Energy Fixer: Chimney Check

How do you make an older house more energy efficient? This year, we’re following Sarah, a PGE employee, as she updates a 55-year-old, 1,500 square-foot, all-electric house, which she purchased in November 2014.

Fireplace: friend or foe?

When Sarah purchased her home last year, the classic brick-front, wood-burning fireplace was definitely a selling feature. It provided an attractive focal point for the living room, and who doesn’t enjoy the age-old idea of cozying up next to a crackling fire on a cold night?

Sarah also likes the security of knowing the fireplace can serve as emergency heat for her and her girls if a big winter storm knocks out power for a while. (She also keeps her outage kit handy!)

But the fireplace has a drawback. It can let outside air into the house and draw conditioned air out. Think about it: A chimney is designed to draw smoke up and out of the house. So, when a fire is burning, the heated air of a home is drawn up the chimney too.

Don’t burn up energy dollars

To cut heat loss when using her fireplace, Sarah follows the steps recommended by Energy.gov: She opens the window nearest the fireplace just a crack, closes doors leading into her living room, and lowers her ductless heat pump setting a smidge. The fireplace then draws from this outside air source rather than the heated air of the home. (It also helps prevent her home from becoming smoky.)

In addition, Sarah uses her fireplace only occasionally. “It’s not an everyday thing. Just once in a while it’s fun to curl up in front of the fire with my daughters.” If she used it frequently, she’d consider getting an insert that increases the efficiency of a fireplace.

Topping it off

Even when not in use, Sarah’s wood-burning fireplace can be an energy leaker.

During her home energy audit earlier this year, a thermal imaging camera revealed that her fireplace leaked a lot of air, even with the fireplace doors and damper closed.

“I’d heard about inflatable draft stoppers — they’re kind of like an inflatable pillow — that you tuck up in front of the closed damper to block energy loss,” Sarah said. “But the audit technician suggested a chimney cap damper might be a better idea because it’s easy to open and close. I wouldn’t have to remember to reach up and remove the inflatable pillow each time I had a fire.”

A standard chimney cap prevents rain, birds and animals from entering the chimney. It also helps blocks embers from floating up out of the flue and starting a fire on the roof or in the yard. But a chimney cap sealing damper has the added benefit of sealing off the flue when the fireplace is not in use to stop conditioned air from leaving the house.

“I thought it was a great suggestion. The regular damper right above the fireplace blocks some air loss, but the second damper — the sealing chimney cap — will block a lot more,” Sarah said.

A chimney cap damper runs around $200, not including installation.

More fireplace tips

Coming up

Next month in Energy Fixer, we look at one of the biggest energy users in a home: water heating.

*Source: EnergySavers.gov
**Source: Energy Trust of Oregon