Swims & Sweeps answers some of the most popular questions asked by customers about purchasing a fireplace or stove. Please click on the (+) to reveal the answer and the (–) to hide it.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Creosote? Why is it a Potential Problem?
Creosote is a common problem that occurs in chimneys venting wood.
Webster's Dictionary defines creosote as follows: 'a dark brown or black flammable tar deposited from wood-smoke on the walls of a chimney.’ This substance looks black, very shiny, and sticky. It is removable with a steel chimney brush, and it is visible in your fireplace. To see if creosote is a problem in your chimney, take a flashlight and examine the back of the fireplace wall near the damper and also the damper. Then, shine the light up thru the damper and into the smoke chamber and flue. Sometimes, you will find a softer creosote covering on the shiny glaze – this softer creosote is removable. Other times, you will look up and see a mirror-like shiny glaze.
The causes of creosote problems vary from chimney to chimney. Some common causes are burning green wood or pine. Cold exterior chimneys are another cause. Burning smoky fires also adds to the problem. Often, a combination of these three factors causes a creosote problem.
Although creosote does pose a fire hazard, there are a couple of easy steps to clear up this issue. Have your chimney cleaned and the shiny surface scratched up. After scratching this up the technician will apply a creosote powder to the areas, called Creaway, which is a creosote modifier. The technician will also leave you with a bottle of Anti-Creosote, which also attacks the glazed creosote, and should be applied to the wood as you burn. You should then burn around 20 fires in the chimney to activate the products, but remember to never over-fire the appliance.
When the above has been completed, a technician will come back to your home to remove the converted creosote. You could also have the creosote removed mechanically, which we often recommend if you are about to sell your home and want to get it in tip-top-shape.
Improving your burning habits is the most important step in creosote prevention.
Ten Steps to Maximum Wood Burning Efficiency
Wood smoke is caused by the incomplete combustion of wood. This can pollute the air indoors and outdoors as well as contribute to higher heating costs. Fortunately, the cure for cutting down on pollution and waste also cuts the costs by burning wood with safety and efficiency.
1. Burn seasoned wood. Up to 50% of the weight of green wood can be moisture, which has to be burned off before heat can be released into your house. Seasoned wood burns hotter and more efficiently, helps decrease the amount of creosote buildup in your stovepipe, and save you money.
2. Make your fires small and hot. This burns volatile gases more quickly, producing fewer safety hazards and air quality problems than a fire that is over-damped. Smaller, hotter fires mean more frequent loading and tending the stove…but the improved efficiency and air quality are worth the effort.
3. Install a stack thermometer on the stove flue. This will help you monitor the temperature of the gases as they leave the stove. Optimum range for most efficiency and least pollution: about 300 to 400 F.
4. Remove excess ashes. Too much can clog your stove’s air-intake vents and cut down on the amount of oxygen needed for woodburning.
5. Tighten up your house. Insulation, weather stripping, storm windows and caulking~ can all reduce the amount of wood required to heat your home, which in turn helps decrease the amount of air pollution.
6. Check your “smokestack.” Burn your stove at different rates, then go outside and check the emissions. The absence of smoke indicates that your stove is burning cleanly and effectively.
7. Inspect your stove. Once or twice a year, depending on how often it’s used, your entire stove and chimney should be inspected. Look for warping, check the baffle to make sure there are no gaps, check for creosote. Your dealer can make regular inspections, and so can a chimney sweep.
8. Choose the proper size stove. A properly sized wood stove will do its job efficiently even on the coldest days. One that’s too big needs to be damped down, which increases creosote production. The insulation in your home is a factor as well. To be sure you select the right-size stove, take along to your dealer the number of square feet to be heated, and the amount of insulation surrounding the area to be heated.
9. Buy the most efficient design you can afford. It’ll pay for itself in the long run. Research has made great strides in designing fireboxes, drafts, catalytic combustors and other devices that improve combustion and reduce smoke. Maybe it’s time to retire that old “smoker” and modernize.
10. Burn only the fuel your stove was, designed for. Don’t burn coal in a wood stove, for example, unless your stove was designed to handle both wood and coal. Trash shouldn’t be burned in your stove either. Besides increasing the chance of starting a chimney fire, some plastics and other trash emit harmful gases, and can ruin your catalytic combustor. Driftwood, treated wood, artificial logs, or anything containing plastics, lead, zinc or sulfur will damage your catalytic combustor.
1. Stainless Steel rigid pipe - is often the best material to use when the chimney run is straight. Rigid pipe is quite a bit thicker than flex pipe and the smoother interior wall will help with draft and cut down on soot and creosote formation.
2. Stainless Steel Flexible pipe - is available in various grades and thicknesses and can make relining relatively easy since it is often pulled down in one piece. It is easy to snake around bends and can even be slightly flattened (ovalized) to fit through difficult spots like dampers, etc.
Tips for Purchasing Firewood
A Cord is A Cord is a Cord
1. Bulk firewood is usually sold by a measurement called a “cord” or fraction of a cord. A cord is defined as 128 cubic feet when the wood is neatly stacked in a line or row. A standard cord would be 8 feet long by 4 feet wide by 4 feet high. It is best to have your wood storage area set up in standard 4 or 8 foot increments, pay the wood seller the extra few dollars often charged to stack the wood, and warn him before he arrives that you will cheerfully pay only when the wood actually measures up to an agreed upon amount.
