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Nashville Scene Playing With Fire

Fireplaces are great, but don't burn down the house

By Walter Jowers

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  Most of us like fire the way Bubba in Forrest Gump liked shrimp. We like campfires and bonfires and even fires in the house. We like wood fires, gas fires, fires in the living room, den, and bedroom.

I enjoy a nice fire myself. Some years back, before we got our chimney fixed up, we had a set of electric logs in our fireplace. The electric logs were just a cheap sculpture of logs with a little plastic Ferris-wheel device tattooed to look like fire. The wheel spun around a light bulb and made a repetitive crackling sound. I'd turn the thing on and just laugh and laugh.

Eventually, we got a set of gas logs, which are a big improvement over the electric logs. The quality of the log sculpture is better, and there's an actual flame. The flame is fed by natural gas, so there's no smoke, no crackling, and no wood smell. The flame pattern repeats every few seconds, like one of those scrolling ads on a gas pump. It's great fun.

Clearly, humans' love of fire comes from some primitive little cluster of brain cells that can't process higher, logical thought. I say this because it's pretty dang obvious to me: If you put five seconds of logical thought to our love of fire and fireplaces, you realize 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, built-in cooktops, and microwave/convection ovens, there's no good reason to have a fire in the house.

The big problem with fire in the house is that it can burn your house down. I remember an incident about three years ago, when a guy set a smoldering log out on his apartment balcony. The log flared up and set the apartment complex on fire. The next winter, a local pizza joint had a chimney fire. The pizza joint burned.

There's nothing you can do about a person who sets a hot log on a wood balcony. A certain number of people are just bound to start fires, run over their feet with lawn mowers, or electrocute themselves by peeing onto high-voltage wires. 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 creosote sticks to the inside of the chimney (also called the flue). In general, the wetter or the sappier the wood, the cooler the fire, and 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. After attic sparks, the next thing you get is a fire truck, followed by a TV crew who'll try to get you to cry on camera.

A simple chimney cleaning--which generally costs between $75 and $150--can prevent this kind of ugly scene. In our relatively short fireplace season, you can probably get away with just one chimney cleaning a year. Serious wood-burning people in colder parts of the country might need two cleanings a year. You need a qualified chimney sweep to do the job.

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 very common in clay tile flues. Cracked tiles can give you that ugly sparks-in-the-attic problem.

These days, the safest fireplaces are probably the prefab metal ones. They come from the factory with all the right parts and directions that explain how to install them so they won't set your house on fire. It's not impossible to screw up the installation of one of these prefab units, but it's hard. That's why they're so popular in new houses these days.

If you're looking to add a fireplace to an existing house, I've got to warn you: Go to just about any fireplace shop these days, and chances are the salesfolk will steer you toward a set of ventless gas logs. These things are very popular, 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. The gas logs at my house are vented up a real enough 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.

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