Fireplaces are decorative and give beautiful ambiance, but what are the safety issues? How do we address and prevent them? How do we inspect fireplaces?
Reuben mentions that gas log fireplaces are the closest to the real thing. However, he doesn’t recommend this kind of fireplace. He discusses the differences between gas fireplaces, going over the key differences in such items as a gas log, log igniter, gas insert, and gas fireplace.Tessa highlights potential safety issues, especially with carbon monoxide inside the house.
They also talk about testing fireplaces for gas leakage and bad gas pressure regulators. Bill asks about the difference between a gas log fireplace and a gas range and their flames. Because gas log fireplaces are either unsafe or lead to energy loss, Reuben recommends using a gas insert fireplace instead.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Tessa Murry: The following podcast is sponsored by Structure Tech.
Bill Oelrich: And more specifically, logs that are sitting inside an old wood-burning fireplace that just go there and burn away, and apparently are no problem at all, no hazard at all.
Reuben Saltzman: No, that’s not true. They’re pure evil. [laughter] From the pit of Hades.
BO: Welcome, everyone. You’re listening to Structure Talk, the Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. As always your three-legged stool, coming to you from the Northland, talking all things houses, home inspections, and all else that rattles around inside our head. Welcome, everybody. Glad to have you here. Nice to see you, Reuben and Tessa. I can see you because we’re on Zoom. Nobody else can see us.
TM: Good to see you, Bill.
RS: Hey guys.
BO: It’s been a couple weeks. So with the magic of podcasting, it feels like we do this once a week, but we’ve been away for a while, so I’m glad to see both of your smiling faces again and get back to podding.
RS: Let’s do it, man. It’s been too long.
BO: I know.
TM: What are we diving into today?
BO: Today’s episode, we’re gonna talk a little bit about fireplaces, specifically gas-burning fireplaces, and more specifically, logs that are sitting inside an old wood-burning fireplace that just go there and burn away, and apparently are no problem at all, no hazard at all.
RS: No, that’s not true. They’re pure evil. [laughter] From the pit of Hades.
BO: And just to give you some idea of where Reuben stands on this, he is…
RS: Not a fan.
BO: Not a fan. [chuckle] Okay.
BO: Last time we were together, we were doing the process of home inspections, and we’ve finished that process by doing the inside of the house. And we touched very briefly on fireplaces, and gas fireplaces, and how testing them is kind of a challenge sometimes because there’s different standards for different kinds of fireplaces. So let’s take today and unpack what gas fireplaces are, how we test them, and just let’s dig into the fireplace world, just a little bit. Are you cool with that?
RS: Sounds good.
BO: Why are you so angry at logs that just lay in a box inside a house that are very decorative and give this beautiful ambiance?
RS: Well, you bring up a fair point there, Bill. You are right. When it comes to gas fireplaces, and gas fireplace, it’s like that could mean so many different things. We use these terms really loosely, but there’s a lot of different appliances out there, and we all kinda say, “oh, it’s a gas fireplace.” But there’s a big difference between different gas fireplaces, so let’s define the one that’s evil. It’s where you take, [laughter] it’s where you take a traditional, wood-burning fireplace. It’s typically gonna be a masonry fireplace, you have a masonry chimney, you have a clay flue liner, it’s designed to contain the combustion products of wood, and it’s gonna be a big flue. And at some point someone says, “to heck with this. I’m done gathering wood and trying to light it and get it to go right, then all this stuff. I’m gonna make it really easy.” And basically, you run a gas line into that fireplace opening, and you install a very basic device. It’s essentially a stick of pipe with a bunch of holes drilled into it, and you let gas out of it. Now if it’s gonna be a proper and safe one, if it’s gonna be listed, it’ll be a little bit safer than that.
RS: It’ll actually have something called a flame proving device, also known as a pilot light with a thermal couple, and it means that if the flame goes out, gas will stop flowing. And you’ll have some decorative logs that go on top of it. They will be ceramic logs, they’re designed to look like real logs, and it’s an open flame. And I’ll admit Bill, you said these beautiful things. You are right. When it comes to a gas appliance, if you’re gonna have a gas fireplace or something, the old gas log really is the most realistic-looking one out of everything else, it’s an open flame. You can stick your hand in there, you can roast marshmallows if you want to. I mean, this is as close as you’re gonna get to the real deal and…
BO: Wait, wait, Reuben?
