What to do with my fireplaces?
September 25, 2014 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Winter is coming, as they say, and I'm not sure what to do with my fireplaces. The prior owner of my house did next to nothing by way of maintenance on the house, and even from my lay perspective, the flues have lots of creosote that needs cleaning. But is it worth it to bother with a cleaning when a gas retrofit might be much nicer?

My house has a fireplace on the first floor and a fireplace in the basement (and a third flue for the furnace). I'd be shocked if anyone has serviced any of the flues in the chimney in the time that the prior owners lived there (and maybe longer; there seems to be a fair amount of creosote, but I don't think the prior owners used the fireplace much if at all).

It would be nice if the fireplace on the first floor were usable; I'm less likely to use the fireplace in the basement.

I guess I have a few questions--

1) how much should I expect to pay to have a pretty serious chimney sweeping (and do I really need the liner I'm sure I'll be pressured to buy?)?

2) how much should I expect to pay to switch over from a wood to a gas fireplace, and would I be saving any money if I forgo a chimney sweeping in anticipation of getting retrofitted for gas (or would I need to have it swept anyway at the same cost before the gas install)?

3) if I were to install a gas fireplace on the first floor, would I necessarily do anything with the basement fireplace? All things being equal, I'd be happy ignoring it and not using it.

4) did you switch to gas? do you love it/hate it? what did you have installed?

To be clear--I am not planning on using the fireplaces unless they get serviced. And I realize that a wood fireplace is an inefficient way to heat a house (though a properly installed gas fireplace could be quite efficient).

I'm probably not going to get a gas retrofit this year, so if I could defer the sweeping until next year, I think that would be fine. But if the prudent thing is to get it swept ASAP, I'd do that (and maybe light a fire to celebrate!).
posted by Admiral Haddock to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
We moved to a new house few years back -- the house is built 1880 and has one fireplace remaining. We are so glad that we had had it swept and now use it multiple times a week during the winter. Cost was ~$300, but that included flue for the oil furnace as well.

We never considered switching to gas, so can't help you there. Real fire beats gas in my opinion. Fire wood can be expensive though, but we have ample supply from our own yard.
posted by zeikka at 9:28 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

We had a gas insert put in to replace a basement wood stove. Cost about $3~$4k, including running a new gas line through the basement ceiling. The insert Is about 80% efficient and keeps the entire finished basement nice and toasty.

They put in a flue liner specially for a balanced flue gas appliance and we did not bother getting the chimney cleaned before converting.
posted by monotreme at 9:40 AM on September 25, 2014

I don't have a fireplace, so I can't speak to costs associated with it. I also don't know about liners, but I'm wary of any salesperson that seems too eager to sell me something or sounds like they're reading a rehearsed script. As others have said since I started writing this, though, a liner may indeed be necessary and not a big deal.

Regardless, Wiki says that that creosote buildup you've already got is probably a safety hazard regardless of whether you stick with wood or go with gas. I'd get it professionally cleaned, and if you find a reputable company, I'd hope they'd be able to tell you realistically how often it needs cleaning and if there legitimate ways to prevent the buildup if you continue to use wood. Ask a lot of questions about how it all works and then go do some internet research and see if they were telling the practical truth or ginning things up.

As for wood vs gas, my personal opinion is that gas fireplaces have no soul. I know that's harsh, and there are definitely plenty of applications for them. My grandparents, for example, had a wood fireplace for a long time, but switched it to gas when dealing with wood became too much of a hassle as they got older. That was perfectly understandable for their usage, but it totally sucked the enjoyment of that fireplace right out of me when I visited from then on. To me, if you want your house to be warm, there are much more efficient, modern ways of doing it than with a fireplace. Fireplaces for warmth seem like more of an ornament today, but I think wood ones add a rustic charm that can't be duplicated nowadays, in my opinion. I want a house with a wood fireplace someday. It's towards the top of my checklist.

In either case, though, I'd get some professional and maintenance done at least for this initial clean out.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 9:48 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

You still need your chimney swept even if you switch to gas. The buildup inside the flue is a danger no matter the fuel source, because the risk is that it will ignite if it gets very hot, and the fire part is supposed to stay down in the fireplace. Call in 2 or 3 different chimney companies to give you an estimate, and try to find good ones from Angieslist or something similar for your area. If only you were in LA I would have a rec for you!
posted by Joh at 9:52 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would clean, for sure, and consider lining (also a safety thing) unless you're sure you're converting -- you could save something if you skip stainless (the best, but mostly for long life) and probably get under $1k for the liner. (Cleaning is trivial price-wise.)

