Why your original fireplace may not work

I recently went to a customer who had bought period property with a lovely, orginal fireplace. The fire itself was in good condition and it really looked the part in the room. Except the owners just couldn’t light it. Try as they might, the fire just wouldn’t ‘work’. So they called me out.

The reasons soon became clear. There was nothing wrong with the fireplace itself, or the fuel, or even the way the exasperated new owners were trying to light it. I advised them that problem was the house itself.

“But the fire is original to the house,” said the owner.

“That’s true,” I replied. “But other parts of the home aren’t, and they are what’s causing the issue.”

See, when homes were routinely built with open fires, they were – by modern standards – very draughty places. Therefore, open fires had plenty of air available to enable them to work properly.

Over the years though, the desire to insulate homes and eliminate draughts has reduced the amount of natural air supply available. Double glazing, uPVC doors, cavity wall insulation, loft lagging, extractor fans in kitchens and bathrooms – these all have a knock-on effect on the performance of a fireplace. They either restrict the amount of air available, or in the case of extractor fans, suck the air from the room, causing depressurisation. Pubs in particular have this problem if there are large kitchen extractor fans on the premises.

It’s not just air supply which can cause fires to stop performing as they once did. Over the years, the chimney terminals may have been changed. For instance there may have been a time when the fire wasn’t being used so a vented cowl was inserted into the chimney pot. These are completely unsuitable and even dangerous for use on a live solid fuel appliance. The height of the chimney stack may also have been reduced. This isn’t uncommon as, generally, the higher the stack, the greater the maintenance work needed, so many were made shorter.

And don’t forget, there was a time when solid fuel fell out of fashion, and gas was the ‘in’ things, so works may have been undertaken which render the installation unusable in its current condition.

On top of all this, even if the installation hasn’t been modified in any way over the years, wear and tear can render it unusable. I’m talking about flue failure, which usually occurs when mortar in the chimney stack crumbles through natural ageing and causes fumes to leak into an adjacent flue. In that scenario, you’d have to look at getting the chimney relined, and that in itself can be fraught with difficulty, as explained in more detail here.

Like everything with solid fuel, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of getting a registered, professional sweep in to give you bespoke advice. Just because something looks original doesn’t mean to say it hasn’t been tampered with in some way, causing it to malfunction.

There are some remedies available without resorting to ripping out your energy-saving home improvements. Your local, professional sweep should be able to help and guide you.

Mr Soot Chimney Sweep is a HETAS Approved Sweep, and member of the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps, offering a professional and friendly chimney sweep and stove service in Wigan, Stockport, West Lancashire, Chorley and surrounding areas. Book Mr Soot online or call 0800 0541154.

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