For a period home, there really is nothing as authentic as an open fire.
The crackle and hiss on a cold winter’s evening. The dancing flames as you settle down with a warming drink… it truly is one of life’s simple pleasures.
Open fires were once the primary way of heating homes right across the country. But with the advent of gas and central heating, many fell into disuse and some were ripped out entirely.
But in recent years, it’s become popular to decorate properties appropriate to their period. So the humble coal fire is experiencing a renaissance. And not before time I say!
Reinstating an open fire can be relatively straightforward.
In this article, we’ll show you how it can be done, the considerations you need to understand and the potential issues
# 1 – Book a sweep and CCTV inspection BEFORE you start taking a hammer and chisel to the fireplace
Most enthusiastic DIYers want to start knocking holes left, right and centre to expose the original builders’ opening. This is a mistake.
For one, the ‘original opening’ will not be the size of your open fire (more about that later) and therefore you will end up having to brick it back up again.
The first step is to book a sweep to clean the chimney and undertake a CCTV inspection. These are important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it ensures the flue is clean and secondly, a CCTV inspection will help check if the flue is fit for purpose.
Many flues are old and, over the years, gaps and cracks appear in them. Don’t forget that there was a long period of time when chimneys fell into disuse and some started running pipework and wiring into the chimney.
It’s dangerous to use a chimney in these circumstances, which is why you need to know if there is anything up there which shouldn’t be.
#2 – Book A Chimney Integrity Test
Once the flue has been swept and CCTV’d, you now need to check the flue isn’t leaking excessively. The only way to do this is to undertake an Integrity Test.
There are a couple of ways to do this. Some sweeps use the latest technology to measure leakage rate in a flue while others undertake a Type 1 Smoke Test. Some will do both, depending on the circumstances.
Please be aware that simply throwing a smoke bomb up a chimney is NOT an integrity test. That is a draw check and it does not confirm the chimney is sufficiently sound to be brought back into use.
If your chimney passes integrity testing, it can then be used for combustion purposes. If it doesn’t then you will have no option but to have the chimney lined.
Lining for an open fire is usually possible but can be expensive and in some circumstances mean a fair bit of building work. Hence why an integrity test is worth having as it potentially negates the need for this.
That said, no flue lasts forever and each will need to be relined eventually if they are being used. So that’s something you’ll need to factor in…
#3 – Fuel Choice – Staying on the right side of the law
There are rules governing what you can and can’t burn on an open fire – and it all depends which area you live in.
If you live in a Smoke Control Area (SCA), you can only burn approved smokeless fuel on an open fire. Logs and housecoal are not permitted for use.
If you don’t live in an SCA, you can burn coal or logs.
The best thing is to check with your local council and confirm if there are any restrictions covering the area in which your property is situated.
#4 – Choosing Your Open Fire
The are so many designs around, from Victorian cast iron inserts (popular in period properties) to tiled surround firebacks for a more Art Deco look.
The issue with tiles is that they can and do crack or craze over time, and sometimes finding like-for-like replacements is difficult/expensive
For those who want a simple look, a standard fireback surrounded by brick can look very appealing.
Bear in mind that open fires can be messy so my advice is to stay away from light colours for obvious reasons.
Some people want to use the original opening as a sort of inglenook fireplace – hence why many start knocking out fireplaces before engaging a professional (as mentioned at the beginning).
It’s important to know that these opening were pretty much never designed to be used an as open fire in this way and are unlikely to work.
The reasons are numerous and too in-depth to go off at a tangent here. But trust me, it is much better to stick to a ‘designed’ fireplace.
#5 – Air Vent – A regulatory requirement
Almost everybody hates them, but open fires which are installed now absolutely must have an air vent fitted under Building Regulations.
The reason is that open fires need a lot of air to burn properly. Over the years, homes have basically been hermetically sealed – double glazing, carpets, cavity wall insulation, loft lagging… all these reduce droughts around your property.
So in order for your open fire to work, it will need adequate ventilation to ensure it works as safely as possible.
It’s worth pointing out that some original fireplaces which have been in for 100 years sometimes need an air vent precisely because of the changes which have taken place in the household over that time.
#6 – Get it professionally installed and ‘signed off’
Following on from the air vent, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have your open fire – or any combustion appliance come to that – professionally installed.
There are strict regulations governing the installation of open fires, and if they’re not followed, you run the possibility of putting yourself at risk.
Always look for someone who is a registered solid fuel installer; HETAS and OFTEC being the most common, although there are others.
Please don’t let anyone who isn’t a certified installer – i.e general builder etc – undertake this work. Signing off of works must be done by the person who installs the appliance and cannot be done retrospectively.
So as you can see, there are plenty of things to consider when reinstating an open fire.
There’s no getting away from it that open fires are much less efficient than closed appliances such as woodburners. They are also messier and can be a bit more of a headache to install.
Some stove fitters simply won’t touch them, so be prepared for people to try to convert you to having a stove. In some scenarios, a stove is the best way forward.
But by following these steps, it will give you the best chance of ensuring that you’ll get that roaring fire you have always dreamed of.
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 service. Book Mr Soot online or call 07724 311 992.