While all homeowners should be concerned with the safety of their chimney, older homes with fireplaces may present more safety issues. So what exactly are these issues?
First, by “old”, I am referring to homes that are more than 60 years old. The building codes are much different than they were back then and newer homes must conform to more modern standards. For example, fireplaces in older homes are almost certainly masonry based. The factory built metal hearth systems are found in homes built after the 1950s. And, most masonry chimneys are made with bricks or some are block chimneys.
One of the most common issues with older fireplaces is a lack of lining. If you’re older fireplace does not have a liner, it is important that you have one installed and here’s why:
- Unlined chimneys may leak noxious gases into your home’s living space.
- Draft problems are very common with unlined chimneys since they are operating less efficiently without one.
- Without a chimney liner, condensation is allowed to adhere to the actual masonry. The freeze and thaw cycles that occur during the winter will slowly demolish a masonry chimney.
- If the chimney is used for wood burning, the condensation can also contribute to tar and creosote build-up that is flammable and a fire hazard to your family.
- A non-lined chimney may prove to be uninsured if you have made structural changes yet the system does not adhere to the building code standards. Check with your insurance company or consult a certified chimney sweep specialist.
Blocks vs. Brick and Mortar
So let’s talk about the exterior structure of the fireplace. Block chimneys are really meant to be encased with bricks and are more subject to cracking, leaking and other problems. However, older brick and mortar fireplaces are often better than new bricks. How the bricks were fired can make them stronger and more resilient to the elements. This is why some homes built in the 1800s have fireplaces in excellent condition.
With older chimney’s, the sun and rain are not only hard on the masonry but especially wearing to the mortar. Depending on the mix, it’s hard to determine how long it should last but 60 years or more is a long time. When the mortar begins to wear out, it’s either time to rebuild or re-point. Repointing involves grinding out about an inch of the old mortar and adding new mortar. Rebuilding would require dismantling and building a new exterior with the existing bricks or new bricks.
Old bricks tend to soak up water from the rain, ice and snow. This can become a problem if the fireplace is on the shady side of the home where the sun cannot naturally dry out the bricks. In this case, the bricks will hold water and can then freeze causing structural damage.
Missing or Old Chimney Crowns
Chimney crowns are often missing from many older fireplaces. The crown is the cement part on top of the chimney that keeps the rain and debris and animals from entering the chimney. Crowns are the most susceptible to the elements and often found with cracks. If it is cracked but still structurally sound, there are good materials to coat the crown.
Clearance to Combustibles
Chimney liners are now installed with zero-clearance insulation. This was not an issue of concern many years ago. An inspection by a certified chimney specialist can determine if this might be an issue with your old fireplace.
Removing Debris and Blockage
The base of old heater flues can often become blocked by all kinds of debris such as leaves, sticks, dead birds and soot. Make sure you have a chimney sweep specialist clear this area to assure it is open. Lack of venting could allow carbon monoxide into your home. If your family suffers from lots of colds or headaches, carbon monoxide poisoning could be the reason.
The best way to determine if you’re old fireplace is safe is to schedule a chimney inspection with a certified chimney specialist. Let an expert evaluate your fireplace inside and out and be sure to follow the recommendations offered.