 11 years and has built and/or run the construction of approx. 3,500 residential houses, apartments, commercial structures and/or light industrial buildings.
In 1981 he started the first private home inspection agency in Michigan and to date has personally performed approx. 16,000 inspections for a fee.
Since 1981, Mr. Kuffa inspects properties and acts as a construction consultant for the Michigan Department of Mental Health (group homes), UAW Legal Services, numerous lenders, several non-profit organizations and for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mr. Kuffa is a Federal Housing fee inspector and FHA 203K mortgage loan consultant, works with several attorney’s as an “expert witness”, has been appointed by the Michigan circuit court system to act as a Receiver in several cases concerning construction litigation and teaches a series of construction classes (for misc. school districts, community colleges, Michigan State Housing Authority, etc.).
Mr. Kuffa has been a member of the National Association of Home Inspectors, in good standing, since 1983.
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