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CHIMNEY INSPECTION DIAGNOSIS REPAIR
BACKDRAFTING HEATING EQUIPMENT
CARBON MONOXIDE - CO
CHIMNEY COMPONENT DEFINITIONS
CHIMNEY FIRE ACTION / PREVENTION
COMBUSTION GASES & PARTICLE HAZARDS
COMBUSTION PRODUCTS & IAQ
FLAME COLOR, BLUE vs YELLOW COMBUSTION
HOME HEATING SAFETY
Moisture / Frost Damaged Chimney
ODORS & SMELLS DIAGNOSIS & CURE
Safety Recalls, Chimneys, Vents, Heaters
STAIN DIAGNOSIS on BUILDING EXTERIORS
WOOD, COAL STOVES & FIREPLACES
WOOD STOVE SAFETY
Fireplace inserts: this article describes the antique and modern fireplace inserts used for wood, coal, or pellet fuel heating. We discuss fireplace inserts and zero-clearance fireplaces, both antique and modern, and their hazards and inspection limitations.
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Below we provide photographs of the exploration of the condition of a cast-iron "fireplace" or fireplace grate that was originally intended for burning large chunks of coal, probably soft coal. This installation was found in a home built in Poughkeepsie NY ca 1900 and restored by the author.
Watch out: Because a fireplace insert blocks direct access to the chimney flue from inside a building, the condition of an inaccessible flue is often unknown, and possibly dangerous fire or carbon monoxide hazards could be present. Expert inspection and cleaning are appropriate as at least an annual safety check. Our page top sketch of a typical fireplace insert is provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop & Associates.
Readers of this article should be sure to review Fireplace Damage & Unsafe Hearths, and also see FIREPLACE INSPECTIONS for a professional chimney sweep's fireplace and chimney hazard checklist. Readers should also see Inaccessible Connections Fireplace or Woodstove. Also see Chimney Inspection: Flue Interiors and ChimScan: Inspecting Flues by Cameras.
Working carefully so as not to damage the ceramic tile fireplace facade and hearth, we removed and disassembled this antique coal burning fireplace insert (burning wood in our photo) to inspect the condition and construction of the chimney flue (above right). The flue was un-damaged, needed cleaning, and was also a bit small for any expanded fuel use in this installation.
Our fireplace photos above show the back and top of this coal burning insert (above left) and the grate assembly (above right).
At below left we show the solid (8" or more) masonry firebox and the opening into a basement ash pit below this fireplace. Our reproduction of an antique fireplace grate insert (below right) was a Dixon's Low-Down Grate. Low fireplace grates were intended for use over an ash pit opening. For upper floor rooms where no ash pit connection was possible, Dixon sold an Elevated Fire Grate.
The installation of low cast iron fire grates over an ash pit was made as shown in this sketch. Dixon's design intended to draw combustion air for the fire from the basement (cellar) or from outside, not from the room being heated - a design considered proper practice in modern homes and required by code in some areas. Here is another beautiful antique fireplace opening cover/grate observed in Minneapolis and contributed by Roger Hankey.
Watch out: some older homes used a shared flue among fireplaces and heating appliances on different floors - a practice that is considered unsafe and is prohibited today.
Details about this topic are now at FIREPLACE INSPECTION PRE-FAB - separate article. Excerpts are below
The clearance to combustibles is not "zero" but one or more inches, depending on the materials, construction, and manufacturers' instructions.
In fact it is just about impossible to see the condition of these components and their connections unless the insert is removed or inspected from above using a chimney inspection camera system.
If a woodstove/free-standing fireplace like this were to be used it would probably require at least three feet of clearance from combustibles.
Local codes and fire regulations need to be consulted, and in most jurisdictions, a building permit and safety inspection are required for the installation of a woodstove or similar device.
See WOOD STOVE SAFETY for important details and also see Chimney Safety Alert for Wood Burning Appliances - US CPSC Alert Document 5017, wood stoves, fireplace.
More help with inspecting chimney flue interiors can be found in these articles:
Chimney Inspection: Flue Interiors
Often when a fireplace insert has been installed, the original fireplace damper has been modified (cut to pass the flue vent connector) or simply removed entirely. If you are discontinuing a fireplace insert, you may need to repair or replace the fireplace damper, or perhaps install a chimney-top damper instead.
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