Should I be coming down with the flue?
November 11, 2011 10:04 PM   Subscribe

Our new apartment (in Oakland, CA, if that matters) has a functional fireplace. Yay! Every other fireplace I've ever been around had a chain or handle of some kind to pull to open the flue. There's nothing of the sort here. Boo! Is this some kind of strange California fireplace without a flue? How can I tell?

The building seems to be from the 20s or 30s. There is an opening covered with a little hinged door in the floor of the fireplace that I've been assuming was, at one point, intended for sweeping ashes down into the basement. What the what is going on here?
posted by mostlymartha to Home & Garden (22 answers total)
Have you tried looking up the chimney with a flashlight? It's conceivable there is no longer a damper.
posted by docpops at 10:11 PM on November 11, 2011

Response by poster: Yep, we looked up there. It takes a 90-degree turn less than a foot up, but as far as we can see, nada.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:14 PM on November 11, 2011

Did you check, did your landlord say that it was functional?

If so, ask him/her.
posted by edgeways at 10:20 PM on November 11, 2011

Response by poster: Yep, she said it was functional. I figured we'd call on Monday for more info if we couldn't figure it out before then.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:24 PM on November 11, 2011

is there anything in the adjacent rooms?
do you think the walls are newer than the fireplace?
posted by calgirl at 10:41 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One anecdotal datum - I lived in a 1920s construction apartment in Berkeley that had a functional fireplace with no damper. No idea if it was removed over time, or simply never installed in the first place. (And, never having had a fireplace before, I didn't realize there was anything strange about that until a fireplace savvy visitor commented on it.)

If I were you, I'd try burning a thumb sized chunk cut off one of those wax-and-sawdust firelogs and see if the apartment fills with smoke. (Having a pair of tongs, a bucket of water, and a towel you don't care about nearby might be a good idea in case there *is* a damper after all.)
posted by eotvos at 10:43 PM on November 11, 2011

Response by poster: calgirl, there's nothing in the adjacents room and all the walls are pretty clearly the same age. I'm thinking a little controlled test burn might be in order.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:47 PM on November 11, 2011

can you feel a draft inside the fireplace?
posted by rhizome at 11:23 PM on November 11, 2011

Response by poster: Since it's always a bit drafty in here and none of you told me I was a mad woman, for even considering it, I fetched the fire extinguisher and lit a newspaper ball. Upon evidence of a healthy draft, I proceeded, and now I have a fine little blaze. Apparently it is some weird California fireplace without proper a proper damper. Now I'm thinking I need to figure out some way to cover the fireplace opening when it's chilly. Thanks all for helping me be Mistress of Flame.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:34 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Open a window in the room and light some rolled-up newspaper, held like a torch, high up in the fireplace. If it draws the smoke up, there's probably just not any damper. If you start to see smoke fill the chimney and come back at you, stop immediately.

Honestly though, if you don't know when the last time the chimney was inspected, I wouldn't use it. Not all chimneys are created equal — some that were originally designed for coal or gas aren't suitable for burning wood — and many have been modified over the years, either to seal them off for energy conservation, or to install something like a woodstove that might not exist anymore. (Woodstoves are generally installed by removing the damper.)

I know you're not the owner, but you're going to be out of a house if there's a chimney fire. I'd proceed cautiously, and it might make sense to urge the landlord to get a licensed chimney sweep in there to look at it, if it hasn't been done recently.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:36 PM on November 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Our 20s San Francisco house also has a fireplace without a damper, and has worked without issue for years. The chimney sweep we've used didn't bat an eyelash. I suspect the temperate weather by the Bay makes the damper-free fireplace less drafty than it would be in other climates.
posted by eschatfische at 1:02 AM on November 12, 2011

The primary reason for a damper in cold climates is to prevent heat from rushing up the chimney when the fireplace is not in use. Probably not a concern there.
posted by megatherium at 4:24 AM on November 12, 2011

Maybe the 90-degree turn is in lieu of a damper, with the changeable SF climate.
posted by SillyShepherd at 6:29 AM on November 12, 2011

Before you light a fire, be sure to check if it's a winter Spare the Air day first.
posted by elsietheeel at 6:53 AM on November 12, 2011

Seconding asking the landlord when it was last cleaned and inspected. Rentals tend to not have this done often, if at all.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:19 AM on November 12, 2011

I've lived in a few places with open fires and there's never been any sort of trapdoor in the chimney, so that doesn't sound unusual to me. Maybe it's an American thing.

But I wouldn't just go ahead and light a fire in a fireplace that hasn't been used for a long time anyway. There could be anything up there that could catch light - soot, birds' nests, all sorts. if you want to use the fireplace you should at least get the chimney swept and checked out.
posted by ComfySofa at 7:19 AM on November 12, 2011

No dampener in the two fireplaces in my parents' house. Seconding the advice to have it checked, I'd also sweep it first to make sure the path is clear and no build up of material that could cause a chimney fire.
posted by arcticseal at 7:31 AM on November 12, 2011

A little off topic, but please have it cleaned before you light a big fire (or ask the landlord). There can be all sorts of burnables in the chimney that need to be removed first. Also you need to check that there are no trees, etc. around the top.
posted by Vaike at 9:32 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Use a flashlight and poke around in the chimney itself. You may see a lever that controls a damper farther up. It seemed bizarre to me to put the damper control in the fireplace itself, but a friend assured me it is semi-common in CA.
posted by benzenedream at 10:33 AM on November 12, 2011

Maybe the 90-degree turn is in lieu of a damper, with the changeable SF climate.

No, this is standard chimney design.

This specific chimney may just be an old thing, with the damper removed or never installed if they didn't think they needed it (as others have suggested). It might be a common thing in CA, but it's certainly not standard. Everyplace I've ever lived with a fireplace has had a damper, but generally those places were all built in the 60s or later.
posted by LionIndex at 12:44 PM on November 12, 2011

We live in Ireland. Our chimney was built, along with the rest of our house, in 1895, and has no flue or damper. It also isn't exactly a wind tunnel, either; it would never occur to me worry about blocking it in winter. This may be a size thing (ours is small) but I can't imagine how. Personally, I'd get the chimney swept and ask the service person what they advise.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:45 PM on November 12, 2011

Just one additional datapoint: the house I grew up in, in San Diego, CA, had a fireplace with a flue, so it's not all CA fireplaces that are flueless.
posted by Aizkolari at 8:27 AM on November 14, 2011

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