Fireplace challenge


Good morning,
I am having an ongoing fireplace saga that I am hoping the good folks here can help me with. We just bought a townhouse this fall, built in 1973, with a fireplace. To make a long story short, here's the timeline of what's been going on.
Fireplace was sealed (opening covered in plastic wrap) when we bought the house. We unsealed it. Fire burns fine, but smoke smell and strong draft pours in when not in use.
Did some research, found out about negative pressure - the house seals like Tupperware so this makes a lot of sense for us. We opened a window in the basement next to the furnace. No change.
Brought in a professional to do the sweep/inspection that we should have done in the first place. He cleans out the chimney, fixes the damper that was apparently never closing, removes an interred squirrel of great antiquity. He also replaces the crown and says water has been leaking in and causing mold for a long time.
The draft problem is now completely fixed, but the strong smell still fills the living room and creeps around the house from there - a foul, wet, moldy-sooty smell.
So I see two angles here. One is trying to improve the condition that is still causing the fireplace air to come in. The other is dealing with the nasty smell in the fireplace. But this is so far out of my realm of experience, I am not sure. I don't mind a little soot smell, I understand that's part of owning a fireplace, but you can't stay in that room and breathe without opening a window.
What should we do? Will a steady regiment of fires and ventilation improve things over time? Is there something more drastic we will need to do? Is there something that might kill the mold we suspect is up there? We think the fireplace may have been sealed from the inside but exposed and leaking to the outside for the 12 years the previous owners lived here. Is there an air-tight plasic cover or something we could fit over it when not in use?
Any help would greatly be appreciated.
MK
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I don't know anything about fireplaces. But one possible solution comes to mind. Rent one of those propane fired contractor space heaters. Run that for a few hours into the fireplace to dry out and fireplace flue and hopefully kill the mold and spores. Do this only in warm weather and with your windows open so that you won't poison gas yourself. Also never leave the heater unattended and have fire safety equipment at hand in case of a fire. Ask someone knowledgeable about the heater on operating safety.
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The stink is not mold. That has probably been long gone with fires. The stink will go on about forever though, unless you stop the downdraft. Light a candle and hold it in front of the fp opening. Chances are, there is a slight draft coming down and bringing the odor with it. Gets worse on damp days.
There are chimney caps that close off at the top and are controlled by a chain inside the fireplace. They are spring loaded and pup open when the chain is released. That should solve most of the problem. Keeps critters out also.
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You might have had another critter get in there and expire?
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I'd start with a call to the chimney sweep. He probably has a guarantee.
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Thanks everyone for your good advice. The plot has thickened and unfortunately I think it's for the worse. We are going to give the fireplace a thorough draft test as suggested. We double-checked and we don't have an ashpit. However hubby is out of town and I am swamped so we figured to seal it back up until he comes home and we have time to work on it together.
The fireplace was sealed with plastic wrap when we bought the house and all was well. While the damper was stuck open and we had a downdraft problem, we resealed it with a garbage bag and packing tape, and all was well. This time, after the damper has been closed, we sealed it back up the same way. The room STILL reeks.
I opened the windows and turned on the attic fan to air it out and it became apparent that air was still being sucked through the fireplace and into the room from somewhere. I noticed air coming out strongly from cracks in the mortar on the base of the hearth, as well as some air coming in where the wooden decorative fireplace molding meets the brick fireplace. I taped up every drafty space I could find and it's still leaking. You can tell when the furnace turns on when the plastic bows out and you notice the smell immediately. I can only guess that this didn't become apparent before because so much air was coming right down the chimney from the top. I hope that this does not mean there are cracks in the brickwork somewhere. Rebuilding the chimney is out of the question right now.
A phone call to the chimney sweep who swore we'd never need to seal it again is also on today's agenda.
MK
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Yep, that attic fan will suck air right down the chimney.
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MK wrote:

How about the other units in the townhouse? Have you checked with them about their use or non-use of the fireplaces? Perhaps you are drawing the musty air from cracks in the chimney inside the house, like from the attic or basement. You did say you got a draft from the chimney baseboard. Perhaps you can start there. You might check about getting the chimney relined. I saw some system where a giant rubber tube is inserted into the chimney from the top. The tube is inflated and concrete is poured around the tube. When the concrete is dry, the tube is deflated and pulled out.
--
Bill
in Hamptonburgh, NY
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If there is an ashpit door in the floor of the fireplace, you could have a batch of old wet ashes down there. Your description of the smell certainly sounds like an old wet ash pile.
Harry K
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Close the damper when you're not using the fireplace.
--
Regards,
Doug Miller (alphageek at milmac dot com)
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I'm wondering if your chimney is ceramic or a metal pipe up a wooden supporting shaft. Mold should not survive heat in metal or ceramic but if leakage was into wood, that could be source.
I have a fireplace in my family room that I'm going to seal off and put in an electric insert. Even though damper works and I have sealed with glass screens, suction from nearby furnace brings odor into room. Does not bother me but wife is sensitive to smoke. A second fireplace in den does not have this problem.
Frank
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Put the lit candle into the base of the fireplace (with no fire going of course!) and see which way the flame goes - towards the living area it is a downdraft problem, straight up into the chimney it is a good draft up. For what it's worth a chimney in the middle of a structure is more likely to have a better draft then one on the side or end of the structure that is exposed to air. If there was no smell after the cleaning for a few days it is either a critter or as suggested before wet ashes in the cleanout. Open the cleanout door and check for dead critters and/or moisture.

