Only YOU can prevent smokey houses
January 3, 2018 9:22 PM   Subscribe

Using our fireplace seems to leave our house smoky for days. We’ve eliminate the most obvious culprits. What could we be doing wrong?

We’ve had two fires so far, and both times the house, especially the room where the fireplace is, has been smokey for days after. Our last fire was NYE and the room with the fireplace still smells like smoke. Things we’ve done:

* We had the chimney swept before the first use. They also replaced the damper
* The flue has definitely been open the whole time the fire is at all lit, although not overnight.
* The second time, we tried using an air purifier as the fire was going and in the days afterwards. We started to wonder if it was making things worse by sucking air in from the chimney, so we moved it to a different room, but the air is still smokey. We think things are better when it's not running.
* We’re considering getting one of these ( While it seems like it might work, we didn’t think that we needed one in order to avoid having the house smell for days, which makes us think that there might be something else that’s actively wrong. 

One theory we had was that it was related to the HVAC, since things are worse in the evening after the HVAC’s been running a bit. The HVAC is new and the air intake is on the other side of the house. We’re not sure if it could be sucking air from the room, leading to air getting pulled in from the chimney? Would increasing the pressure to the vents that feed in to the room help? Are there other, more plausible theories?
posted by matildatakesovertheworld to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried turning off the furnace when the fireplace is running? The vents pulling air can absolutely circulate the smokiness. (I found this recommendation in prep for our first fireplace fires, but the HVAC in our house is so terrible it didn't need to be done.)
posted by cobaltnine at 9:29 PM on January 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

I had a fireplace that did that and the solution was burning hotter fires - this pushed more air up the chimney and less got sucked into tbe house.

Also, it seemed that I had better luck burning oak than pine, but this may vary with location.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:38 PM on January 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

The furnace was mostly off while the fire was burning, but was on before and after. The smell is definitely worse in the room with the fireplace and isn't really noticeable in say, our bedroom, so we're not sure if it's circulating. The fact that it's getting better and worse over the days makes us think that there's something that's drawing in smoke-infused air, but maybe that's just confirmation bias?
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 9:48 PM on January 3, 2018

When this happened to me, it was because smoke has permeated the soft furnishings - lounge, chairs, cushions etc. The only solution was opening the windows and lots of airing of the room, which generally makes it freezing, but otherwise it just clings and makes the space unusable.
posted by Jubey at 9:49 PM on January 3, 2018

Are you starting a draft? Basically you hold a piece of burning wood or rolled up newspaper near the flue opening for a few seconds to get the hot, smoky air started moving up the chimney.

Unfortunately, I picked up this tip after making my room smoky the last time, so I can't personally confirm, but it's common advice.
posted by momus_window at 10:00 PM on January 3, 2018 [13 favorites]

When we had this problem, the chimney guy told us to light the lighter in front of the fireplace for a few seconds and make sure the flame was pulled towards it. It usually wasn't unless we opened a window - just a crack - elsewhere in the room. It's an airflow/pressure/seal thing.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:07 PM on January 3, 2018 [18 favorites]

Have you changed anything about the chimney lately? If the fireplace opening is too big for the flue, this can happen, and happened to us after installing an insert into our no longer safe chimney. We solved the problem by adding a different insert to reduce the size of the firebox intake.
posted by kdar at 10:11 PM on January 3, 2018

Is your wood properly seasoned? This means leaving it to season for at least a year. What sort of wood are you using? Conifers and chestnut, for example, are complete no-nos in open fires. Use alder, birch, beech and oak, but all properly seasoned.
posted by TheRaven at 1:07 AM on January 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think restless_nomad has it. Sounds like your chimney isn't sucking hard enough. You need a draught coming from somewhere else to replace the hot air that should be going up the chimney. If that flow is good, it takes all the smoke with it. Remember that open fires date to the era before draught-proof & insulated houses - a bit of external ventilation is essential.

