At High’s Chimney, we’ve been offering chimney service in Rockville for a few a few decades now, and we’ve learned that old masonry chimneys are pretty common here in Rockville, and they also often have a few of the same issues. Below is our advice to new owners of old masonry chimneys.
So you’ve found your dream home here in Rockville, say a little four-bedroom number with an extra bathroom and that kitchen you’ve always wanted. Best of all, it’s got a great traditional brick hearth with a new gas fireplace installed. You write the check, make your deposit, take out your mortgage, move-in and live happily ever after – except, after a few months of ever after, the family room ceiling turns brown with water damage, the paint around the chimney is peeling off, and you’re ninety percent certain that Rocky AND Bullwinkle have taken up residence in your flue. Unbelievably, we’ve actually seen this kind of thing happen to homeowners in the past. Although not the most apparent problem area, the chimney of a home can provide some real headaches for homeowners who aren’t careful and don’t do their homework when buying an older Maryland home.
Take a step back
The first place you should start when inspecting an older home for any chimney related issues is actually outside, and pretty far away from the house itself – far enough that you have a clear view of the chimney. The first thing you want to look at it is also the simplest to fix – does the chimney have a cover, or ‘cap’, on top? If not, it’s a very warm and inviting place for wildlife to set-up shop and nest. This can lead to some pretty serious problems, including major house fires, and should be a priority to check.
Ask if the current or previous homeowner used the fireplace frequently, and if they had a chimney cleaning service come and sweep the chimney at all. As a rule of thumb, a chimney should be swept once every 2-3 years if it’s in use twice or more times a week, and every year if it’s being used on a daily basis during the winter months. If they haven’t used the fireplace frequently and the chimney is uncapped, make sure you have a sweep come by to inspect for any signs of a nesting animal before using your new fireplace and have them install a cover with screened sides on top of your chimney to prevent any future unwanted guests. Additionally, the cover will prevent water from simply falling into your chimney and potentially damaging the interior of the chimney or home.
The next thing you should try and appraise is the overall condition of the chimney itself. The mortar and bricks should all be intact, and the seam (or flashing) where the chimney connects to the roof should look sealed and seamless. Broken or ‘spalled’ bricks indicate that the chimney hasn’t been treated with a proper sealant or an incorrect mortar was used, leading to damage from the freezing and melting of seasonal rains and snow. If those areas look damaged or less than 100%, they can be expensive to repair or replace, so take that into consideration when deciding on the home.
Lastly, and most basically, check the angle of the chimney itself. It should be straight and perpendicular to the ground. If the chimney is leaning away from the house, or towards it, it might be repairable, but be prepared to invest in having the chimney rebuilt.
What ‘Dries’ Beneath
After you’ve appraised the overall condition of the exterior of the chimney, come back inside and inspect the hearth and fireplace.
If it’s rained recently, check the floor of the fireplace for any water or moisture. This could indicate a leak in the flashing of the roof, or something potentially more serious, and could be signs of major damage to the roof itself.
Next, if the fireplace is still wood burning, check the flue for any build-up of creosote or obvious damage to the flue itself, such as damaged or missing ceramic tiles. Damage to the flue can lead to exposure to harmful gasses inside your house as well as additional damage to other parts of your home, and high build-ups of creosote are flammable and can lead to chimney fires.
If the home has a gas fireplace installed, check and ensure that a flue liner has been fitted into the chimney to prevent moisture damage. Gas fireplaces have lower temperature fumes that hold a lot of moisture, and that tends to lead to condensation on the walls of the chimney. This, in turn, can soak into the bricks and cause damage to the mortar or damage to the interior-facing walls of the chimney itself.
Consider bringing in a Professional
The story at the beginning of this article detailing the nightmare chimney problems was actually not an old wives tale that we cooked up to scare you; that was the true story of a customer who, unfortunately, didn’t do due diligence on an older home they had purchased with a renovated gas fireplace. The fireplace didn’t have a properly sized liner installed in the oversized chimney, and thusly moisture began collecting on the interior of the chimney, soaking the bricks and eventually doing enormous amounts of damage to the interior walls surrounding the chimney. The homeowner tried several repairs and wasted thousands of dollars before bringing us in to inspect. Bringing in a quality professional can save you from the same nightmare and prevent you from wasting thousands of dollars on expensive repairs or DIY fixes for obscure problems much more easily diagnosed by a professional.