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you said the chimney was leaking. Where was the leak? If it was leaking through the mortar or exterior brickwork, capping it won't make any diffrence. It is very possible that there is a leak at the roof line (where the chimney intersect the roof), at (or near) ground level, or somewhere in between. If that is the case, everytime it rains you'll get a new crop of mold. You are also slowly rotting out the mortar that holds the chimney together.
something important to check - many houses built in the 70s have a ash trap and cleanout at the bottom of the chimney. clean ou thte fireplace, and take a look at the floor - is there a metal panel or something that looks like it should come out? if there is, its probably an ash trap - just a door you shove the ash down when you clean out the fireplace. They collect at the bottom of the chimney, where any live cinders can safely go out, and where it is easy to clean up. Even if you can;t find the ash trap, go into the basement and find the bottom of the chimney (in some cases they are located outside, so check around there too). what you are looking for is a smallish door somewhere down around the bottom of the chimney. If you can find it, open it up and clean out anytyhing thats in there. You'll probably find old birds nests, random trash, probably some ash, and who know what else..... Shovel it all out, and if you're feeling like really making sure things are clean, shove a shop vac nozzle in there and suck whatever is left out.....
Presumably your chimney has some sort of liner in it, Even if it does, a leak in the chimney itself could let water in between the chimney and liner...
Opening a basement window should be more than enough to eliminate any backdraft caused by a furnace.
Try the candle trick that folks have suggested, but add these steps: first, make sure your furnace is off (nor running) Which way does the candle flame go? If it is going towards the house and not towards the chimney, you're getting a downdraft fdrom somewhere besides the furnace. Make sure all of your fans, blowers etc are turned off and try again. If the candle is still blowing inward, try closing the flu and chimney cap. If its stil lblowing inwards, you have a major leak somewhere in the chimney structure (either that or ghosts)...
OK, with the furnace off, if the candle blows towards the fireplace, you have an updraft (this is hwat you want). Try turning the furnace on, nad see if the candle blows in to the house instead. If it does, your furnace is causing the downdraft. If it still blows towards the fireplace, try closing the basement window, and with the furnace on see which way the candle blows.....
Once you know which way the air is going, you can start addressing the problem..... I have done restoration work on homes where people burned lots of paper, pine, and basically trash, and all the crap that condenses out on the chimney has actually soaked all the way through and caused a smell inside the house. I that case we had to actaully teasr out and replace the chimney.... If yours is only 30 years old, and not used much, you shouldn't have any problems like that.....
Good luck
-JD

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Yes- Proclean and Mycodyne. Proclean will clean the fireplace and seal the mold that is there. The Mycodyne will prevent the mold from growing back. Comes with a 25 year warranty.
Mold Shield LLC www.Moldshield.org
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MK - I had a problem with a zero clearance fireplace that had bad breath like described especially when I burned hard wood that was not quite seasoned enough (like only 1 year drying). What worked well for me was to install a Chimney Balloon low right above the damper above the hearth opening. I also took a wide popcorn bowl with about a half liter of vinegar in it and set it in the livingroom during my work day (9 hours) to neutralize the smell. The vinegar took the smell away and the Chimney Balloon kept the smell in the Chimney. Problem was solved...
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Hello,
I just thought I'd post an update and the conclusion of my fireplace saga, in case it's of use to the next person looking for fireplace help.
First we called the fireplace guys back, who said the old damper maybe wasn't working after all and also found more suicidal squirrels. They removed them, and installed a new damper with cage.
There was no improvement with the draft, only it was more smoke and less foul. We were considering our options and were going to call and give the chimney guys hell.
We decided to get one of those chimney pillows as a temporary stopgap until we could get the problem solved once and for all. In the meantime, we noticed that bricks on both shoulders of the fireplace were loose and there was lots of cracked mortar and moss. There was no direct evidence that this was causing the draft - no air coming out, the lining was intact under the bricks, that we could see at any rate. But it was clear that this was only going to get worse if water and plant life kept getting in and we didn't want bricks to start falling off the chimney.
So hubby bought a chimney pillow and some sort of masonry cement caulk and glued the loose bricks and filled in the large cracks.
Instant cure. We weren't even trying to fix the draft problem, and I still don't know exactly where the leak was coming from, but this fixed it. We still get some smell when the heat or certain fans are on, but that's expected. The chimney baloon will fix probably that. In the meantime, without the baloon, we've had the fireplace unsealed for a month and it's been fine.
Thanks again for everyone's help. MK
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