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January 12, 2008

'Burning soft woods and creating too much creosote is an old wives' tale'


I learned the opposite when I was knee high to a grasshopper.

So wherefrom comes this heresy?

No less than Bob Fish himself, owner of Vermont Master Chimney Sweeps in Londonderry.

Ashley Eldridge, director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute of America, concurs.

Read all about this apparent apostasy in Billie Cohen's article from yesterday's New York Times on fireplaces and related matters; the piece follows.

    Waking Up an Idle Hearth

    Nothing makes a winter getaway more inviting than that warm glow crackling in the fireplace. "Since cave man times, we like to build a fire and poke around in it,"€ said Ashley Eldridge, director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

    But to keep those second-home fires burning, especially given that owners might be absent for months at a time, safety and maintenance steps need to be taken.

    The first is easy: make sure your chimney has a rain cap to keep out flue-damaging moisture as well as curious animals. "I would hope every chimney has a rain cap,"€ Mr. Eldridge said. "You certainly wouldn't build a house without a roof."

    The second step requires just a phone call: regular chimney inspections by a certified sweep. (The chimney safety group administers a national certification, and its Web site, www.csia.org, lists those who have it.) "The sweeping and inspection should be done in spring or summer," said Bob Fish, who owns Vermont Master Chimney Sweeps in Londonderry. "That way any repair work can be done when the weather is good."

    The most common issues he finds during those inspections are damage from a chimney fire, which can require repair of cracked flue tiles, and creosote buildup, which requires a sweeping.

    Even if your chimney is the cleanest in town, that first fire of the season can still present a challenge, especially if your house is in a cold climate. "If the chimney has been sitting idle for a couple of months, that structure will be very cold, so it might be very difficult to initiate a fire,"€ Mr. Eldridge said. That's because the air inside the chimney is also cold, and cold air's tendency is to fall, pushing any smoke back into the living room instead of up the chimney. So if you open the damper and feel a chilly blast of air come at you, don't try to light a fire.

    "It's possible that after the initial surge of cold air, it will resolve itself and some of the air will begin to go up the chimney on its own,” Mr. Eldridge said. But for extra insurance, he recommends opening a window on the windward side of the house "to increase positive pressure. It also guarantees that you'll have plenty of air for the fireplace."

    The other main ingredient for a roaring fire is, of course, wood, which must be properly dried, or seasoned. "You want to acquire wood with sufficient time to dry it — six months ideally," Mr. Eldridge said. "And beyond just simple drying, it's important that wood be cut and split and stacked off the ground where there's a breeze to carry moisture away."

    Both he and Mr. Fish are quick to dispel a myth about which woods burn best. "Burning soft woods and creating too much creosote is an old wives' tale."€ Mr. Fish said. Mr. Eldridge further explained: "Because of pine's inherently resinous nature, people think tar will remain in the chimney. The truth is, pine is great for starting a fire because that pitch is often flammable. It will light up very quickly, so if you've got a larger fire, it makes an ideal kindling. Whereas a piece of hickory, because of its density, it's not going to go off when you put a match to it."

    Density is the key word here. "Pine, fir, spruce are all soft woods, and they're all fine to burn," Mr. Fish said, but he added, "You'd end up burning more logs to get the same amount of heat as you would from a hardwood. If you have the same size log of soft and hardwood, the soft weighs substantially less and has less B.T.U.'s.

    No matter how dense your wood, though, don't count on the fireplace to warm your home. "I've been told if you plan to heat your house with a fireplace, you need a stack of wood equivalent to the size of your house,"€ Mr. Eldridge said, laughing. "Which is just a way to say it's ridiculous.

    "But," he added, "for the sentimental value, there's no substitute. And in my opinion, it's absolutely worth it."

January 12, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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OTOH, an efficient wood stove can do quite well keeping a decent 2 bedroom ranch warm and toasty. My old friend Dan and I rented a farmhouse in our senior year in college on 80 acres of scrub, limestone, dolomite and chert. Great for running his bird dog and throwing giant parties (oh, if the barn could talk).

Just after classes started we spent several Saturdays in a local national forrest that permitted wood cutting. Taking only standing deadwood (and, using a borrowed dump-truck) we cut 5 Cords of wood. Actually we downed and bucked the trees and cut them into stove lengths and tossed them waaay up into the dump-truck. The third Saturday saw the splitting competition/party. Following Mr. Twain's advice, and substituting splitting mauls for whitewash brushes, we split and stacked 5 cords of wood.

What's a cord? 4'x4'x15' so, the walk from the drive to the farmhouse had a nice stack on both sides 6' high just over 45' long. We carried that in, burned it and carried out the ash all winter long and made it through a cold midwest winter on three days worth of "woodwork." I can say that 30+ years later I wouldn't want to toss all of that dead oak up into that dump truck again.

The price? The wood was free. The dump-truck (neither of us had a commercial license - probably illegal for us to drive) - loaned for free as long as we kept the diesel full - at that time say $40.00 total; the keg of beer and ice for the splitting/stacking party - say another $50.00 - borrowed chainsaws - free, 2 stroke fuel $10.00: heat for the winter for roughly $100.00.

Yeah, the farm had a gas furnace, stove and water heater - and a big propane tank that cost $300 to fill - we filled it in August and it had more than 1/2 left when we took leave of "the farm" in late May.

We never had a problem with creosote - and had a magnetic thermometer on the stovepipe (it showed temp by danger of creosote condensate). A big cast-iron "tea-pot" sat on top of the stove and we kept it full of water for humidity.

The drawbacks were few - you could pick a place closer to the stove if you wanted to be warmer or further away for a cooler existence. The far bedroom could drop as low as 60f at night....with the door shut. That had its own advantages with a bed partner...

The other drawback: idiots. I am pleased to say that a well built wood stove will withstand an exploding Butane lighters, .22 and .38 shells and assorted firecrackers. The fool who threw .38 shells in was an off-duty local cop.

That winter it hit 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jan 12, 2008 5:04:26 PM

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