First fireplace fire in a new home, ended up too smokey. Thoughts?

Status
Not open for further replies.

bo_knows

New Member
Jun 1, 2015
28
Annandale, VA
I apologize for all of the text for what amounts to "how do I light a fire?". Just wanted to get some discussion on my specific situation.

Backstory: We have a 50+ yr old home that we bought in May. It's 2 levels, sort of built into a hill. Each level has a fireplace. Each fireplace has a separate flue. The flue tiles were in really bad shape when we bought it, so we had them fixed (stainless steel liner for the upstairs fireplace, and a stainless steel tube for the downstairs in preparation for buying a wood stove this year). Note: There is a wood pile in the back corner of the property. Not covered in any way.

First fire: So, we come to last night. It's finally dropping below freezing, and I want to light a fire. I grab 3-4 logs from the wood pile out back (I have no idea how to determine how good wood is), and put 3 inside the upstairs fireplace. I pull and release the flue chain. I jam some fatwood kindling in between them, light the ends of the fatwood, and close the screen (but not the glass doors). The fire gets going, but is not very big... and it was getting a little smokey smelling (nothing visible) in the house. The smoke smell permeated the whole upstairs... and oddly enough it was STRONGER in the downstairs area (by the downstairs fireplace). As this was happening, I read online that if you crack a window in the room where the fire is, it can help the pressure for the flue. So, I did that.

Long story short: The fire never got very raging, it smoked up the house, and I had to open a bunch of windows for 10-15 mins to get the smell out of there.

What am I doing wrong, and how can I figure it out for the next time? Should I get a small batch of really dry firewood (the ridiculously overpriced kind you see at grocery stores) to be sure I have good wood, just for testing purposes? Should I have "primed the flue" by holding up a piece of burning fatwood or newspaper? Should I have started with the window cracked?

Thanks for any input.

Edit: Also of note: I remember the Chimney repair guys off-handedly saying that we had a relatively short chimney (Like I said, it's a 2 story home, so the upstairs chimney isn't much past the roofline). I know that this can effect updraft, but I refuse to believe that a 50yr old home has had a crappy updraft for all that time. Is that even possible? How could I check?
 
Last edited:

kennyp2339

Minister of Fire
Feb 16, 2014
5,134
07462
Fireplaces actually make the houses colder, they do offer radiant heat to a small area, but they create a draft that pulls in more cold from the outside. Perhaps your wood is not dry? Are the pieces visibly wet? are they heavy? are the splits to big? do you hear hissing from them while they are burning?
 

bo_knows

New Member
Jun 1, 2015
28
Annandale, VA
Fireplaces actually make the houses colder, they do offer radiant heat to a small area, but they create a draft that pulls in more cold from the outside. Perhaps your wood is not dry? Are the pieces visibly wet? are they heavy? are the splits to big? do you hear hissing from them while they are burning?
I didn't hear any hissing. A few pops, though. They weren't terribly heavy, and I'm not sure what "too big" is. As I remember growing up and having fires at the home I grew up in, we had some fairly large splits we'd throw on. These were maybe 6" at the thickest part of the wedge shape of the split. maybe 18-24" long. I didn't think they were visibly wet, but they did have some bark on them.

Yeah, you don't have to sell me on the fact that a fireplace is merely a visual spectacle. I get that... which is why I'm putting a wood stove in the basement :)
 

fatjay

New Member
Oct 15, 2014
37
Eastern PA
Fire places make good pre-defined space for inserts! All the benefits of a wood stove, plus a heat diffuser and blower, in the space of a fireplace. It's next on my list, though my wood stove pretty much does the job well enough on it's own.
 

bo_knows

New Member
Jun 1, 2015
28
Annandale, VA
Fire places make good pre-defined space for inserts! All the benefits of a wood stove, plus a heat diffuser and blower, in the space of a fireplace. It's next on my list, though my wood stove pretty much does the job well enough on it's own.
In the above post, I meant to say that I'm putting a wood stove insert in the basement. We just wanted to leave the upstairs fireplace as-is to avoid some costs (the chimney repair wasn't cheap).
 

kennyp2339

Minister of Fire
Feb 16, 2014
5,134
07462
If you bang two pieces of wood together what does it sound like? a thud lower pitch means moisture, a crack higher pitch is dryer.
Do you have a chimney cap?
 

bholler

Chimney sweep
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
22,130
central pa
What size liner was put in what size is the firebox opening? What size liner goes to the basement? Are the tops of the liners at the same height?
 

Dustin

Minister of Fire
Sep 3, 2008
556
Western Oregon
My opinion, the wood is wet and the draft is poor. The big old fireplace needs some good draft to suck all that air.

I would go get some dry wood, and try pre heating the chimney to get it moving in the right direction. I bet you will have positive results
 

Simonkenton

Minister of Fire
Feb 27, 2014
1,743
Marshall NC
When the chimney repairs were done, you may have run afoul of the one-to-ten rule. The same thing happened at my daughter in law's house.
The area of the chimney needs to be 10 percent of the area of the fireplace opening.

If your fireplace opening is 30 x 30 inches, you have 900 square inches. You need a flue that is about 90 square inches, if you had a flue that was 10 x 9 inches inside diameter that would be good.