Another thing to know is whether your furnace piggybacks on the fireplace chimney, in which case not cleaning could be an acute safety hazard.
posted by acm at 9:54 AM on September 25, 2014

I would get a woodstove and put it in the fireplace (along with a lining- seems like the usually go together anyway). Woodstoves put out a lot of heat and are way safer.

We don't have trouble finding wood because we live in an urban area and everyone is more than happy to get rid of their cut trees. You would need a place to store the wood for a year first- burning green wood sucks and is usually illegal anyway.

Even a car trunk full of wood lasts a week.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:58 AM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with KinoAndHermes, gas fireplaces have no soul.
posted by axismundi at 10:02 AM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I want to second the idea of a wood stove. My parents bought and installed a wood stove insert in our new house (well, old house but new to us), where our fireplace had been (I think it ran maybe $4000 for stove and installation, in the Northeast). It pumps out a lot of heat - far more than the fireplace did. As long as you keep the glass clean so you can see the flames and wood, it's very atmospheric, as well, and the stove looks very handsome - it really acts as a centerpiece for the whole room. As a bonus, we haven't had to buy wood yet (we have trees on our property that need trimming, plus we scavenge when people in our neighborhood get trees taken down, there is free wood advertised on Craigslist, etc.), so the stove has already paid for itself. You do still need to get routine maintenance, just like a fireplace (I think we get ours cleaned once/year?).
posted by ClaireBear at 10:05 AM on September 25, 2014

just fyi, creosote is hydrocarbon residue, it's slow to catch but when it does, it burns with ferocious intensity.

i love my woodstove. handling firewood is the most labor-intensive regular thing i do all year, going out to my wood guy for a half-cord load of prime myrtle at a time, bringing it home and stacking it, etc., but there's a romantic zen aspect to it, and old guys like me need to keep doing it, or we will lose the physical ability.
posted by bruce at 11:09 AM on September 25, 2014

When we moved into our 1923 house (Minneapolis, MN), we had a chimney sweeper clean and inspect our fireplace and chimney for approx $200 - great price for peace of mind and clean fireplace. We do plan to convert it to a natural gas fireplace to provide more efficient heating capabilities and reduce pollution.

Living in an urban neighborhood (Minneapolis) of equally old houses that have fireplaces, we soon learned that all our neighbors' wood fireplaces and outdoor fire pits really pollute the outside air on cold evenings. The popularity of wood-burning fireplaces in our neighborhood has severely limited our ability to have our windows open at night, and I often find myself coughing during late night dog walks. So to minimize our contribution to the outdoor air pollution, we do not use our fireplace very often, and when we do, we use Enviro-logs. Anyhow, something to consider if you live in populous area.
posted by apennington at 11:19 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I say a trunk full of wood will last a week, I mean it will last a week here in temperate California. I am guessing it would last about 1.4 January nights in Missouri or someplace that actually gets cold.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:02 PM on September 25, 2014

After decades of heating with wood I installed a gas fireplace in a house I used to own. We did the work ourselves and this was a while back so cost, if I could remember it, would be irrelevant now. Since wood had been our primary source of heat having a gas stove meant that we could go away and safely leave it on, unlike the woodstoves that needed to be fed and tended.

If you want the fireplace purely for the pleasure then just get a woodburning fireplace insert like this one that will help you burn wood more efficiently and carefully. Old fireplaces suck a lot of heat out of the house.

And get the chimney swept!
posted by mareli at 12:05 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Living in an urban neighborhood (Minneapolis) of equally old houses that have fireplaces, we soon learned that all our neighbors' wood fireplaces and outdoor fire pits really pollute the outside air on cold evenings.

FWIW, wood stoves (as opposed to firepits and open firelplaces) burning dry fuel (as opposed to what most people burn) can produce very little smoke if operated properly. I have a wood stove, and so long as I've got good fuel the only time you'll see or smell any smoke escaping the chimney is during the first few minutes after starting a new fire in a cold stove. The trouble is that it can take from one to three years after cutting and splitting for hardwoods to reach the moisture content required for clean burning, whereas firewood sellers tend to deliver stuff that that was still a live tree a few weeks (or, at best, a few months) ago. Heating properly with wood means dedicating a lot of storage space to wood while you wait for it to dry. Most people don't do this, and opt instead to burn damp wood smokily.

More to the OP's question, I agree with others that it will be important to clean the chimney if you intend to use it at all, whether you line it or not, or switch to gas or not. Don't worry, the cleaning won't be all that expensive.

