Ask the Expert:
Q: What are some simple and inexpensive ways that we can cut down our heating expenses this winter and save ourselves some money?
Let's say you have a wood-burning fireplace that in the wintertime makes your house feel cold. What can you do to mitigate this? My advice is to simply not build a fire whenever it is cold outside. That may sound counterintuitive but once you have a draft established in the chimney preheated room air will be pulled from the house. We all know that warm air rises and once that process is underway it won't stop until the chimney approaches the ambient air temperature of the room that the fireplace is located in. If the house is a bit on the drafty side the ensuing negative air pressure created by the fire will draw in cold air from the outdoors and your central heating system will be required to work overtime to keep the thermostat satisfied. If you have a tight energy-efficient house, but no provision for makeup air, the chimney may struggle to maintain a draft. The smoke will always take the path of least resistance and, therefore, could begin spilling into the room. Closing the damper before the fire is completely out (that means no hot coals lurking within the bed of ashes) could result in carbon monoxide escaping into the house. Most fireplaces installed in Alaska homes in the ’60s through the mid ’80s were better designed for the California weather. They are known in the industry as zero clearance factory-built fireplaces and are typically vented by an air-cooled, triple-walled chimney. Your best bet is to seal the area around the damper with insulation and, if your fireplace is so equipped, close the glass doors. Make sure all members of the family know that the fireplace has been shut down for the winter. Hopefully that way a fire won't be started without first removing the insulation. A wood-burning or gas-fired insert installed inside the fireplace opening would do wonders toward heating your house and saving on your winter heating bill.