Common Chimney Problems in Aging & Historic Homes in the Cincinnati/ Northern Kentucky Market
Since at least the 1940s, the absence of a chimney liner in a chimney has been recognized as an imminent danger. Historic homes that reflect the architecture and charm of designs from our history have tremendous appeal, but with an old home comes an old chimney. In aging and historic homes, chimney problems are inevitable. This is a list of some of the most common problems associated with the chimneys in old and historic homes.
Dangers of Having No Chimney Liner
Fire safety experts continue to share a quote from that time period in which it was said that not having a chimney liner is hazardous at a near-criminal level.
In the 1950’s Chimney liners became mandatory in the U.S. Historic homes from the 1940s and earlier were usually built with no chimney liner, just bricks and not even fire bricks. These bricks are substandard for fireplaces and can create a lot of issues in a chimney. The following are the primary dangers associated with using any chimney that is not protected with a liner.
The Threat of a House Fire Due to Pyrolysis
A chimney liner protects against fire getting to combustibles which are not fuel (Like your house) When a fireplace is used without a flue liner or with a damaged liner, the exposed combustion materials go through a gradual process known as pyrolysis. As a result of pyrolysis, the structures are altered so that they combust at a much lower temperature. With no warning, a house fire will ignite and spread rapidly throughout the home.
Highly Combustible Creosote
Wood fires produce creosote, a highly flammable tar-like substance that is deposited into a chimney every time a fire is lit. If a burning ember floats up the chimney, it can cause the creosote to ignite. Chimney fires are always dangerous but especially when a chimney is not lined because virtually any chimney fire could easily spread throughout the home.
Bricks are durable, lasting a century or more if undamaged. Mortar, on the other hand, lasts only about 25 years at best. The mortar should be replaced whenever it begins to deteriorate because one of its primary functions is to protect the masonry system from moisture. If moisture intrusion occurs, winter cycles of freezing and thawing create movement in the bricks that break them down. A chimney will begin to lean and could even collapse when this occurs, though moisture can get in through other avenues besides damaged mortar as well.
Spalling is evidence of masonry damage. Spalling is when the front face of the brick pops off, and piles of debris around the chimney on the roof or the ground below provide evidence that the destructive process is occurring.
Exposure to Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide is one of the byproducts of fires. Chimney liners keep this toxic combustible gases from fires contained in the chimney until they escape to the outdoors. In the absence of a chimney liner or with a broken one, these gases enter the residence. Carbon Monoxide is known as a silent killer because it is odorless, tasteless, invisible, and symptomless and escape from the deadly fumes is often impossible.
Normal settling of a house doesn’t necessarily cause foundation damage, but in older homes, there is a greater chance of damage caused by a shifting foundation due to the additional time. Cracks in the masonry is one of the symptoms of settling. When the cracks form, they begin to absorb water and then the water freezes and expands the cracks even larger.
Chimney Crowns and caps are an important functional component of your home. They stop rain water from pooling and soaking into your home’s structural components. Without properly functioning chimney crowns, your home and finances will be in big trouble. We’ve found that leaky chimney crowns caused by rust, wear and tear, and weather damage can lead to serious problems for home owners. We’ve also found leaky chimney crowns can be prevented by consistently checking them. You should have your crowns and caps checked by a trained chimney sweep every time that you have your chimney cleaned, which is at least once a year.
Stopped up and leaky gutters is another way that water can work its way into your home. If you are unsure of how to properly check your home’s gutters for leaks, we recommend using the following sequence:
Remove Debris from Your Gutters
Gutters can be clogged by tree branches, leaves, and/or dirt. Before testing you gutters for leaks, you must remove any and all of the above mentioned elements so that testing can be done properly. It’s neither the easiest nor cleanest jobs, but it most be done. Use a ladder to access the top of your gutters. Cover your hands with yard gloves, and scoop all debris until the gutters are clear.
Use a Garden Hose to Run Water Through Your Gutters
This is best done with two people. Ideally, you want to bring the garden hose up the ladder while the water is not running. The garden hose should be placed in the gutter and your helper should turn it on. You or your helper should hold the hose in place while the other inspects the gutters and the house’s perimeter for any leaking water. Notes should be taken to ensure you know exactly where any and all leaks are.
Repeat the Process
Once you’re done one section of gutters, move on to the next. Repeat this process until all sections of your gutters are checked. When finished, you should have a comprehensive list of all leaks and their locations.
Take Action if You Have a Leak
Having a leak isn’t really a big deal. Not fixing it is. First, try to patch it with roofing cement or a metal/aluminum (*this is determined by what your gutters are made of) patch kit. Most leaks can be easily fixed in this manner. If a patch doesn’t work because too much is damaged, it’s time to replace the gutter. Replacement can be done in part or entirety. This depends on how much of the gutter is actually damaged. For a partial replacement, simply cut the damaged gutter and replace it with a new one of appropriate size and length. For a total replacement, simply remove the gutter and replace it with a new one of appropriate size and length. Make sure that the gutter is working properly by checking it as described above.
If for any reason you aren’t comfortable with doing any of the above-mentioned tasks, you can always contact an experienced chimney sweep and gutter service company to do them for you. Checking your gutters and chimney might cost you some time and money, but it’s definitely worth it.