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Fireplaces photos: P 120-P 123, P 205
Check all fireplaces for any structural or back-smoking problems. Make sure the mortar joints are in satisfactory condition. Back-smoking is the result of downdrafts in the chimney flue that causes the smoke to come back into the house. Signs of back-smoking are black deposits, called creosote, on the front of the fireplace and mantel. When you finish inspecting the fireplace, check your hands for any creosote that needs to be washed off. You don't want to get creosote on everything you touch.
If the fireplace has a sliding glass and screen cover make sure it operates smoothly. Often they're rusty and can't be opened and closed easily. The screens will help prevent ashes and sparks from flying into the room. You will find metal heat-a-lators on some fireplaces. Heat-a-lators are glass doors with vents at the top and bottom which make the fireplace much more energy efficient to use. The reason for this is that heat rises. As a result, about 90% of the heat from the fire goes up the chimney and out of the house. Moreover, an open firebox will allow the air from the room to feed the fire for combustion. This room air has just been heated by your boiler or furnace so the last thing you want is for it to go up in smoke!! Glass doors with vents at the bottom allow the cooler air by the floor to be drawn into the firebox to feed the flames. Vents at the top of the metal heat-a-lator will allow the warm air from the fire to go back into the room. Sometimes these heat-a-lators will have fans that circulate the air and increase the efficiency even more. Newer construction will have vents on the lower part of the exterior chimneys. This allows exterior air to feed the flames in the firebox which further increases the efficiency of the fireplace.
Check to see if the fireplace damper is operating properly. The damper s the metal door inside the top of the firebox area. This door is opened while a fire is burning and closed when the fireplace isn't in use. If the damper doesn't open and close properly or is very rusty, recommend it be replaced.
Most chimneys have a terra-cotta tile lining. This is a light red, tile lining inside the chimney flue stack. If you can view up the chimney flue, use a flashlight to check the mortar joints inside and see if there are thick creosote deposits. The chimney flue needs to be swept and repointed by a chimney sweep periodically. This will help prevent chimney fires. Chimney fires are similar to grease fires in a kitchen. The heavy buildup of soot becomes flammable when surrounded by hot air and it will eventually ignite in flames.
Sometimes the fireplace will have a metal firebox installed instead of brick. Check this metal firebox lining for buckled and rusting sections due to the intense heat in the firebox area. If there is damage then tell the client to get a repair estimate. Installing a new firebox lining can be expensive. You don't want to use a fireplace with a deteriorated lining. This can lead to a fire in the house because the insulating walls of the firebox are too thin.
You may find a wood burning stove. You're limited in what you can evaluate with these because there's no access to view up the chimney flue. Recommend that the client take special precautions with a wood burning stove for safety. Unlike a fireplace they are installed out of the wall and take up part of the room. This allows the heat from the iron exterior to dissipate into the house. If anyone bumps into the stove while it's hot, they're going to get severely burned. A guardrail must be installed around a wood burning stove if there are children in the house. These stoves can give off a tremendous amount of heat and can save a lot of money on fuel bills.