If you intend to stay with an open fireplace for ambiance, rather than for heat, the chimney might or might not need relining depending on the condition of the masonry, tile, or whatever is there now.

The chimney lining that is appropriate for an open fireplace will not work for a wood stove, and vice-versa. Open fireplaces require comparatively large flues, whereas wood stoves work best with small flues.

The lining that is appropriate for a wood stove is more expensive than one for a gas stove. The cheaper one acceptable for a gas stove is unsafe for use with a wood stove.
posted by jon1270 at 12:54 PM on September 25, 2014

I converted my fireplace to a ventless gas log to use in winter weather emergencies when I bought my house three years ago (long story). You do have to have the chimney swept, because the creosote built up from previous use could still ignite if it gets hot enough from the gas fire. If you want a wood stove or a regular fireplace, you probably should get it lined, too. I originally planned to get a woodstove myself, but when the chimney guys inspected they said the fireplace/chimney would need masonry work to enlarge the opening between the fireplace and the chimney before it would have enough air moving through to be safe, so if you are considering a woodstove make sure you can have it installed to work safely before you buy the thing.
posted by dilettante at 1:50 PM on September 25, 2014

produce very little smoke if operated properly.

Also, if you buy a woodstove made after about 1995 it's going to have a fan/reburner thingy in it, which makes a big difference.

Old stoves pollute more than new ones.

We have Spare The Air days here, too, which are no-burn days. We always check first to make sure.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:31 PM on September 25, 2014

another vote for a wood stove. The new ones are incredibly efficient and put out a lot of heat. We spent about $5K in seattle on one but it's really huge and puts out more heat than we can handle. We love it.

Gas ones are nice too-but don't rule out wood.
posted by 58 at 4:45 PM on September 25, 2014

I vote for gas ,and here is my complex and much-analyzed explanation as a lover of wood fireplaces. I've always loved loved loved wood fireplaces and although it was at the top of my list when searching for a house, I had to settle for a decorative fireplace. I was insanely jealous when my sister bought a house with a fireplace that was wood with a gas starter, and she converted to all gas because of her asthma and the guy said she could easily switch it back to wood. Much to her surpprise, she loved it - the ease, the warmth and the beauty. When I finally had some bucks to do something about my decorative fireplace, I checked into conversion to both wood and gas. Gas was a lot cheaper - $1,800 versus $8,000 for me and my sistuation (wood would have required a total rebuild, basically, and the ventless gas uses my existing hearth (no need for a flue as it is all self-contained) and new gas lines. So I went with gas, based on my sister's recommendation and the cost and I love it. Yes, wood is really nice, and I love the smell and crackling sound - but the smell can be gross too, and they are messy and a lot of work. The new log sets are nice - flames are real, of course, and they flicker like wood flames. No day-after smokey smell, which is nice. And, what i really love is i can turn it on for 5 minutes while I have my tea in the morning, and then turn it off. I enjoy it so much and find it just as cozy and calming as a wood fire. Just a bit different in terms of sound and smell, but you still have the flickering and warmth and so much easier and cleaner.
posted by j810c at 6:48 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

To continue with the pushing toward a wood stove, may I suggest a pellet stove? Even less likely to cause smoke smell than a good woodstove and the pellets come packaged enough to store right in the house. We leave our harmon running pretty much full time (safe to do, controlled by computer) and just load the hopper once a day. Super cozy, quite efficient.

You must get rid of the creosote either way... We clean the lined chimney ourselves once a year with a shop vac and brush, but the first time, we hired someone. It was only a little over ~$100 for a three-flue chimney here in central MA. Also, depending on your local regs you may be required to get a liner for everything besides a plain old fireplace; our town requires them for all stoves...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:13 PM on September 25, 2014

I have a wood stove with a metal chimney. I asked around to find the most qualified installer; got the stove on Craigslist. It's EPA certified, non-catalytic. Chimney cleaning is $200. Wood is messy, it brings in dirt, snow, sometimes bugs. You have to stack it, bring it in, sometimes shovel out the woodpile to get to it. I love my woodstove a lot. It's small but will keep the house adequately warm in a power failure, has a window so I can watch the fire, or I can leave the door open and use a screen. Way less efficient, but pretty. I hate winter and being cold, but I don't really mind hauling in wood. The stove keeps the living room toasty and the furnace makes sure the rest of the house has a decent base temp.

You could put a wood or gas stove in the fireplace and run chimney pipe up the (cleaned) chimney. The forums at hearth.com are helpful. Building codes have developed, so you may require a liner or whatever. The town enforcement office may be helpful.
posted by theora55 at 9:38 PM on September 25, 2014

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