With the last leaves of autumn now raked away, the holiday season is the time to snuggle up at home near a cozy fireplace hearth.
We can’t ignore our addiction to the warm glow of the family-room fireplace. At the end of every chilly autumn and winter day there’s the quiet conversation over a glass of wine while sitting in front of the flames.
However, before enjoying that first great fire, it is important to give your fireplace an annual cleaning and maintenance check to reduce possible carbon monoxide emissions.
“Every fireplace should have a professional safety inspection each autumn before the harsh winter months,” notes Chicago firefighter Steve Alleyne, who runs Firefixer, a firm that specializes in fireplace servicing and repair.
This writer has a vented gas-log fireplace in the family room, and a vent-free burner in the living room, so the inspection process covers two common types of units.
“Annual cleaning and service is needed to remove dust from the logs and prevent the burner pilot from getting clogged, which could lead to carbon monoxide buildup that sets off your carbon monoxide detector,” Alleyne said.
Firefixer does the job for a reasonable $145 service call, which includes replacing batteries for remote starters, fresh embers, lava rock and a seasonal warranty. Visit www.firefixer.com.
Our family room fireplace was set up as a traditional wood-burning unit, but being carefree urban dwellers a decade ago we opted for gas logs, and the luxury of a remote-starter system.
Firefixer’s recent annual maintenance check revealed that the 10-year-old gas burner was shot, probably from almost daily use during autumn and winter. He detected holes in the burner pan that could emit deadly carbon monoxide into the room, even though the unit was vented.
Firefixer installed a new 18-inch “RealFyre” premium gas burner pan by RH Peterson Company at a cost of $200. We added a new pilot and remote starter kit for an added $375, including installation labor, glowing embers and sand granules.
Luckily, we were able to recycle our old ceramic gas logs, which Firefixer cleaned. So the total cost of the fireplace rehab was $575.
We also have a ventless gas-log fireplace in the living room, but we only light it during the holidays or when the temperature falls below 20 degrees.
Hearth purists likely would say a wood-burning fireplace—with its ambiance, crackle and scent—is a more romantic option. Most Realtors would agree a fireplace—either gas or wood-burning—is a coveted and valued feature in today’s homes.
According to a 2012 survey, buyers rank fireplaces as one of the three amenities they’d most like in their house. And, 60 percent of new homes come with a fireplace, compared with only 36 percent in the 1970s.
A National Association of Realtors survey reported that 46 percent of home buyers would pay more for a home with at least one fireplace.
“If you own a high-end residence, buyers expect a fireplace and often are willing to pay more for a home with one,” said Chicago Realtor Sara E. Benson, president of Benson Stanley Realty. “A working fireplace typically adds $5,000 to $7,500 to the value of an average home.”
However, wood-burning fireplaces also can be a costly headache for the novice homeowner. Readers of The Home Front may recall an earlier column reviewing this writer’s adventures with hearth and home.
In the 1970s, there was the stucco bungalow, built in 1911 in the landmarked Irving Park Villa neighborhood. It had a smoky fireplace with a shallow hearth and a broken damper.
Four decades have passed, but my first home recently received a fireplace makeover by Firefixer. A new ventless gas burner was installed, along with new logs and glass doors.
Unfortunately, the current owner rented the house to four male Millennials who decided to pile wood logs on top of the gas logs in the fireplace in the master bedroom and ignite it like a funeral pyre. The mess required two hours of labor by the Firefixer to get the gas logs operating again.
“You won’t believe what I’ve found in the hearth of some fireplaces—everything from melted marshmallows to toy soldiers,” Alleyne said.
My next adventure was the English Tudor home built in the 1920s in the Sauganash neighborhood. The home sported a massive stone fireplace in the living room that belched smoke. It needed a new flue liner, damper and removal of a squirrel’s nest from the chimney.
Then, there was the hearth love affair with the 12-room Italianate Victorian in the Old Town Historic District. Built in 1872, the home featured four amazing fireplaces faced with glazed ceramic tile. But, the old fireplaces couldn’t pull a puff of smoke up the chimneys.
They needed flue liners, dampers and chimney rebuilding and logs with modern starters.
A fireplace rehab project currently underway at a mountain house in North Carolina is a challenge. The 50-year-old wood-burning unit had rusted away, and following demolition, and after $189 video flue inspection we learned the vintage clay tile pipe in the chimney was cracked.
“When purchasing a vintage home, buyers would be wise to have a fireplace inspection in addition to the standard home inspection,” advised Benson. “Any unexpected repair cost can easily add up to thousands of dollars.”
The plan is to repair the flue, erect a new dry-stack stone façade, hearth and antique wood mantel, then install a propane gas fireplace insert with glass doors and a blower to provide supplementary heat for the house.
“A wood-burning fireplace is expensive, an energy waster and just plain too much work for the average homeowner,” observed Alleyne. Once you get the fireplace logs burning, 90 percent of the heat goes up the chimney, he said.
“If the fireplace doesn’t have an ash dump, you are left with a mess to clean up, and, you’ll need a professional chimney cleaning every other year to keep combustible creosote at bay,” he warned.
What’s the most energy-efficient option? “The vent-free gas fireplace is the best choice if you want to keep the most heat in the room,” Alleyne advised. “A ventless fireplace is 98-percent efficient, and can save up to 40 percent on your gas bill.”
Vent-free fireplaces are affordable heat source because the burner is small and it is less expensive than running the furnace full blast during chilly months, Firefixer noted.
“They are very popular in high-rise condominiums and rental apartments because no flue or chimney is necessary and these units are much more affordable,” said Alleyne.
If there is an issue with vent-free gas-log combustion odor, Firefixer recommends burning the gas logs for one hour with a window open at the beginning of the season.
Chicagoans only worry now is that tax-happy Mayor Rahm Emanuel might institute a hearth tax, or chimney tax similar to the one imposed by English Parliament in 1662.
With Christmas on the way, a hearth tax may sound like Ebenezer Scrooge, but it could happen.
For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.