I have a prefabricated “pre-fab” fireplace if...

1. The outside of my chimney is siding material just like my house.
2. The top of my chimney is covered with a metal chase-top cover.
3. Inside my fireplace, my damper is round and metal.
4. Inside my fireplace there is light colored “brick-like” panels.
5. The face of my fireplace has metal vents on top and bottom.

Note- some prefab chimneys are surrounded with stucco so be sure to observe the top (see the tip below).


I have a masonry fireplace if...

1. I see brick, block, stucco, or stone on the outside.
2. I can see part of the orange clay  terra-cotta liner sticking out the top.
3. Inside my fireplace, my damper is rectangular and made of cast-iron.
4. My firebox is lined with real bricks and not “brick-like” panels.
5. There is a clean-out door in the bottom of my fireplace to brush away ashes.


Cast-iron vs Steel

Ah, the war between Cast-iron lovers and those passionate about Steel has been a non-stop battle over the past few decades.  A rather heated one, I might add, pun surely intended, with neither side backing down or willing to relinquish ground.  My role as a lifelong hearth salesman, stuck in the middle of these two titans, has granted me an unbiased perspective towards both of their plights. I give you the facts.

(Note this comparison is to be used on freestanding stoves not inserts since all inserts are steel regardless of their outer appearance.)

1. Burn Time
A quality steel stove will usually burn anywhere form 20-50% longer than a comparable cast stove.  ( This is a result of how the baffle systems in each can be situated and most steel’s have bigger fireboxes)

2. Efficiency
Both stove styles can reach quite high levels of efficiency, though some steel’s can occasionally peak just a bit higher.

3. BTU
Typically steel stoves radiate much more heat than cast giving them a higher BTU rating.  

“By the way,  when reading brochures, be careful that the ratings you are getting come from a reputable testing source and not the stove company itself.  Let’s face it, we all like to think we are a little more productive than we are.”

4. Heat Retention
Yes, cast iron does hold heat longer than steel.  This has to do with the thickness of the metal.  However, a warm stove doesn’t really heat the house much, a hot stove does.  So when choosing a stove, focus more on its ability to create heat and hold it in its firebox rather than hold it in its shell.  Retaining heat is good, but not paramount.

5. Feel
Steel stoves tend to have a powerful heat feeling when in proximity where as cast stoves feel a bit mellower to the skin.  For example, in the living room where seating is close,  cast tends to be a little more comfortable and less intense.  

6. Slitting
Both cast and steel have the ability to split if wildly over-fired.  All the more reason to choose a quality stove with more thickness with a trustworthy guarantee.

7. Looks
-Aesthetically, nothing is more beautiful than a well designed cast-iron stove to compliment your furniture and be a centerpiece to your decor.  As for Steel, well, they do look a bit industrial.   They are coming out with some contemporary steels that look sharp, if that is your style, but most people choose cast for the look.

-Either choice you make, for most homes, as long as you choose quality, your stove should have enough heating ability to offer the adequate heat you need.

Note- if you are wondering why I have not included a “soap-stone” stove, here is why...

There is not one good, well built soap-stone stove.  Use my “Tom’s 10point” and evaluate any of them and  they all come up short.  All I offer is the truth.  Bring me one that is worthy and I will gladly remit my statement,  I like the concept.


What is seasoned wood?

The term “seasoned” wood came about a few centuries ago when almost everyone’s main source of heat was wood.  After cutting, splitting, and stacking the cut trees, usually in spring or summer,  the old-time-wood-burners would let the wood sit until the winter season was upon them.  Time to burn? NO!  They would point to the five to seven month old pile of wood and say something like, “Ney, we must not useth tis pile of wood for it haveth too much water and lest it clog our chimneys.” Then, “Here ye here ye, tis pile of wood be ready next season.”  So, the wood must be unused through a burn season which usually is around 13 months or more.  To have skipped a burn season means seasoned.

Tips your wood is seasoned.

1. Banging two pieces together, the sound is higher in pitch and has a “clonck” sound in seasoned vs a lower “thud” type sound in moist wood.
2. The bark is loose or falling off.
3. There is no smell to the wood.  Unless of course it is something like cedar, but usually it should be odorless.  Unseasoned wood is stinky.
4. Seasoned wood feels relatively lighter than wet wood.
5. The sides of the pieces are darkening or greying in dry wood.  


Why and how often should I clean my chimney?

Any system that omits smoke has the ability to have some of that smoke to “cool” enough before exiting the chimney and collect on the inner walls in the form of creosote.  In the case of wood burning, unburned hydro-carbons are still highly volatile and could present a possible fire inside the flue if allowed to reach unsafe quantities.   

As a general rule, one should have their chimney serviced every season or every chord and a half of wood.   Note- any unusual behavior of your system, should be relayed to your trusted neighborhood sweep immediately for advice.


Are catalytic converters good to have on wood stoves?

NO!  There was a period of time in the evolution of wood stoves when manufacturers where striving to come up with the most efficient stoves possible.  During this time many technologies were attempted, some were big sellers because of concepts, but really only one proved itself to be highly efficient and maintain the same level of efficiency for the life of the stove.  That technology is the secondary air intake used across well designed baffles.

Vent-free vs Direct Vent

Vent-free fireplaces are like imitation sugars, I guess they’re ok in moderation?

Vent-free fireplaces should never be used for heating purposes.  They are for use over limited periods of time and for enjoyment only.   Direct-vent fireplaces are closed-air systems and can be used as heating appliances.  They do offer tremendous heat and, in many cases, can offset the overall heating cost to the home.

How can I get my wood stove or fireplace from smoking?

I hear hypnotism works...  if that is not an option, please read on.

Draft is achieved because of several different imbalances in nature.  Temperature and pressure are the most relevant to chimneys.  Think of hot-air balloons and vacuums.   Negative pressure in the living quarters closest to the fireplace accounts for 90% of all down drafts.  This is caused because air is warmed in the home and naturally rises up and eventually out the roof.  Unless fresh air finds its way in through windows or doorways to replace this lost air, a “ vacuum” is created in the home.  Once the damper is opened to the fireplace, cold fresh air will come down quickly to try to equalize this imbalance and, if you have lit a fire, here also comes the smoke.

I have a downdraft prone chimney if...

1. I have new air-tight windows.
2. I have high ceilings and even an opening to the upstairs where much warm air travels to the second floor.
3. My stove or fireplace is in the basement.
4. When I open my damper, I feel cold air.

Tips to starting a fireplace that is downdraft-ing.

1. Open the damper or stove door.  If you feel cold, air that is outside air coming from the top of your chimney, no good.   If you feel nothing, that means that the room temperature air is passing your hand and the chimney is drafting correctly.
2. Open a window to the outside lose to the fireplace.  This will equalize the pressure in the room where the draft is needed.  Once the draft reverses, you should be good.
3. Pre-heating the flue works sometimes.  This is holding a lit piece of newspaper up into the flue above the damper.  The desire for hot air wanting to rise should be able to overcome a downdraft, though be sure to try step two first.

Is my hearth protections deep enough for my fireplace or stove?

Although local codes and product specifications should be observed first, most products and fireplaces require 18 inches from opening to edge.