Some fireplaces suck much better than others, because of straight vs. crooked flues, shape & size of opening, etc. It's possible that yours needs a bit of help.
posted by rd45 at 2:07 AM on January 4, 2018

I think restless_nomad is most likely on the right track too. My house is usually at a slight negative pressure compared to the outside (check if there's a slight momentary rush of air in when you crack a window or door) and it can really mess with getting the draft going in the chimney. I crack the window sometimes when starting it, and then I'm ok to close the window again once the fire is hot. The heat rising in the chimney is enough to keep sucking out the smoke with it.
posted by ctmf at 3:03 AM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

One thing we sometimes had to do when starting a fire was to loosely crumple a sheet of newspaper, stuff it in the damper opening, and light it, to get a draft started.
posted by Bruce H. at 3:30 AM on January 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does your chimney rise well above the peak of the roof? If not, wind can cause the draft to fail.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:32 AM on January 4, 2018

I agree to try cracking a window (preferably on an upwind side), especially if your house is tight and well-sealed against the weather. This page gets into detail including problems with make-up air and chimney position and height.
posted by exogenous at 4:55 AM on January 4, 2018

The advice about starting a draft up the chimney before lighting the fire is spot-on. To help it even further, especially on particularly cold days (and, really, why would you have the fireplace going on a day that wasn't cold?) is to close the fireplace doors right after lighting the fire. That will really warm up the chimney while keeping any errant smoke from escaping the fireplace.

It wasn't clear from your description how long you leave the flue open. Even when there's no flame visible, there are still smoke-producing embers. Leave the flue open until everything is completely cold: overnight is probably best. With the fireplace doors closed, not much cold air seeps into the room while you're sleeping.
posted by DrGail at 5:38 AM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

It wasn't clear from your description how long you leave the flue open. Even when there's no flame visible, there are still smoke-producing embers. Leave the flue open until everything is completely cold: overnight is probably best.

More importantly, the embers are still combusting, and closing the flue while that's happening can deprive the embers of oxygen, leading to incomplete combustion and a buildup of carbon monoxide.

This was explained to me by a nice firefighter, one winter night at 2 AM after we had evacuated our house due to the CO alarm going off.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:33 AM on January 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have had this exact problem, and consulted all relevant experts, and IMO, Pogo_Fuzzybutt has it: you need more fire. After I started making much bigger fires there is no problem. I have tripled the amount of wood to start the fire, and I keep it hot for the first hour. After that there is no problem.
posted by mumimor at 7:25 AM on January 4, 2018

Thanks for all the suggestions. We may have had a weak draft, but wouldn't that lead to a bunch of smoke getting into the house, and then getting progressively better? We've observed the smokiness will improving and then getting worse, over the course of days, as if additional smoke fumes are entering the house days later. It'll get worse even when we've been home for a while, so it's not just scent-blindness. Would a weak initial draft explain this?
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 8:07 AM on January 4, 2018

In my experience, running the dryer in the laundry room can cause a negative pressure situation and prevent the fireplace from having a good draught, even in my somewhat drafty and under-insulated house.
posted by cnidaria at 8:26 AM on January 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

You need to get a Level 2 chimney inspection to make sure the venting is correct!! This could be an unsafe situation for you. Appliances often vent into the chimney, and if you changed HVAC recently, this could mean the venting changed as well. Any time you change how appliances are vented into the chimney you should get an inspection.

More info here.
posted by yarly at 8:42 AM on January 4, 2018

1. I find that when the climate outside my home is somewhat humid (warmish, melting), that air will be come down the chimney (when not having an active fire) and cause a noticeable smell.

2. Leave your flue open overnight.
posted by axismundi at 12:31 PM on January 4, 2018

The additional smoky smell is your neighbors. Happens to me all the time when the wind is wrong.
posted by fshgrl at 1:34 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is there any ash or burnt wood left in the fireplace? The cold remains of a fire are incredibly smoky smelling, like a campfire. Just a small draft pulling air across partially burnt firewood will make the room smell, but not the house. If your house it tight, even the smallest change in air pressure (turning on the bathroom or kitchen fan, the furnace coming on) will pull the old smoke smell from the fireplace into the room, meaning the smell will get worse at those times. Cracking a window will usually solve this, but sometimes not unless there is an active fire to create the pull. Clean out the fireplace after every use if there is a continual backdraft.
posted by ilona at 2:26 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

We had a new rumford fireplace built and for years it made the house smell, and required keeping the ash and creosote down constantly just to make it tolerable. I suspect it was just the physics of our home and air currents when we weren't actively burning and thus forcing air up the chimney. Ultimately we invested in a fireplace insert and that sealed it off and has resulted in far more gratifying fires and no odor.
posted by docpops at 8:31 PM on January 28, 2018

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