Light My Fire
By Walter Jowers
NOVEMBER 3, 1997: Most of us like fire the way Bubba Gump liked shrimp. We like big fires, little fires, oak fires, and gas fires. We like fire in the living room, dining room, den, and bedroom. The more fire, the better.
I enjoy a nice fire myself. At our house, we've got the stereo set up around the fireplace so we can combine our simple pleasures--sort of like taking a little bite of bittersweet chocolate and washing it down with fresh coffee. But I've got to tell you: When you look at this fire thing analytically, it's just nuts.
Quick, answer this question: Are you in favor of fire in the house, yes or no? The smart answer would be "No." In this day of central heating, downdraft cooktops, and microwave/convection ovens, there's no good reason to have a fire in the house. But since we're all going to have fires anyway, let me share a little inside dope with you.
Real fires The big problem with real fires is that they can burn your house down. I remember an incident last winter when a guy put a smoldering log out on his apartment balcony. Of course, the log flared up and set the apartment complex on fire. And just a few weeks ago, a local restaurant burned up when their pizza oven's chimney caught fire.
There's nothing you can do about a person who sets a hot log on a wood balcony. Doofus fires will happen. But you can reduce the risk of a chimney fire just by getting the chimney cleaned.
Every time you have a real wood fire, some crud (creosote) sticks to the inside of the chimney (also called the flue). In general, the wetter or the sappier the wood, and the cooler the fire, the worse the creosote buildup. Creosote, like the logs that made it, is flammable. If the creosote gets hot enough, it'll burn like a blowtorch, causing the chimney to vibrate and fall apart. That means sparks in the attic. Right after the sparks in the attic come TV crews and pleas for people to send money to your recovery fund.
A simple chimney-cleaning--which generally costs between $75 and $150--can prevent this kind of ugly scene. In Nashville's relatively short fireplace season, you can probably get away with just one chimney cleaning a year. Serious wood-burning people in colder climes might need two cleanings a year.
If you have a masonry flue, with a clay-tile flue liner, hire a high-tech chimney sweep to drop a video camera down the flue. That's the only good way to find cracks, which are fairly common in clay-tile flues. Cracked tiles can give you that ugly sparks-in-the-attic problem.
If you have an unlined masonry flue, don't even think about using the fireplace. Just stick a fake flower arrangement in there, or, better yet, get some of those swell electric logs with the rotating light and built-in crackling sound.
Fake fires Go to just about any fireplace shop these days, and chances are the salesfolk will steer you toward one of the new ventless gas logs. These things are all the rage because they hold out the promise of a fire-like experience without the hassle and expense of adding a chimney.
I don't have time to read angry letters from ventless-fireplace advocates, so let me say right here: To the best of my knowledge, ventless fireplaces aren't killing people or making people sick in any great numbers. If you want a ventless fireplace, go buy one, or several. Recommend 'em to your friends.
But I'll tell you this: I would not have, in my own house, a fake-a-zoid fireplace that spews carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and maybe even carbon monoxide. I've got gas logs in my own house, but they're vented up a chimney. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Read the owner's manuals on ventless gas logs, and you'll find that they're not recommended for sleeping rooms, they should be operated only for short periods of time, and they shouldn't be used for heating purposes.
If the burners on ventless gas logs get a coating of dust or pet hair, the combustion efficiency suffers. Lower efficiency means more carbon monoxide, and carbon monoxide can give you headaches, make you tired, or maybe even kill you.
I say, don't have any fire, real or fake, without a clean chimney above it.
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