Or farewell, my chilly

Gary Dymski, Newsday, November 4, 2004


I was leafing through old case files when she slinked into the office. She perched herself at the edge of my desk, crossing legs longer than a cool glass of water.

"I need help," she said.

"What did you have in mind?"

"It's my fireplace. It should be warm and cozy, but it's a big, cold brute. I'm desperate."

If desperation sends in this kind of dame, I'm definitely in the right business, I thought. But the better part of me knew she'd be trouble. I'd soon be elbow-deep in soot and ashes. I didn't care. It's part of the job. I'm the house detective.

When my wife tells me to fix the fireplace, or else, I like to think she sees me as Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade or Spenser. A sort of investigative handyman. Hey, every little bit helps.

I've solved a few house mysteries in previous columns. There was the case of the missing kitchen cabinet handle, and I worked overtime to solve the mystery of the black smoke that haunted an elderly couple in Merrick. The culprit turned out to be a nasty oil burner.

But my freezing fireplace could be a candidate for "Unsolved Mysteries." Here's the scoop.

In 1997 my wife and I purchased a new home with a prefabricated fireplace, a Heatilator model EC42, that was installed by the builder. For the first few years, because of relatively warm winters, we didn't notice the fireplace was sucking in a steady stream of cold air -- a dastardly deed known as "backdrafting." But during the last two much-colder winters, our family room was like a meat locker. Last winter the chill was so big that I sealed the fireplace opening with shrink-wrap insulation, the plastic film that covers drafty windows from the inside.

My wife did not approve. "This winter," she said, "plastic wrap is not an option."

So, to keep her off my case, I went sleuthing. Using a little of Sherlock Holmes' deductive reasoning, I figured one problem was the fireplace's location -- it was installed on an exterior wall. The opening faces a large air-return vent for a forced-air furnace. Such vents feed furnaces fresh air. And since the vent was just 30 feet away, the fireplace opening was its primary source of outside air, creating the backdraft.

I figured an air-tight damper – a plate that controls the flow of air, smoke and draft – at the top of the chimney might eliminate the backdraft. So I turned to Chim Cap Corp., a Farmingdale manufacturer of chimney supplies. The company does not sell to the public, but Debbie, who handles phone calls, suggested I contact Don Chiapetta, who operates Top to Bottom Chimney Cleaners.

Chiapetta needed just a few minutes to tell me the return vent was the least of my problems. "That might be a small, small part of it," he said, "but you have a couple of things going on here, and I don't think an air-tight damper is going to do much good."

Chiapetta thought the larger problem was in the "chase," the exterior structure that encloses the chimney from the foundation to the roofline. Sometimes called a "doghouse" because it looks like a separate structure on the exterior wall, the chase also contains venting. "My guess is that the chase is poorly insulated or not insulated at all," he said.

What now? Was my only option tearing away interior walls or vinyl siding and sheathing to insulate the chase? Chiapetta believed that was indeed the best approach, but he also suggested another option.

His suggestion led me to a small town called Killaloe, about 100 miles west of Ottawa, in the province of Ontario, Canada. Now the game was afoot – or at least on the phone. John Gulland was on the other end of the line, and after hearing my case, he didn't have good news. "You might be better off using a half-stick of dynamite on the existing fireplace and starting over," he said.

According to Gulland, a wood-burning consultant whose clients include training associations and the Canadian government, more than one thing was wrong. He agreed it was wise to assume the chase was the major source of cold air. "A good chase is almost impossible to build," he said. "They are almost always leaky."

Gulland, who oversees a Web site called woodheat.org, said builders should not be making chases. "Yours is a problem that is affecting thousands and thousands of homeowners," he said. "We should not be putting fireplaces in chases." Instead, he said fireplaces should be installed inside a wall as part of the home's interior.

My other problem is known as the "stack effect," which occurs when a fireplace is not burning wood. The stack effect is created because warm air in buildings, like flue gases in a chimney, is buoyant. The greater the difference between the outdoor and indoor temperature, the more cold air flows into the chimney in lower floor levels. Our chimney is on the ground floor.

So, cold air is leaking in from the chase, and when it is really cold outside, the stack effect sucks cold air into the lower levels of the house and releases warmer air upstairs through any small openings.

Can this drafty fireplace be fixed?

"Even if you tear down interior walls and seal every crack and crevice, it might not be enough," Gulland said.

She was back in my office, hoping for good news.

"How much do you love your fireplace?" I asked her.

"I can't give it up," she said. "I need it."

This would be rough, but she had to know. "The interior wall around the fireplace, it will have to come down. I have to insulate. It's not going to be pretty, and even then, I'm not sure I can save it."

Her blue eyes were like daggers. She didn't say anything. But I knew what she was thinking: "My walls. My family room. Oh, no."

The next installment will appear soon.