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Fireplace Fun and Function

By Jon Vacha


As the weather turns cold and families gather in living rooms, people start to turn on their fireplaces. Or they say- “We’ve never used that thing, I don’t even know if it works”. During a home inspection walk through we make sure that the buyer is going to know how to operate their fireplace.

If a house was built after 1995 or so it probably has a direct vent fireplace. This type of fireplace has a glass sealed door(which gets hot) and then a ‘direct vent’ or flue pipe and combustion air intake pipe that SteveFireplaceusually runs out through the sidewall of a house. A couple minutes of explaining gas shutoffs and the pilot light goes a long way in helping the buyer understand the simple setup. After the pilot light is lit or if there is an electronic ignition all it takes is a flick of a light switch to start ‘er up. We suggest keeping the pilot light on year round (costs around $10 a year).

Older homes may have a simple wood burning fireplace. The more wood is burned in a fireplace the more care should be taken in making sure the flue is clean and doesn’t build up with dangerous levels of creosote. Getting to know a chimney sweep is always a good idea- just ask Mary Poppins. A gas log starter fireplace has a gas line in the firebox that is designed to help start a wood burning fire. Once the logs have started burning well enough, the gas line can be turned back off.  A gas log fireplace has fake logs and gas flames burn around them.  Understanding keys and pilot lights and combinations of the two may be needed with these types of fireplaces.

If a fireplace is not a direct vent fireplace it will have a damper. Dampers need to be open when the fireplace is burning to let the smoke and exhaust from the fireplace escape through the chimney. It may be closed when the fireplace is off to prevent cold air from entering the house. A C-clamp should be on gas log fireplace dampers to prevent the flue from closing completely in case there is ever a gas leak. C-clamps are included in the installation kits on these gas log fireplace inserts, but they are usually never installed.  A damper that is located at the top of a chimney should be removed if there is any type of gas fireplace. A gas leak can fill up a chimney with a damper at the top and create a bomb.

Understanding how to operate a fireplace and having a friendly home inspector warn of their dangers helps more holiday gatherings occur with a nice burning fireplace nearby.


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