Dennis is a retired firefighter with an extensive background in construction, home improvement, and remodeling. He worked in the trades part-time while serving as an active firefighter. On his retirement, he started a remodeling and home repair business, which he ran for several years.
House Smells Like Smoke When Using The Fireplace (Fix It Now!)
Fireplaces are wonderful features in a home. A fireplace can provide warmth and an ambiance in the room unlike any other. Unfortunately, many people experience problems with their fireplaces and chimneys. These problems often cause the house to smell like some when using the fireplace.
Despite their appearance, fireplaces and chimneys are sophisticated equipment. The design and installation of a fireplace determine how well the smoke is drawn up the chimney and the safety of the fireplace. Fireplaces and chimneys must receive routine maintenance to continue to perform as designed. Poorly maintained fireplaces and chimneys may push smoke back into the house.
As a homeowner, you should have a general understanding of the construction and maintenance required of your fireplace. Smoke coming back into your home from the fireplace indicates serious problems with your fireplace and chimney. If your house smells like a campfire after using your fireplace, it is time to find the problem.
Table of Contents
Understanding Your Fireplace
The fireplace in your home Is usually one of two varieties. Site-built or masonry fireplaces and chimneys are the traditional look and style. More and more, builders are using pre-built fireplace units that fit into the fireplace opening, and metal flue pipe extends through the roof. In theory, both types of fireplaces work the same and can experience the same kinds of problems.
The Parts of Your Fireplace
For our purposes in this article, I am focusing on site-built masonry fireplaces. Metal kit fireplaces have much the same design, but some differences make these insertable fireplace kits unique. Many older homes with masonry fireplaces begin to experience smoke and backdraft issues. A lack of maintenance is often the cause of these problems in a masonry fireplace.
Masonry fireplaces have many parts. The basic parts you should know and understand include:
- The Hearth – The hearth of your fireplace is that portion that rests in front of the firebox. The hearth is usually concrete, brick, or stone. The hearth protects the room from embers that may fall from the fireplace when it is burning.
- The Firebox – Behind the hearth and inside the fireplace is the firebox. The firebox is where you build a fire and contains the fire safely in your home. The firebox Is usually lined with fire bricks to withstand the intense heat of some fires.
- Chimney Throat – Above the firebox inside the fireplace is the chimney throat. The chimney throat is the transition from the firebox to the chimney flue that extends up and out of your home. Fire brick continues up the firebox and into the throat of the chimney.
- Damper – Many fireplaces have a damper in the chimney throat. The damper is a kind of valve that controls the airflow up the chimney. A chimney pulls warm air up and out of the fireplace. Without a damper, the chimney continues to pull warm air from your home even if you aren’t using the fireplace. The uncontrolled draft up the fireplace can cause your HVAC system to work overtime trying to keep your home warm.
- The Flue – Flue tiles line the chimney from the throat to the weather cap. Flue tiles are heat resistant and make a continuous sealed path for the fireplace smoke. If your flue tiles are damaged, the flue may not be airtight and may leak smoke back into your home.
- The Weather Cap – Every fireplace and chimney should have a weather cap. The weather cap sits on top of the chimney and does several different jobs. The weather cap prevents rain and snow from entering your chimney and fireplace. Birds and rodents are attracted to chimneys. A professionally installed weather cap prevents the invasion of birds and rodents into your chimney.
There are many other parts that you may find in a fireplace and chimney, depending on your home. These are the basic parts and are where most smoke issues originate.
Where the Problems Happen
Problems with smoke coming back into your home from your fireplace or a campfire odor if there is no fire in the fireplace are traceable to several problems. The problem may be with changes made to your home that you thought had nothing to do with the fireplace. You may also have maintenance or damage problems with your fireplace and chimney that can be the culprit.
A Change in Your Home
Additions to our home or even installing a new exhaust fan in a bathroom can lead to smoke problems. You need to understand pressures in your home and how they can affect your fireplace and chimney
A new HVAC system, an exhaust fan, or even an addition to your home can cause the pressures in your home to change. Anything that works to create a negative pressure inside your home can cause your fireplace and chimney to backdraft smoke into the interior.