2. Be wary of measurement terms such as “rick,” “rack,” “face cord,” “pile,” or “truckload”. Since these terms cannot be defined exactly, these terms are prohibited in some states when advertising or selling firewood or stove wood. Webster defines a rick simply as a pile, and truck sizes obviously vary tremendously, so it is very important that you get all of this straight with the seller before agreeing on a price; there is much room for misunderstanding. A face cord is also 8 feet long by 4 feet tall, but it is only as deep as the wood is cut, so a face cord of 16" wood actually is only 1/3 of a cord, 24" wood yields 1/2 of a cord, and so on. It is in your best interest to purchase firewood that is measured by the true cord. Another thought concerning getting what you pay for is that although firewood is usually sold by volume, heat production is dependent on weight. Pound for pound, all wood has approximately the same BTU content, but a cord of seasoned hardwood weighs about twice as much as the same volume of softwood, and consequently contains almost twice as much potential heat. If the wood you are buying is not all hardwood, consider offering a little less in payment.
3. Fireplace or stove wood is defined as: any kindling logs, boards, timbers, or other wood. The logs may be whole or pre-split. They may be purchased seasoned (dried) or fresh-cut. If you are buying freshly cut (or “green”) wood, be sure to allow for 8-12 months minimum for proper drying.
4. In most states, sellers are required to provide buyers with an invoice which shows the seller’s name, address, phone number, price per cord, total amount, and the type of wood purchased.
5. It is a good idea to get references from your wood seller. Buyers should write down the license plate number of the wood delivery truck. The delivered wood should be stacked (by seller or you) in a cord or fraction of a cord. Measure the stack (width x height x length) and contact the seller immediately if you did not receive the quantity purchased. If you discover a problem with your purchase, it may be helpful to take a picture of the stacked wood.
Firewood is generally sold by volume, the most common measure being the cord. Other terms often employed are face cord, rick, or often just a truckload. A standard cord of firewood is 128 cubic feet of wood, generally measured as a pile 8 feet long by 4 feet tall by 4 feet deep. A face cord is also 8 feet long by 4 feet tall, but it is only as deep as the wood is cut, so a face cord of 16" wood actually is only 1/3 of a cord, 24" wood yields 1/2 of a cord, and so on.
Webster defines a rick simply as a pile, and truck sizes obviously vary tremendously, so it is very important that you get all of this straight with the seller before agreeing on a price; there is much room for misunderstanding. It is best to have your wood storage area set up in standard 4 or 8 foot increments, pay the wood seller the extra few dollars often charged to stack the wood, and warn him before he arrives that you will cheerfully pay only when the wood actually measures up to an agreed upon amount.
Another thought concerning getting what you pay for is that although firewood is usually sold by volume, heat production is dependent on weight. Pound for pound, all wood has approximately the same BTU content, but a cord of seasoned hardwood weighs about twice as much as the same volume of softwood, and consequently contains almost twice as much potential heat. If the wood you are buying is not all hardwood, consider offering a little less in payment.
How to Select Firewood
Firewood is an area where you can have great influence over how well your system performs and how enjoyable your experience will be. Quality, well seasoned firewood will help your wood stove or fireplace burn cleaner and more efficiently, while green or wet wood can cause smoking problems, odor problems, rapid creosote buildup and possibly even dangerous chimney fires.
A few minutes spent understanding firewood will be time well spent, so please read on for general background information, as well as how to buy wood and store wood.
All firewood contains water. Freshly cut wood can be up to 45% water!, while well seasoned firewood generally has a 20-25% moisture content. Well seasoned firewood is easier to start, produces more heat, and burns cleaner. The important thing to remember is that the water must be gone before the wood will burn. If your wood is cut 6 months to a year in advance and properly stored, the sun and wind will do the job for free. If you try to burn green wood, the heat produced by combustion must dry the wood before it will burn, using up a large percentage of the available energy in the process. This results in less heat delivered to your home, and literally gallons of acidic water in the form of creosote deposited in your chimney.
Wood is composed of bundles of microscopic tubes that were used to transport water from the roots of the tree to the leaves. These tubes will stay full of water for years even after a tree is dead. This is why it is so important to have your firewood cut to length for 6 months or more before you burn it, it gives this water a chance to evaporate since the tube ends are finally open and the water only has to migrate a foot or two to escape. Splitting the wood helps too by exposing more surface area to the sun and wind, but cutting the wood to shorter lengths is of primary importance.
There are a few things you can look for to see if the wood you intend to purchase is seasoned or not. Well seasoned firewood generally has darkened ends with cracks or splits visible, it is relatively lightweight, and makes a clear "clunk" when two pieces are beat together. Green wood on the other hand is very heavy, the ends look fresher, and it tends to make a dull "thud" when struck. These clues can fool you however, and by far the best way to be sure you have good wood when you need it is to buy your wood the spring before you intend to burn it and store it properly.
Even well seasoned firewood can be ruined by bad storage. Exposed to constant rain or covered in snow, wood will reabsorb large amounts of water, making it unfit to burn and causing it to rot before it can be used. Wood should be stored off the ground if possible and protected from excess moisture when weather threatens.
The ideal situation is a wood shed, where there is a roof but open or loose sides for plenty of air circulation to promote drying. Next best would be to keep the wood pile in a sunny location and cover it on rainy or snowy days, being sure to remove the covering during fair weather to allow air movement and to avoid trapping ground moisture under the covering. Also don't forget that your woodpile also looks like heaven to termites, so it's best to only keep a week or so worth of wood near the house in easy reach. With proper storage you can turn even the greenest wood into great firewood in 6 months or a year, and it can be expected to last 3 or 4 years if necessary.
What is a Zero Clearance Fireplace?
A zero clearance fireplace, whether wood or gas, refers to a manufactured fireplace that you can wood frame very closely around it. Think of it as a stove in a box with the purpose of the box being to contain and/or convect the heat into the room while maintaining a cool enough exterior skin temperature that wood framing can placed nearly against it.