Monday, January 14, 2008

In Which I Become an Assistant Chimney Sweep!


Well, our January thaw is over. We had a nice one. It was almost seventy degrees two days in a row, and up into the 40's and 50's a few more days on top of that. We were lucky, because we've been having wood stove issues for a week or two. The chimney which was just newly installed in October and not used until November was not drawing so well, and more smoke was coming out through the dampers as the days went on. I pulled the cap on the cleanout at the bottom of the stove and did the trick with the mirror. You kind of angle the mirror so you can see up to the top of the chimney. I assumed it was okay, because I could see light. Not a lot of light, but our chimney does wear a little metal hat, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Unfortunately, a few days after I checked the chimney and figured it was okay, smoke started coming out the bottom at the cleanout opening and also from the sides of the stove.

My mom had been chomping at the bit to pull apart the chimney and see if it needed cleaned for a while, and we had even made a trip to the hardware store and got a chimney brush. We were a little leery of spending money on the little rods you use to shove the brush down the chimney. I'm not sure how many we would need, and they seemed kind of expensive. Luckily, where we live, there a lot of people who think like we do. The hardware store guy showed us this little metal eye that screws onto the top of the chimney brush and told us if there were two people and a rope involved, you could pull the brush up and down the chimney from either end. I was like: "We have a rope!" which is a running joke in our family, and that is a story that I need to save for another day. Let me just say that our "rope" is a giant skein of macrame cord for making flower pot hangers that has served many purposes and has been the center of many funny happenings around our place, mostly because it is really stretchy and not a rope.

Note: All chimney brushes are not the same. Chimney flues are different sizes and shapes. My uncle has this fantastic expanding contraption made of metal wires that is probably thirty years old to clean his chimney which is quite wide and also round. Our old chimney was lined with what looked like flowerpot tile, and it was eight inches wide and impossible to find a proper sized brush. We were reduced to tying a hoe to a piece of clothesline and dropping it down the old chimney to get the ash and creosote to fall out. Our new chimney brush for our six inch round stainless steel pipe is made of stiff plastic bristles, because you can't clean a metal chimney with a metal brush because it will score the chimney and ruin it.

Well, once we decided to quit argueing about whether the chimney needed cleaned and decided to clean it, we were pretty much okay. Especially since our warm weather was continuing! We let the fire go out on Saturday, which was funny since my sister and her husband and the kids were at the house. They were kind enough to bring their good ladder, as we have only step ladders which aren't quite tall enough to reach anything. My sister cooked some lunch, and I made cookies with my niece and played video games with my nephew. (Since they got the wii at their house, the Gamecube has been parked down here. I haven't used it yet, but if I ever get through a day where I actually complete my to-do list, I'm going to town and getting a rootbeer and I'll drink pop and play Star Wars Legos!) While all that stuff was going on, my brother in law was down in the little patch of woods below the grape vines that we plan to clear and replant as an orchard in a few years, cutting down trees. We have a whole game plan for every inch of this place, and in the spring, we're going to have a woodchipper rental party. Everything is a party!

Anyway, right after supper, I noticed the thermometer on the pipe was cool, and we decided to start ripping the stove and chimney assembly apart. I like to describe our house as a little toy house that girls can take apart and fix. Our roof is not steep, and it's not tall. If we needed to, we could roof it ourselves, and we did have to climb up there and nail some of it back together over the summer after a particularly huge gust of wind. All the plumbing in the basement is exposed, so if and when there is a problem, it won't be hard to get to. With this in mind, we have kind of the same arrangement with the blackpipe that connects the stove to the chimney. There is actually a couple inch gap in the pipe between the chimney connector and the main length of pipe so it's easy to pull the pipe apart without having to move the stove or anything. All you need to do is unscrew a couple of bolts and remove this funny little collar thing. Of course, you need furnace cement to patch it all together in the end, but that's easy enough.

When we pulled blackpipe, a lot of ash and creosote fell out. I of course stuck my hand right into the connector hole, and I found a little creosote and a little ash, but nothing terrible. Creosote is the black, glassy stuff that builds up in the chimney and is, as our stove guy told me many times, the solid form of natural gas and highly flammable. It can be dusty and grainy or in big chunks. It's also sharp and splintery. Naturally, everyone else went up on the roof to mess around up there, and I had my three year old neice in her bare feet running around in the basement sweeping up creosote! I had to throw out the cat who is declawed because he kind of maimed the little girl of his first owner, and he was not happy about being thrown out, but he would have been less happy when he saw how the baby treats cats!

At the top of the chimney, things were not good. The little metal hat that is supposed to keep the rain out was basically tarred into place by dirty chimney exhaust. When they got that off, the chimney itself was almost completely blocked by a lump of gross junk that wasn't quite creosote or ashes or tar. My brother in law had to punch through it, and that gave me and the kid some more horrible stuff to clean up down below.