BO: I gotta make a note here. You said I was right about something. [laughter] So just noting this time because I don’t hear that often.
RS: No, Bill.
BO: I appreciate that.
RS: You are right all the time, Bill. And I’m gonna remove that part of this podcast.
BO: Blushing, just blushing.
RS: No, you’re absolutely right. I agree with you 100%. They are gorgeous, I love the look of them, the only thing that compares is a real wood fire. So yeah, I get what you’re saying, but I would never have one of those in my house despite all of that and…
BO: Okay, so the obvious question is why?
RS: Tessa, why don’t you complain about these? I’m too whipped up to talk. You’re the energy pro.
TM: Well, energy is definitely one reason why I’m not a fan of them either. With this type of fireplace, you need to have the damper open all the time, so that pilot light and any of the exhaust gases and carbon monoxide coming from that flame, go out of the house up through the chimney. If that damper is not open, then you can have issues with carbon monoxide inside the house, so there’s a potential safety issue there. But because that damper stays open all the time, you’re losing heat up through the chimney and in our climate, that’s a big problem. It’s like having a window open year-round, basically.
RS: Now, Tessa, I’ll be the devil’s advocate. Play the other side here.
RS: Why can’t you just keep your damper shut when you’re not using your gas fireplace, and then open the damper when you do turn it on? I mean, that’s what we do for wood-burning fireplaces, so what’s the difference?
TM: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I can answer correctly, but I know that you’re supposed to have a clip that keeps that damper open all the time, like a metal clip that prevents it from being closed. And is that anything that’s required? Where does it say that you have to do that, Reuben?
RS: Well, I’ll tell you, I have the information fresh at my fingertips because I just got done writing a blog post on this topic, and I made a YouTube video, and this podcast we’re gonna release on August 8th. I’m gonna release the blog post the day after we do this podcast, so you can read all about it there, but I’m fresh up on the topic. And basically there’s nothing in the code that says you need to have that damper made permanently open. The code just says that you need to follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions, and you can only install a listed product. So then it goes to the manufacturer’s instructions. You look at any manufacturer of a gas log fireplace, and they’re the ones who require it because to meet the listing requirements, they require the damper be made permanently open. And the reason for that is, with a traditional wood-burning fireplace, if you forget to open that damper and you start a fire, your house is gonna quickly fill with smoke. It’s like you know it, but if you do the same thing with a gas log, you don’t know it.
RS: There’s no smoke coming in your house, it’s just the by-products of combustion, and if you have a finely tuned nose like us home inspectors have, you’ll recognize that, but a lot of people aren’t gonna be keenly aware of what this faint odor is, not knowing that that exhaust gas can contain a lot of carbon monoxide, so it would just silently fill the house. So we can’t take that risk, and that’s why the damper either needs to be removed or clipped permanently open. And part of my problem with this is that you read those installation instructions, and the manufacturer will say, “well, if your firebox opening is this many square feet, then you need to have this many square inches of permanently open area on the damper.” And it’s a chart, and it depends on the size of the fireplace and on the height of the chimney itself. So you gotta look at this chart, you gotta figure it out, and then you know what those dampers look like when you got the clip in place. How in the heck are you supposed to calculate the square footage or the square inches of the openable area of the damper? I’m gonna go out on a limb here.
RS: I’m gonna state, it has never been done. Nobody has ever accurately done that calculation. They take the damper clip, they stick it in there, they adjust a screw a little bit and they go, “yeah, it looks about right.” That’s what happens every time. And I know from experience it’s never enough because we’ve talked about our process for home inspections. We start by turning on the bath fans, kitchen fan, clothes dryer, everything that removes air from the house, to put the house under negative pressure, worst case scenario. And I’ll do that, and then I’ll go and I’ll test the fireplace, and I’ll close the damper to the point where the clip is closed as it’ll get. 100% of the time when I’ve done this, we’ve had copious amounts of exhaust gas coming back into the house containing high levels of carbon monoxide, which tells me these things aren’t safe.
TM: Wait, wait, can I ask a clarifying question? You close the clip on the damper, when you do that, worst case scenario?
RS: The clip is permanently installed.
RS: And the damper will go from either fully open to partially open if the clip is there. You can’t fully close it.
TM: Gotcha, so you still have a crack where the exhaust gases could rise up to the chimney, but when you put the house in worst case, you’re saying that it doesn’t work, it’s still back drafts into the house, all the combustion gas?
RS: Every time. Exactly.
TM: And especially I would think if it’s in the basement too, even stronger bit of pressure.
RS: Yeah, that’d be even worse. And that might happen even with nothing else happening.
TM: Right, yeah.
BO: Is that because the chimney is that much taller?
TM: Well, I was just thinking in terms of basement fireplaces, it seems like oftentimes, if I’ve walked into a house that has a wood-burning fireplace in the basement and one in the main living space, sometimes you’ll smell soot or wood-burning smell in the basement because the house has a negative pressure in the basement and a positive pressure at the ceiling where warm air rises, and so all of that warm air is kind of pushing up positive pressure at the ceiling, and any leaks at the top part of that house is allowing that air to escape, and so new air gets pulled in to replace it, typically at the lowest level of the house and through the easiest opening it can. And if you’ve got a lot of air leaving the house, a lot of air has to get pulled in to replace it, and especially in the summertime too, with AC on, I’ve smelled wood coming back in through those fireplaces in the basement. So it’s just a stronger to negative pressure sucking the exhaust gases or fumes from the wood-burning back into the house.
RS: This relates to the neutral plane of pressure.
RS: Which, you teach on in your building science class for home inspectors.
TM: Yeah, now we’re getting geeky, but the neutral pressure plane is kind of the elevation in the house where it’s not positive and not negative pressure, and that all depends on kind of where the leaks are located in the building envelope and how many you have.
BO: Okay, can we table that for one second and come back to a question that I wanted to ask Reuben earlier? How does an open log fireplace compare to just your range, like a gas burning range? Is this device putting off more carbon monoxide as compared to your range? Because if you’re in a full-on Thanksgiving cook-fest, and you’ve got five burners going and an oven and it’s all gas, I feel like that would be kicking out way more carbon monoxide than a tube in a fireplace. What is different about the fireplace flame than the range flame?
RS: It’s a few different things, Bill. In theory, you’re completely right, You could have just as much carbon monoxide coming off of a kitchen range, and this is part of the reason why we advocate for exhaust fans in every kitchen, especially when you’ve got a gas appliance. And it’s good practice to run that exhaust fan, any time you’ve got a burner on your range operating. Even a single burner, just boiling water, you should turn on your exhaust fan. It’s been proven that the by-products of combustion leaking into the house, even from a range are bad for you. Now, the code has not made it mandatory to have anything interlocked, you’re not even required to have an exhaust fan. But it certainly is good practice. And I’ve blogged on this topic before, but to be more specific about gas fireplaces, the reason they look so realistic is that you have a much larger flame. You think about the flame on your burner, it’s this tiny little tight, controlled flame. But the flames on a gas fireplace are huge in comparison, and you have a lot of impingement. You have those flames hitting ceramic logs, which creates incomplete combustion and that’s what creates the beautiful yellow look that we see.
RS: It’s that not all of the exhaust products are being fully burned, and that’s what creates carbon monoxide. All things being equal, you have a much higher potential for carbon monoxide at a gas fireplace.
BO: Okay, now going back to this neutral pressure plane, is that something Tessa that stays consistent throughout the year, or does that move up and down through the seasons? And is it always negative in the basement and always positive upstairs or can it ever flip-flop?
TM: That neutral pressure plane can change based on lots of different variables: Outside temperature, inside temperature, exhaust ventilation in the house, exhaust ventilation that people turn on or off, like dryers or bath fans, kitchen fans, wind.
TM: All those things can, yeah, can change that location. But typically, if you think of a house and you think of a two-story house with a basement, it’s always gonna be a negative pressure in the basement, it’s always gonna be a positive pressure up at the ceiling. But that point of neutral pressure can move up and down.
RS: And not only up and down, but it’s not gonna be flat either.
TM: Yes, good point.
BO: Well, whoa, whoa, whoa. What do you mean?
RS: If you got wind blowing across one side of the house, then it’s gonna dramatically change it. You’re gonna have a… What is it? It’s in… It’s gonna have a lot more air wanting to come into that side of the house, then there’s gonna be a lot more air wanting to leave on the other side. So, it’s not gonna be a flat plane of pressure, you’re gonna have… The plane might be at a 45-degree angle where it’s under negative pressure at a much higher level on one side that it is on the other.
BO: It’s like when a hurricane hits a beach, and you get that surf hounding farther inward than it would normally do.
TM: Yeah, and the side where the wind is hitting the house can be a positive side, and on the back side of the house, you can have this vacuum, creates a negative pressure.
TM: Yeah. [chuckle]
RS: We’re totally geeking out on this, but that’s okay.
TM: We got off-topic. Well, that’s why a lot of wood-burning fireplaces have a hard time drafting now too. It’s not only just the chimney height and everything, it has to do with all these pressures going on in a house.
BO: So, if these things are dangerous, why are they allowed?
TM: Reuben, you take that one [laughter]
RS: ‘Cause it’s in the code book? [laughter] I don’t know. I’ll tell you, Bill. If it’s properly installed, if you follow all the rules and you have the damper, let’s say fully removed, it’s probably going to be safe, even with all the other appliances going, but then you’re gonna pay a big energy penalty and you’re always gonna have exhaust gas going up and leaving, so it could be perfectly safe but it’s a huge energy penalty.
BO: Is there a standing flame on that device usually?
RS: Well, you could have a standing pilot, I think most of them, pretty much all of them have a standing pilot. And I think a lot of people just turn them off and it’s not a big deal to light the pilot light.
BO: Okay, so you said this is one of many when it comes to gas fireplaces?
RS: Yeah, there’s so many varieties of gas fireplaces out there. This is your traditional gas log. Something that looks a lot like a gas log without any decoration would be a log lighter, and that’s just a stick, a pipe with a bunch of holes in it and nothing else. You’ll have a grate above it to stack logs, and it’s a way of easily starting your logs on fire instead of having to get a bunch of kindling and paper and all that. It’s gonna be in these houses where you’ve got a special key hidden from the kids, you hide it up high, and there’s gonna be a gas valve somewhere near the fireplace, so that you stick the key in and you turn it and gas just starts flooding out of the gas lighter. And you gotta light it right away, you stack your logs on top, and once your fire gets going, you gotta remember to take that key and shut it off again.
TM: Can I ask a quick question?
TM: Do you see those in houses that are like pre-1990, like 1970s, ’80s or even before that?
TM: Is this like ’50s, ’60s, ’70s?
RS: I think it’s ’50s, ’60s and before.
TM: And is that key usually on the floor somewhere?
RS: During our inspections, yeah.
RS: We operate them? No, sorry, no, no. I’ve never operated one.
TM: I’ve never operated one. No, me neither.
BO: That just seems like a terrible idea to have a gas line inside a firebox where embers can be falling down on top of this and somebody could forget to turn it off, right?
RS: It seems like you’ve got a real potential hazard there, doesn’t it? Yeah, I agree, Bill.
TM: Yeah. Yeah.
RS: To be used with extreme caution. But having grown up with the wood-burning fireplace and having made a lot of wood fires, the gas log lighter sounds really convenient. [laughter] I just like the idea of it. I just never had one in a house that I’ve lived in.
BO: Wow! Alright, so that’s one version. That’s version 2. What else you got for us?
RS: Well, then you’ve got your gas insert, and that’s where you have a whole system. It’s not gonna be just open, it’s gonna be a device that gets inserted into that firebox and it has its own flue lining, and it’s probably gonna be a sealed combustion unit, or also known as direct vent, where it takes all of its combustion air directly into the firebox from the outdoors. It’s got a pipe bringing fresh air in, and then it’s got another pipe that takes the exhaust gas out, and it’s gonna have a glass front that prevents you from sticking your hand in there, and it’s all kind of self-contained. Now that is your gas insert, and those, we have no problem with. People put those in all the time, and then basically all you do is you flip a switch, your flame goes on, turn it off, flame goes off, and it adds a lot of heat to the room. We’re fans of those. No problem with those, but I will say even within those, there’s two different standards, and we touched on that during our last podcast, and the only way you’re gonna know the difference between the two standards is if you open up a little grate at the bottom of the fireplace, and you look inside on the fine print on the data tag, and it’ll tell you which ANSI standard it was built to, it’s either ANSI Z 2150 or 2188.
RS: And the difference there is, if it’s the first one, 2150, it means that it is a decorative appliance, that’s it, if it’s built to 2188, it is a heating appliance, it means that that can count as your heat source for the room, and it can be thermostatically controlled. You can have a thermostat on your wall that turns that gas fireplace on and off.
TM: Can the 80s, can they just have a remote though that turns them on and off, and still be considered a heat source and not have a thermostat?
RS: Yes, yep.
TM: I think that’s what we see a lot of the time here.
RS: Yeah, we do, yeah. It’s a lot more convenient. You don’t need to run wires in the wall.
BO: I have to go and look at mine. One of the problems we have, it’s not a problem, but one of the challenges we have with our gas insert in the basement, specifically not the one on my main floor, is that in the winter time, it’ll sometimes I’ll need to do what’s called burping it, and if you leave the flame on the pilot light on, and you don’t use that appliance for say two weeks and it’s super cold, I’ll get this big formation of ice at the top of my chimney ’cause the exhaust gas is cool enough to freeze by the time they get up there, and they’re still making condensation and I’ll turn it on, and it’ll burn for a minute and then it’ll go out ’cause for some reason, it’s not getting fresh air, there’s a clog in the air supply.
BO: And so the people at Fireside who installed it, they’ve always come out once a year and just checked on it, and I asked them about this and they’re like, ‘Well, that happens sometimes, ’cause you should turn your pilot off when it’s cold and you’re not gonna be using it, because then you don’t get that potential for those exhaust gases to go up and then create problems up inside the flue. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, how come it never happens on my main floor?’ They said, because your chimney’s shorter and it’s just those extra six or eight feet make that amount of difference. Plus you use the one on your main floor more than the one in your basement, ’cause in the basement, the winter, it’s cold down there.
TM: That’s really interesting. I’ve never heard that recommendation, but it makes sense, and you know what that reminds me of? You guys ever seen radon mitigation systems that are retrofit and that go up the side of the house on the outside, have you ever seen one of those pipes freeze in the winter? Freeze shut. And then the fan can’t work?
RS: I don’t think so.
TM: Okay, well, I…
BO: Have you?
TM: Yes! Yeah, and the condensation going through that pipe froze and choked off the pipe, and then the system wasn’t working, so Bill, it sounds like that’s kind of what was happening with your chimney almost.
BO: Yeah, and I should say, I’ve always really, really enjoyed the information I’ve got from Fireside, they’ve been great. And I can’t remember if I got two different recommendations, and if this was like a personal text set up this way, and then another one told me the other way or something about the pilot light, but they just had some good opinions about it and ever since it happened, I stopped running the standing pilot and I’ve never had a problem with it, and so I think their guidance was spot on, of course, if you ever have that issue with any of your stuff, ask your fireplace people what to do with your specific situation. But I have a question about that, that radon pipe. Was there a lot of water in like a sump pump something, in the sump basket? Like, there must have been a tremendous amount of moisture coming out of that pipe for that to happen?
TM: Well, I think just in general, there’s a lot of moisture. Because that pipe is pulling the air out from, you know, the soil under the house, under the slab, the sub-slab, which has a lot of moisture, so I don’t know, it obviously doesn’t happen in most houses, but it can happen potentially, if you’ve got a really cold, cold winter and there’s moisture in that soil.
BO: That’s certainly a one-off.
BO: And you don’t see that every day.
TM: No, no, but you know, I was gonna ask Reuben, you’re talking about these gas insert fireplaces and their sealed combustion systems, so in theory, you shouldn’t have any combustion gases or carbon monoxide coming out of them, correct?
TM: But there is a potential, right? And we talked about this in the last podcast, but can you elaborate on how we make sure that they’re not creating unsafe conditions too?
RS: Yeah, we use a combustion gas detector, the particular brand we use is a TIF, it’s a common one, but it’s just this little device where if you hold it near a gas line, natural gas or propane or something like that, it’s almost like a geiger counter type of deal where it starts ticking really fast when it gets near a natural gas, but you can also use those to test for exhaust gas leakage, and you can use them around the draft hood on a water heater, and what we usually use them on is, gas fireplaces or gas inserts or gas fireplaces, and after we’ve had that fireplace running for a little while, and you take that gas sniffer and you hold it near the top of the fireplace, and on a lot of these fireplaces we find exhaust gas leaking back into the house, and then when we do find that, we follow up and we take our combustion analyzer and we actually take a measurement of the carbon monoxide coming in and make sure it’s not some false positive.
TM: So, I’m gonna quiz you right now, Reuben, since this is fresh in your mind. Since you just wrote this blog, how many minutes do you have to let the fireplace run for before you do that flue gas test or combustion gas leakage test on it, if it’s 0.50 or 0.88?
RS: If it’s 0.50, decorative appliance only, you gotta run your fireplace for at least 15 minutes before testing, if it’s 0.88, meaning it can be used for heating, then you gotta run it for a minimum of 45 minutes before doing this test.
TM: And why is that?
RS: I don’t know.
TM: [laughter] Okay.
RS: That’s what the listing says.
RS: And we learn this by getting burned by doing this on some new construction houses, and we ended up digging into the UL standards for this, or whatever standard oversees it. Maybe it’s not UL, but whatever standard it is, we dug into that and learned that, well before we can do any type of test, it needs to run for a minimum of eight hours, and then once it’s been run for eight hours in its lifetime, then you can do this test, but you gotta wait this long before saying it’s a bad system.
TM: Like a UL listing that specifies that, it’s not the manufacturer?
RS: That’s right.
TM: Of each fireplace? Okay.
RS: That’s right, exactly.
BO: Out of curiosity’s sake, do you think there’s a similar standard for a furnace?
RS: I don’t know, Bill. I don’t think there is. I think I would have heard about it by now, if there was. In fact, no. I’m sure there’s not. The standard for a furnace is you do the combustion test once it reaches design temperature, which means the temperature is not changing. If you stick your combustion analyzer in the flue and the temperature is steadily increasing, it’s not a valid test. It’s valid once the temperature has steadied off.
BO: Sure, I meant that eight-hour thing.
BO: ‘Cause I’m assuming that there’s some oils or residue or something that’s on this metal, and if that’s actually burning off, maybe it’s creating some carbon monoxide. I’m wondering what the eight hours is all about?
RS: We don’t do the same test on furnaces. This test is checking to see if there’s exhaust gas leaking out.
BO: Oh, sure, sure.
RS: We’re not doing that on furnaces.
BO: Gotcha, do you know how long these seals around the doors and the glass and all that last? ‘Cause they are sealed, right? But it’s not… Those are like, I don’t know, they look like steel wool or something, but they somehow or another, miracly they don’t leak.
RS: I don’t know, I’m not sure.
BO: We should ask a fireplace person sometime.
TM: Oh, and it’d be interesting to see too, what percentage of sealed fireplaces that we’ve tested at Structure Tech actually leak. Seems like probably like 25% of the ones I tested seemed to have some sort of carbon monoxide leak around them.
RS: Yeah, sounds fair.
TM: Absolutely, a small leak, like a few parts per million was coming out around the corner.
BO: Were those fireplaces that looked old?
TM: I’m trying to recall. I don’t think it was only old fireplaces doing that. It could be a variety.
RS: Yeah, I found it on newer-looking fireplaces too, for sure.
BO: It could be just something as I was talking about those seals, just having a little ripple and not making a completely tight, tight seal against the glass or something.
TM: Yeah, I’d be curious to see what the fireplace professional would do to fix that problem. Have you ever seen someone come out and try and fix one of the leaks that we’ve found in those sealed fireplaces?
RS: I haven’t watched it, but I’ve asked about what they do. And it’s basically what Bill just said. They take the glass off, they put a new packing material in there, and they replace the glass.
TM: Oh! Okay. How much does that cost, do you know?
RS: I’m not sure.
TM: Yeah, sorry, I put you on the spot there.
BO: Well, I can tell you, we’ve really tried to maintain ours well. And there was this awesome plan that I know you can’t get anymore, but the installer would come out once a year, and they’d service both our units, and they would spray paint the back of it where the heat had worn down some of the paint and they look beautiful, but they don’t do it anymore. And the whole point of that was, they serviced when they weren’t busy, because when they’re busy, it’s expensive for them to do servicing, which is all winter long. So they would come out in the summer and they do this clean job. But the guys would always tell me, the biggest problem they see is spiders building webs or nests inside the igniters, and so when people go to start them in the fall or the winter, they have all this spider nonsense going on. So they say, just leave your pilot run all summer long, then you know when you go to the winter to use it, nobody’s been having babies inside your fireplace case.
TM: Ugh, nasty.
BO: So I take their advice. Both of mine are running, the pilot’s running right now, and so I know when I turn them on this fall, they will work.
RS: Bill, you know, and while you’re talking about that, I’m sure some people have dealt with some weird issues with their fireplace not working right. I’ll just share an issue one of my neighbors had. Their fireplace would go out all the time when their furnace was running or when other stuff was happening, the pilot would go out, or the fireplace would just shut off entirely. And they eventually had the gas company come out and do a test on their gas regulator, the pressure regulator for their entire house, and they had a bad regulator.
RS: And it wasn’t nearly enough pressure going into the house. And so once they replaced the regulator, no more problems with their gas fireplace.
RS: I thought that was fascinating.
BO: Do you know what pressure is on natural gas, how much is on propane? Do you know anything about pressures when it comes to gas appliances?
RS: Yeah, typically it’s a half-pound of pressure that you’re supposed to have at the appliance. You’re gonna have high pressure coming in from the city. I think it’s around 5 psi, and then you’ll have a regulator dropping it down to 2 psi in your house, which is technically considered kind of a higher pressure system. And then you have another regulator before appliances dropping it down to about a half-pound of pressure.
BO: Okay, so that answered question number two, which is, are there multiple regulators in the system, which is obviously yes.
BO: Do you know what your grill, your gas grill uses pressure-wise?
RS: My gas grill is propane.
BO: Well, yeah. Does it…
RS: Oh, what it is for propane? I don’t know.
BO: Yeah, okay.
TM: It’s quiz Reuben day, today. [laughter]
BO: Yeah, yeah.
BO: ‘Cause I don’t know, you go to the hardware store and there’s like 14 different pressure things there that you can buy, and not like you buy these often, but every now and then, a hose line will crack and then I’m standing there wondering, What am I supposed to buy? I don’t even know. And when I put this together, is it even right, is it gonna blow up or something?
RS: I’m assuming there’s one pressure for all of them, but I don’t know what that pressure is.
TM: I was just gonna ask you, so what would you recommend people do if they have these gas log fireplaces that we’re not a fan of?
RS: My preference would be get rid of it, I mean, put it in a gas insert.
RS: That’d be much better from an energy penalty, but it’s not like this has gotta be a critical item on your inspection report, it’s more that this is an energy issue, it’s like, hey, you got a bunch of cracks in the walls or gaps around the windows, where cold air will leak in, it’s not like it’s a life and death thing, but it’s also, Hey, if you do use this, be extra certain that your damper is fully open. I mean, this doesn’t have to be a big action safety thing. We’re just not fans of them, that’s all.
BO: Are there any other types of gas fireplaces that you’ll find?
RS: Yeah. Well, the final one is just your traditional gas fireplace where it has nothing to do with a wood-burning fireplace, it’s not any type of retrofit, the house was built for it, or you had it added in later on, and it could either be something that installs in your wall, or it could be a free-standing gas fireplace, and it’s got a vent that takes the exhaust gases outside of the house. It can either exhaust out of the roof or I could exhaust right out through a side wall, and those are pretty much always going to be a direct vent as well. A two-pipe system, takes fresh air in, exhaust the combustion gases, and they operate just like a gas insert inside of a fireplace, but they’re free standing, that’s the big difference there.
BO: Have you ever seen, well, yeah, I guess you have. I was gonna say not in the corner, but they’re sometimes just built right into the wall?
RS: Yep, I have one in my house now, there’s a fireplace in the living room, and we use it all the time.
BO: So does that project into the room or, is there a chimney built on the outside of your house that it projects into the chimney?
RS: It vents right out the side of the house, so there is no chimney.
BO: Oh, so it sits forward into your room by a foot or something?
RS: It could. Now, on my last house, I had a little bump out to make room for it, so it was flush with an outside wall, and then they built out, there was a little bump out on the outside of the house to make room for the appliance.
RS: So it could be either be done that way or you could have it in a corner to make room for it.
BO: That was a deep conversation about gas fireplaces.
RS: Yeah, and there’s one other thing we forgot to mention, just one more reason why these gas fireplaces, gas logs aren’t super safe, let me ask you, Bill and Tessa, How many gas log fireplaces have you seen where there is a screen installed in front of that gas log?
TM: Not very many.
RS: Yeah, for me it’s a big fat zero too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a screen in front of one of those. The manufacturer’s instructions, the ANSI standard, that’s the standard, I couldn’t remember. The ANSI standard says that when these are operated, when you turn that on, there needs to be a screen present in front of it.
TM: Oh, really?
RS: Yeah, and so that’s never happened in the history of the world, and the reason you’re supposed to have that is, I guess it’s for clothing, it’s like you got kids running around with really billowy pajamas, the Superman cape or a silk dress, a big billowy dress or something, ’cause you’ve got a lot of air getting sucked in there and it’s supposed to prevent stuff from getting sucked into the fireplace and hitting that open flame.
TM: Are you serious?
RS: Yes. So that’s a requirement too that has never been met.
TM: Wow. Well, a tangent alert, one other thing I think that I see a lot of too on those gas log fireplaces, is a vermiculite underneath the log.
RS: Yeah, to make it look better.
TM: Right. Now, is that something that we should be concerned about too?
RS: You know, we’ve kicked that idea around back and forth so many times, it comes up every couple of years in our company saying, Hey, do we need to make an issue out of this? And I’d say No, to the best of my knowledge, the vermiculite they use in those did not come from the mines where they obtained the traditional insulation that had asbestos in it, and our concern level is extremely low with those. So, no, we don’t make a thing about that.
TM: Good to know.
RS: But there could always be exceptions.
BO: Just get your shot back and vacuum it up, and you know, you won’t have any dust created by doing that.
TM: I think that’s what most people do.
RS: Or a leaf blower.
BO: Okay, Reuben, you have to tell people why that’s even a thing in our conversations.
RS: Alright. Oh, boy.
TM: Are you gonna get in trouble for this?
RS: No, I won’t ’cause I know my wife doesn’t listen to the podcast, so anybody else who’s listening…
TM: Nobody tell her.
RS: Don’t tell her. Yeah, it happened to come up in a conversation that somebody on our team was having with Anna that it was like, what do you do that your husband doesn’t know about, that he’d get mad about or something like that? And hers was, Well, if he’s gone and I’m gonna hurry to clean the house, I like to get the leaf blower. And it’s not the gas powered one, but she’ll get the battery-operated Milwaukee leaf blower and she’ll come inside, ’cause we got a dog, a big German Shepherd, and if she really wants to tidy up all the hair real fast, she’ll go from one end of the house to the other with a leaf blower. [laughter] I can’t comprehend it, because I just think this is an extremely efficient way of taking dust and dirt off of the floor and depositing it on every horizontal surface of the house. That’s what I’m picturing, but in her mind, I guess it works, and God bless her for doing her part to clean up.
TM: I love that, I love that story. Anna’s awesome.
RS: Yeah. She is.
BO: And with that, we will quietly exit stage, right?
RS: I’d called that a wrap.
BO: You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, as always, thanks for listening, we’ll catch you next time.