Have you ever had one of those instances where you’re just sitting there watching television and you hear a loud noise or crash from the other room? It brings a moment of pause when you try to determine if what you just heard was on television or if it came from your own house. Once you determine the origin of the noise was from another room rather than the episode of Walking Dead or Homeland you’re watching, you venture off to determine the actual source. 

As you approach, you’re hopeful there isn’t a level of catastrophic disaster waiting just around the corner, but you typically expect the worst. In our case, we tend to lay default suspicion at the furry feet of one of our four legged family members. After all, they always seem to be getting into trouble.

Last week this very scenario played out in our home. Luckily, the level of disaster leaned more toward the low to moderate range than the earth shattering. And at least for this occurrence, the pets were not to blame. The source of the loud noise near the front of the house actually had to do with our fireplace and flue. 

No, it wasn’t Santa getting stuck while shimmying down the chimney. The noise was actually caused by a failure with the chimney cap, or more specifically the latch that held the handle of the cap in place.

Like many old homes in our area, our house has a few original chimneys from the home’s first heat source --the original coal burning fireplaces. In our home, one of these two chimneys, the one in our living room, is still a true fireplace. Years before we moved in the chimney was re-lined and made more energy efficient through the addition of an operable cap damper. This was one of the few things a previous owner has done to the house that we appreciate on a regular basis.

While many modern chimneys have a flue damper than can be closed when the fireplace is not in use, often times old chimneys, like ours, were always open. Rather than attempt to add a damper just above the firebox, adding a spring loaded damper to the very top of the chimney is a popular addition to older fireplaces. A guide wire runs from the top of the chimney into the firebox area where you can open or close the damper simply by pulling on the handle attached to the wire. It’s a great system that’s functional, easy to use, easy to install, and inexpensive. Best of all, it doesn’t require you to change any of the historical elements of your home and can be installed just by having access to your roof. However, with all of these great features, there is a minor flaw in the design.

The problem with the design is in how the latch holds the damper shut when the fireplace is not in use. This latch is always under pressure from the spring because the damper’s preferred position is open. Apparently, after 20 years or so of this sustained pressure, the soft brick the latch was affixed to with a few shallow mounting nails has the potential to let loose and cause a very loud noise when it does so. Such was the case in our home.

We knew we’d want to use the fireplace often this winter, and the random damper handle hanging directly above the fireplace meant we’d need to fix this little issue before we could enjoy the fireplace again. Rather than procrastinating until the end of the fire season, I got off of my butt and got to work.

The ultimate cause of the latch’s failure in the original installation seemed to be due to shallow depth the fasteners occupied in the brick. The persistent tension from the damper coupled with shallow depth built up enough stress over time that the brick fractured. Once fractured, it left a bit of an open spot in the brick with bright orange showing amidst the other soot covered bricks.

To correct this issue I had to remount the latch to the fireplace wall. Though I could have reused the old mounting nails I knew this would have ended in an eventual repeat of our chimney clatter, so I opted to try a more permanent approach. To correct the original failure, I figured I should change the mounting latch to the other side of the firebox, and I should use a longer mounting screw with a plastic anchor. (Don’t worry, the plastic won’t melt, the firebox doesn’t get hot enough because of our coal gas fireplace basket.)

Using 1-7/8” screws and a plastic anchors should offer far more support that is spread across a wider surface. I gathered all of the supplies I needed and started my quick fix that would offer us a long term solution and allow us to start a fire right away.

I started by picking a location on the left side that would allow us to close the damper and hook it on the latch. I marked the locations where I’d need to drill the holes using one of the screws. The screw tip easily scratched away some of the black to mark the hole location.

I then drilled two holes for the anchors using the suggested ¼” drill bit.

With the holes drilled I grabbed my trusty tiny hammer and started to force the anchors into their holes. It was a very tight squeeze to get them in, which is great for ensuring a long lasting hold.

I secured the latch to the wall using the two screws and gave it a little tug to see if it would hold the weight. It seemed nice and sturdy and we're optimistic it should last for quite some time.

I ran the handle and guide wire through the hole in the latch and closed the damper. It was a good and tight close, so I checked this off as a quick project accomplished.

It was a quick and easy fix for an unexpected problem. We were able to light a fire that evening (after opening the damper) and began enjoying another winter night, warmed by the glow of our lit tree and once again functioning fireplace. 

I was glad to have checked this off the list quickly rather than letting this end up a long and drawn out issue (ahem, replacing our stolen copper downspout).

Do you have any nagging items that need to be taken care of around your house? I know we're all starting to look ahead to our new year's resolution list, so perhaps now is a good time to start taking stock of all of those little tasks you need to knock out in the early part of 2013. 

Comments 4

Comments

12/26/2012 at 8:57 PM
So the noise was made by the chimney cap popping open after the latch let lose? Or the latch banging around in the fireplace?

Anyway, glad it was a minor problem with an easy fix.
Alex
12/26/2012
I think it was a little bit of both, but primarily the latch bouncing around in the firebox. Luckily the bouncing metal piece didn't damage anything with the fireplace.
Katyavp
12/28/2012 at 1:45 PM
Glad this was a fairly easy fix! I am intrigued by the coal gas basket you mention.... What do you think of yours? We have 5 flood burning fireplaces in the house, but haven't used them since moving in because 1) we need to find a good chimney person to come out, inspect and give us the green light (our home inspection last year flagged some issues with the fireplaces) and 2) our fireplaces are fairly shallow and quite frankly, it scares me!!! Would getting something like that be an option for us? Also, if you can recommend a good chimney person, we'd appreciate it. All of our neighbors seem to use Chimney Doctor. Thanks! Also love the photo of the cat under the tree. Our cats have taken up permanent residence under our tree!!!
Alex
12/29/2012
We really like the coal basket we have. We did a lot of research when we were purchasing it to get something that would look right within the period and age of our home. Since they probably had real coal baskets when the house was originally built, these work perfectly. It is more decorative than functional and only puts off minimal heat.

That being said, you're going to want something that looks like wood burning more than coals. In your house, 200+ years ago, they would have only had wood. You can look at the same place we bought our stuff, they have good stuff that looks like wood burning. www.gascoals.com/GASFires/GasLogs.aspx Check out their selection.

The main thing you'll need to make sure of is that your chimneys are properly lined. Given how recently your home was restored I'd be willing to bet all of your flues are in good shape, but it is definitely best to get someone to look at them. I've heard the Chimney Doctor is good, but we've never used anyone.

Good luck, there'e few things that will make your house feel more cozy that a good fire, and there are few things that will put you more at ease than not having to worry about the fires you have running.
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