Q: I plan to use my fireplace more to lower my utility bills. I see some deteriorated spots on the outside of the chimney, and it has not been cleaned recently. What maintenance can I do myself?
A: If your chimney has not been cleaned recently, have a professional chimney sweep clean and inspect it before your first fire.
House fires, due to chimney issues, occur in tens of thousands of homes each year, claiming many lives and costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Although the deteriorated spots on the brick chimney need to be addressed, problems inside the chimney are the greatest risk. Creosote buildup is the primary problem. It is very flammable when a buildup of it gets hot.
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When creosote does catch fire inside the chimney, it is not always obvious from indoors. One telltale sign is a sudden increase in the draft up the chimney from the intense heat, but this is easy to miss.
The intense heat may cause interior tiles that protect the chimney to crack and come loose. This allows heat from this and subsequent fires to penetrate the brick and start your house on fire. If you are lucky, the loose tiles will block the chimney and the smoke backdrafting indoors will alert you.
When the chimney sweep cleans the chimney, puffed black creosote may mean there was a chimney fire. Once it is cleaned, a visual inspection along its entire length with a camera should be done to check the interior tiles and mortar.
Be leery of a sweep who does not do the camera inspection and claims you need a new liner or sealing procedure that will cost thousands of dollars. An unscrupulous person claimed my own chimney needed a liner. A subsequent camera inspection indicated the tiles and mortar were sound.
If you are handy and not afraid of heights, do-it-yourself products are available to make many repairs. Some companies, such as SaverSystems ( www.saversystems.com), also offer their products in smaller qualities for homeowners.
Although brick feels very hard, it is permeable to water. Moisture can deteriorate the mortar, as you have noticed. This is particularly bad in climates with freeze/thaw cycles over winter.
Inspect all the bad spots on the mortar using a chisel and hammer. Remove all the loose mortar. Use cement-colored elastomers to fill the spots. Coat the entire chimney exterior with a liquid water repellent afterward.
If the mortar is bad, the chimney crown likely needs repairs. Chip away any loose cement and fill in the pits with an elastomers crown repair. Some types are formulated to cure in freezing temperatures.
The metal flashing between the roof and chimney is the final area to seal. If it is badly rusted, replace it with new flashing. Most often, brushing on a thick coating of flexible flashing compound is an adequate fix.
Q: We have a second home that we use on weekends several times a year. The hot water has a rotten eggs odor, so we have to drain it each time. What is causing this and how can I stop the odor?
A: The rotten eggs smell is most often caused by a bacteria in the water. It reacts with materials, usually the anode rod, in the water heater to release sulfur dioxide gas.
Try replacing the anode rod with one made of zinc/aluminum. Temporarily, set the water heater temperature to high for several hours to kill most bacteria. Until it cools back down, use caution and don’t let children run hot water because it may be hot enough to cause scalding.