Q: Thanks to my young son lavishing so much attention on our home’s fireplace over the past week (he was anxiously awaiting the arrival of a hirsute, overweight home invader wearing red felt pants), I have begun to scrutinize it … and not for Santa-related reasons. We’ve lived in our older home about three years now and have yet to winterize or perform any kind of maintenance on the wood-burning fireplace. We use it only occasionally during the fall and winter — mainly for aesthetics and not home heating purposes — but I’m thinking the fireplace and chimney may need a little TLC either on a DIY or professional level. Have any pointers as to where to start?
A: Cute. I remember being so very, very worried about Santa being able to squeeze his ample frame down my chimney (thank goodness my parents waited to install the pellet stove — otherwise they would have had one neurotic child on their hands). I’m pretty sure that one year I went as far as to leave him a glass of skim milk and a single granola bar as a snack to ensure that he wouldn’t have any future issues. Maybe instead of the traditional refueling option, you can have your son leave out a copy of Men’s Fitness and a container of Activia (because Santa’s got to stay regular after all). Just don’t mention anything to your son about weak or sagging roof structures because if he’s anything like I was, he’ll start insisting that you reshingle it as to better accommodate an obese man schlepping an oversized sack and his nine reindeer.
When it comes to winterizing and inspecting your own fireplace, it wouldn’t hurt to consult a professional chimney sweep — Chimney Safety Institute of America-certified, preferably — especially since you live in an older home. You can tell your son that they’re in cahoots with Santa (and Mary Poppins), taking careful measurements to prevent him from getting stuck in the future. Not only will a chimney sweep note and repair any structural damage, but also will clean the inside of your chimney of built-up gunk, debris, soot, living (and dead) creatures, and creosote (the stinky, highly combustible substance that can build up in chimney flues) to help prevent a house fire. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, each year 27,000 house fires originate in poorly maintained chimneys or fireplaces, so it’s certainly something worth looking into.
Since they usually provide different levels of service ranging from basic sweeps to more thorough inspections (no climbing boys required), a professional chimney sweep should also be able to pinpoint any sources of heat loss related to your chimney and/or fireplace. Along with windows, a leaky chimney can wreak havoc on your home heating bills as cold air rushes down while warm air escapes. Not a good thing. A damaged or nonexistent fireplace damper or louver, the metal flapper that opens and closes each time you use the fireplace, is usually the main, drafty culprit here. When a damper is broken, its ability to prevent heat loss is rendered null and you pretty much have an “open window” on your hands. A chimney sweep should be able to repair or replace a broken damper although it’s not always cheap.
If you know for a fact that your damper is defunct, one DIY fix-it method is to install a chimney balloon, an inflatable, pillow-like device that you can easily insert yourself. You can even have your son help out with this as long as you reassure him that it will be removed on approximately Dec. 24. Once inserted and inflated directly above or below the damper, a chimney balloon helps to prevent cold air from entering and hot air from escaping your home when the fireplace is not in use. And if you have fireplace doors, for the love of God, keep ‘em shut (and nice and sparkling with the aid of this interesting cleaning method). If the doors are ancient, it may be time to get them replaced with newer, better fitting ones.
Hope this helps you get started!