There are countless articles about how pressures inside your home can negatively affect a fireplace and chimney. An imbalance in the pressures in your home can also affect the way heating and cooling equipment operate
If you suspect a problem with pressures inside your home, you should consult with a fireplace specialist or an HVAC technician to run a check on your home. These professionals can identify problems and offer you solutions.
Check the Chimney and Damper
Did you open the damper fully before you started a fire? It may surprise some people, but this is one of the most common causes of smoke backing into the room. Before you light a fire, always visually check that the damper is fully open.
A build-up of creosote and other fire products can keep the damper from operating properly. A visual check is your best method to ensure that the smoke has an unimpeded path to the outside. If you suspect a damaged or stuck damper, call a certified chimney sweep for help. More than likely, if the damper is stuck, the rest of your fireplace needs a good cleaning as well.
Is the Flue Open to the Outside?
If your weather cap is damaged or missing, animals or birds may have made a home in your flue. Birds’ nests and rodent nests can block chimneys quite effectively. In addition, these animal nests can become a fire hazard if they ignite inside the flue when you start a fire.
If you suspect that you have animal residents in your flue, a certified chimney sweep is your best bet. These professionals have the training and equipment to clean your chimney and put it back into good operational condition. The chimney sweep can also replace or repair the weather cap if it is missing or damaged.
Is the Flue Damaged?
Over time, flue tiles can age and weather. The mortar used in the joints between the tiles can also loosen and fall away. A damaged flue tile can crack and allow smoke to leak into the space around the tile and chimney. You may notice smoke smells in parts of the house far away from the chimney and fireplace.
Damaged flue tiles and loose mortar are extremely serious conditions. Not only does this kind of damage allow the products of combustion into your home, but hot gases may also escape and ignite a fire along the structure of the chimney.
Never ignore a damaged flue or chimney. If you suspect or your chimney sweep finds damage to the flue tiles, you need to find a fireplace and chimney builder who can repair the damage. Unfortunately, in some cases, this may involve disassembling the chimney and flue to make repairs. Such a job can be expensive.
The Issues of Maintenance
Just like any other piece of mechanical equipment, your fireplace and chimney need regular maintenance to operate efficiently. The downside of fireplace and chimney maintenance is the need for professionals to perform these jobs. Climbing to the top of a chimney and sweeping a flue requires special equipment that most homeowners won’t or can’t afford. Some of the areas that need routine maintenance on your fireplace and chimney include:
- The Firebox – Any fireplace and chimney maintenance should include a thorough examination of the firebox and the fire bricks. These firebricks can be damaged in several ways. The mortar used to build the firebox and begins to soften. If there is noticeable damage to the firebricks in the firebox and up the chimney’s throat, this needs a repair before using the fireplace again.
- The Damper and Smoke Shelf – Damage to the damper can manifest as smoky campfire odors coming back into your home when the fireplace is not in use. A damper that doesn’t close causes your HVAC to operate less efficiently. The smoke shelf and damper should be cleaned and checked at least once a year.
- The Flue – Cleaning and maintaining the flue on your chimney is a central issue for many homeowners. In most cases, have your flue cleaned at least once a season. If you burn lots of pine or other sappy wood, creosote buildup is a bigger problem, and we recommend additional seasonal cleanings.
- The Chimney and Weather Cap – Every cleaning should include an inspection of the exterior of your chimney and the weather cap. If cracks or damage affect the chimney’s exterior, a brick or stonemason should make repairs. Your chimney sweep can repair or replace a damaged weather cap.
Keeping your chimney and flue clean, understanding the balance of air pressures in your home, and operating your fireplace correctly will often reduce or eliminate smoke coming back into your home.
Enjoy Your Fireplace Without All the Smells
A bit of maintenance and understanding of the dynamics of air movement in your home can help you eliminate those campfire odors or smoke inside your home. Fireplaces are great additions to family homes. The crackling of a warm fire and the elegance of the burning logs create an ambiance that will make memories for everyone. Enjoy your fireplace safely.
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