Fireplace could be closer to reality than you think

Home Work

January 13, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

There's nothing like a rough winter to make you want to stow the snow shovel and curl up by the fire with a good book and some warm cider.

Unfortunately, some of us don't have fireplaces, or any place to ++ install a wood stove, which means we're simply out of that cozy picture.

Or maybe not.

A technologically advanced device that has been around for professional builders for a while is just making its way into the do-it-yourselfers' realm. It's the zero-clearance fireplace chimney system, and it can be installed without the complicated -- and expensive -- footings and masonry flue required for traditional fireplaces.

The system allows a lot more flexibility in the way the fireplace can be placed in the house. You can put the firebox flush with an exterior wall, with the flue on the outside boxed in and covered with siding to match the exterior of the house. Or you could put the unit in the middle of a large space and use it as a room divider, running the flue straight up through a wood-framed chimney through the roof of the house.

The largest piece of the system is the firebox, or the fireplace itself. Once that part is set, the lightweight metal chimney sections snap together, one atop the other, until they go out through the roof. There are also segments that will make a turn in the flue, provide a fire-stop at ceilings, and attach the flue to the framing as it goes up through the house. There are attachments that provide a fresh-air intake for combustion (so the fireplace doesn't waste your heated interior air) and adjustable dampers. And there are circulating blowers that circulate interior air around the firebox heating it up, and then send it back into the room.

There are a few points to consider in installing the system. If the floor is properly framed, you should not need extra support underneath to bear the weight of the fireplace. But check the manufacturer's specifications to make sure you are not overloading the floor. As with most installations, the framing is done first, then the firebox is set in and the chimney assembled. Most jurisdictions require a permit for the work, and it will have to be inspected before "close up," or covering the framing with wallboard or paneling.

If you cut openings in floors or roofs, the framing will need to be reinforced with headers (doubled joists or rafters) so loads are transferred to other parts of the structure.

Possibly the trickiest part of the installation is when a hole has to be cut in the roof. The roof will need to be repaired and properly flashed to the new chimney. If you're not an expert roofer, it's a good idea to hire one. A bad repair or inadequate flashing could lead to a major leak.

As with traditional fireplaces, the zero-clearance system requires noncombustible hearth. Check local codes to see what is needed. Some permit offices have had so many requests for this kind of information that they have printed a separate page of requirements for wood stove and fireplace installation.

The final item for any fireplace should be a good set of glass doors to keep warm air in the house. Romantic as it may be, a fireplace without glass doors is a real energy waster.

Before you decide to install a zero-clearance system, you might want to cruise the aisles of home-improvement centers. Fireplaces are, well, hot items, and there's plenty of product literature available to help you start planning your project.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a Sun staff writer.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St. Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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