Need to get on top of the chimney and measure the area of the flue. If round, gotta go to pi r squared.
If you are in violation of the 1 to 10 rule, you need to make the fireplace opening smaller.
 

bo_knows

New Member
Jun 1, 2015
28
Annandale, VA
I appreciate all of the suggestions thus far. I'm going to measure for the 1-10 rule tomorrow.

I wanted to add another data point. The aforementioned fire was on Monday. We went out of town on Wednesday and came back today (friday). It smelled TERRIBLE throughout the whole house. I mentioned to my wife that the only way the smell was coming in was because the fireplaces weren't air-tight and there might be a downdraft. So, I went about a temporary solution to seal the 2 fireplaces with plastic and duct tape. (silly, I know). While doing so, I found that the downstairs fireplace had a MASSIVE downdraft. I could feel the wind coming down the chimney, while the fireplace was closed (through a small vent on the bottom). I'm guessing that we had the fire on Monday and the smoke went up the chimney, and got sucked down the other flue that is about a foot from the other flue.

We're getting closer to a solution, but I'm going to bring in the chimney guys to see what can be done. I don't know why the downstairs has a worse downdraft, if the flue for the downstairs is an entire floor higher (12ft?). Worse negative air pressure in the basement from the gas furnace and radon pump?
 

rwhite

Minister of Fire
Nov 8, 2011
1,633
North Central Idaho
You mentioned that each fire place has its own flue. Do they share a chimney or where are they in relation to each other. And yes a 50 YO home can have draft problems for all those years. My home (built in the 40's) has a basement and main floor fireplaces. They have separate flues but share a chimney. When they were both open fireplaces, and when I installed the insert on my main floor I could not start a fire on the main floor without smoke being pulled into the basement. I never got to the point of playing with flue height and see if it could be solved, I just capped the basement flue. I may open it back up someday and put a small pellet or gas insert in but for now it has one of those fake electric fireplaces in there.
 

bo_knows

New Member
Jun 1, 2015
28
Annandale, VA
A bit of an update.

My makeshift "sealing" of the downstairs flue didn't work so well. We tried another fire upstairs, and it was too smokey downstairs. My makeshift solution was wrapping the circular flue in a thick vinyl and securing it with a hose clamp. Problem was that the metal plate that the flue was attached to was just sitting on the bricks at the top of the chimney, and could easily slide around (not air tight). Chimney guys came out and caulked up that plate, but like morons they left my vinyl DIY job on the flue itself. Long story short: Tried a 3rd fire in the upstairs fireplace, chimney performance wasn't great, smoke STILL entered the downstairs flue via some sort of backdraft and the smoke from the upstairs fire being pulled down, AND when the upstairs fire is out (and flue damper is closed) the room smells terribly of fireplace.

I'm guessing that begreen is right above: Stack effect is happening here.

Long-term, we want a woodburning stove in the downstairs. I'm GUESSING that putting that in would solve the problem of smoke going up the upstairs chimney and back down the downstairs one, because the woodstove would be air tight. I'm left with questions though:

1) What fixes the smelly upstairs chimney, then? Some sort of outside air supply for the HVAC (what I hear is $3000+)?
2) It seems like the downstairs has a wicked backdraft issue. If we finally hook up a wood stove insert to it, won't it still have a terrible backdraft?
3) Could a smaller/cheaper air-tight wood stove insert be a solution for the upstairs? I would really hate to do that at this point, since we paid to have it relined as a "fireplace", but I just want my house to smell good.

Sigh. This entire chimney is pretty much the worst part of this new home to us.
 

bo_knows

New Member
Jun 1, 2015
28
Annandale, VA
So, I've been reading a TON about this recently. The only thing right now that gets rid of the smell is opening the flue damper and putting a candle in the fireplace to start an updraft. I can't have the flue open all winter.

I noticed that the ash cleanout is a trap door made of metal, and there is NOT a very good seal around the door (I see a gap, possibly a chipped off brick). Is it possible/probable that when I close the damper, the house is pulling air from the ash dump and thus pulling the odor into the house?

Seems like that would be a fairly cost-effective solution to try.
 

begreen

Mooderator
Staff member
Nov 18, 2005
84,216
South Puget Sound, WA
I haven't heard of smell being pulled through the ash trap but it is a fairly easy fix to test if there's a cleanout door below. Just make a gasket for the door by putting a bead of silicone on the door edge and then close and latch the door. Let the silicone setup for 24 hrs.
 

begreen

Mooderator
Staff member
Nov 18, 2005
84,216
South Puget Sound, WA
  • Like
Reactions: bo_knows

bo_knows

New Member
Jun 1, 2015
28
Annandale, VA
bo-knows, are the top of the flues all even at the top of the chimney crown or does one stick up higher than the others? The upstairs flue should terminate about 12" higher than the basement flue to help keep the smoke from back siphoning down the lower flue.
http://www.extendaflue.com/products/extend/extend-a-cap.html
Possible damper sealing solution:
http://www.chimneyballoon.us/chimneyballoon.html
They're the same height, and I've noticed that in other threads people suggest varying the height. So, if I raise one of them, it should help the smoke going up one flue and down the other (into the basement).... but isn't the odor in the upstairs fireplace a separate issue? It has a damper that is supposedly shut.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.