While closely understanding all the ins and outs of a fireplace is not required as a homeowner, having basic knowledge regarding the anatomy of a fireplace can come in handy. As a homeowner, if you take the time to educate yourself, you can better protect your family from an unfortunate, even devastating chimney fire. To get you started, our experts here at Chimney Sweeps of America has put together this handy guide to the basic anatomy of a fireplace. Read on to get acquainted with yours.
First, fireplaces are available in two general types. Masonry fireplaces are the impressive structures of brick, blocks, or stone and mortar that we often think of in reference to memorable family get-togethers around the holidays, or as magnificent centerpieces in stylish living rooms. Factory-built fireplaces are generally made of metal, including a lightweight metal firebox and round metal chimney.
Sometimes, the outside of factory-built fireplaces is decorated with stone or brick so it may take a bit of detective work on your part to figure out which type you have. However, it’s not all that difficult to determine the difference. Just check inside the firebox and chimney. If they’re made of brick, you have a masonry fireplace. If they’re made of metal, it is factory-built even if the outside is decorated with stone or brick. There are also some hybrid varieties that usually consist of a metal box connected to a brick chimney, so be on the lookout for that as well.
Now that you know about the basic two types let’s look at each one a little bit closer. The basic premise is the same for both types fireplaces of course, but some differences are helpful to be aware of.
As we mentioned earlier, masonry fireplaces are impressive structures. Because of their materials and size, these fireplaces can end up weighing 6 or 7 tons – not something to be trifled with! Along with looking fabulous, these fireplaces are very durable and will last for years with minimal maintenance. In fact, the general perception is that these fireplaces are indestructible. But don’t fall into a false sense of security. While masonry fireplaces are very durable, there are still a few things to keep an eye out for.
Because they are so heavy, masonry fireplaces need to have a very sturdy and extensive foundation to hold them up over the years. If the foundation is not built well, the fireplace will shift and crack over time, potentially allowing flames to escape and ignite nearby combustibles. Keep an eye out for cracks to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. Inside the firebox, where the facing material comes together with the brick, is a common place for cracks so be sure to check there regularly.
Ensure that downspouts or any other type of water runoff runs away from the structure and consider a quality chimney cover. Protecting your material from water, rain, and the cycle of freezing and thawing will go a long way towards ensuring a long life for your fireplace.
The firebox is built to be strong as it takes the most heat abuse. However, eventually, all that expanding and contracting will beat up the joints. A chimney cover will also help with this so that rainwater doesn’t get inside and exacerbate the issue. You can also use a refractory mortar to protect the joints further.
Most masonry fireplaces have a tile liner in the chimney that you don’t have to worry too much about. However, one chimney fire can crack the tiles considerably so be sure to keep it clean. A good rule of thumb is to have it cleaned once there is barely a ¼ inch of soot built up inside. If a chimney fire does occur, do not use the fireplace until it has been inspected by a professional and cleared for use.
These fireplaces are relative newcomers to the fireplace scene, only having been available for about 25 years or so. Instead of being built on-site like a masonry fireplace, these fireplaces come in a complete set with firebox, chimney and miscellaneous parts necessary to assemble the fireplace.
These parts are specifically tested and designed to go together, and the exact instructions from the manufacturer should be followed when installing. Minimum clearances should always be strictly observed to ensure that nothing eventually catches fire. You might think that nearby wood will be all right, but with prolonged exposure to high temperatures that wood will dry excessively and become combustible at a much lower than average temperature.
It is a good idea to have these fireplaces professionally installed, or at the very least professionally inspected before use. These types of inspections reveal that more than half of them are not correctly installed. As this can have dire consequences for your home and family, the peace of mind that comes with a professional installation is well worth it!
Birds can pose a hazard for factory built fireplaces–particularly those that have a fake brick housing. They find this to be an ideal nesting area. Virtually all their nest building materials are combustible and can catch fire directly or block essential airflow and cause the chimney to overheat. Either way, you end up with a potentially devastating house fire. Be sure to screen over any possible access points and regularly check your chimney for signs of these unwanted house guests to prevent this.
It is also important to be aware that factory built fireplaces are not as sturdy and durable as masonry fireplaces, and you cannot expect them to last as long. Repairs may be possible, but after many years, models are often discontinued, or manufacturers go out of business, and it becomes difficult to find the proper replacement parts. It is always safer and worth it to replace a factory-built fireplace before it gets to the point of being a serious safety hazard.
Of course, always keep in mind that you don’t have to be an expert in fireplace care and maintenance, that’s what we are here for! Knowing the basic anatomy of a fireplace and keeping an eye out for these signs is just a helpful aid. If you have questions or see something that you are not certain about, call us here at Chimney Sweeps of America, and one of our friendly professionals will be happy to help.
If it has been a while since your last inspection and cleaning, then it’s a good idea to schedule one today!