After they got the pipe cleared, it turns out that either our six inch pipe is a little less than six inches or our six inch brush is a little more, because the chimney brush was too fat to fit down the chimney. Luckily, I have seen a real, actual chimney professional trim down a brush, so I knew what to do. We called it quits for the day, however, because the kids were getting tired and filthy, and my mom and my sister's husband were sitting up n the roof trimming the brush on the spot, which was just too silly. After worrying about the integrity of our "rope" and seeing it stretch so much as we tried to get the brush down into the chimney, I conceded and made a trip into town for a new and better rope. We would try again the next morning!

Sunday morning, we had to wait until the frost was off the roof. We also had to run the little propane furnace, which I don't care for. It also scares my dog and dries out the air worse than wood heat even!

A night of preparation had my mom and I looking not half bad in the chimney sweeping department. I had a new rope. I plunked down and watched football and evened up the bristles on the brush with the ones my brother in law already trimmed. (You use regular old wire cutters for this, but I advise getting ones with a padded handle, since there is a lot of clipping involved. Also, watch where the bristles end up. If you trim a wire brush out on the porch, you'll want to catch them in something like a box or a bag, since they can be sharp, and you don't want to find them with your bare feet later.) I had also rounded up some safety equipment. We both used respirator masks, and my mom wore a pair of shooting glasses, since she was roof girl, and the draft of the chimney will send up lots of debris that just shoots up into your face while you're looking down the chimney.

After all the troubles we had earlier, everything now worked like a charm. On the ground, we found the middle of the rope, and ran it through the rings on either end of the brush. I sat in the basement next to the cleanout hole. My mom on the roof tied a wrench to the rope to get it to fall down the hole. We ran the brush (which actually might be too small now) up and down the chimney. When I heard more junk falling in a certain spot, we would pull either end of the rope to scrub the brush back and forth. After things quieted down, we ran the brush up and down a dozen times or so just to make sure. The trick with the mirror revealed a nice, round hole of light up the chimney. If it's still dirty in places, theoretically, you can spot blobs and lumps in the side with the mirror. We put the cap back on and swept up downstairs. We also gave the stove a good clean out and replaced the blackpipe. My mom spread furnace cement in the joins. It is like black, high temperature spackling to fill in any gaps between pipe sections. We waited a while for the cement to set and started the fire back up by afternoon. It drew well, and everything has been good!

We were all shocked at how dirty and dangerous the chimney had become. It was hard to believe that with a new stove and a tight, new chimney, burning seasoned hickory, there would be so much creosote. The only thing that I can think is that during the holidays, we were running around a lot and weren't home to make sure the fire was buring at the proper temperature range for most of the day. And, I believe that the buildup in the chimney probably followed one of those exponential event curves, meaning, as more and more built up, the fire burned cooler, and the effect of the problem increased the severity of the problem. Like a sinking ship or something. Slow beginning, quick end!

I also got to see an unfortunate side effect of a poor chimney in action. When we were looking into getting a new woodstove over the summer, the gentleman who sold us our stove and relined our chimney told us that the chimney was more important than, and that if we hooked a new stove to a bad chimney, the new stove would just rust out. I wasn't exactly sure why, but I did see a light coating of oxidation formed over the interior of the stove when the chimney wasn't drawing well. I tried to find a reason for this, and it may be due to corrosive gases not being consumed or flushed out of the burnbox. A nice, hot fire will make a clean burn, but you can't get the kind of convection you need to acheive that without a good draw.

We have a date in early March picked out to pull the stove apart again and give the chimney a good scrub. Hopefully, that will take care of it until fall, and the weather will be good!

A Housekeeping Note:

My older dog had an accident on one of my spot rugs in the kitchen this morning. It has a rubber backing, so I didn't want to throw it in the washing machine because of weight and also, I didn't want the backing to get knocked to pieces by the washing machine. So, I ran hot water into the bathtub and added a little laundry soap and a little borax to kill any dog pee smell. An older friend of mine told me a story once about how when she was just married and her husband was in the navy, he had only one set of dress whites. She didn't have a washing machine, and she didn't have any money or time to go the the laundry every single day, so she washed his dress whites in the bathtub using a toilet plunger, soap and bleach.

I'm a big fan of the toilet plunger story, and before I had a washing machine, I plunged the wash a few times myself. I recommend washing the plunger first or even having two: one for washing and one for the original purpose. If you're going to handwash larger amounts of everyday wash, a toilet plunger is better than a washboard. I've used both, and a washboard helps if you don't have a wringer, so you can squeeze more water out of the clothes, but the plunger gets things cleaner with less scrubbing and bending. And for large items like rugs, you can't beat the toilet plunger.

No comments: