Q: I live in an older home. I think it was built about 1930. It’s two stories and has a masonry fireplace in the ground-floor living room. The home has natural-gas central heating and a gas water heater. The fireplace is wood burning and I enjoy sitting in the living room in the winter in front of a fire.
Some friends installed a masonry fireplace in an addition they built to their home a few miles away. They included a gas starter when they had the fireplace built. I really like the convenience when they want to start a fire. No newspaper, no kindling — just push the button and light the fire.
I’d like to have a gas starter installed in my fireplace, but I’m a little apprehensive about adding it to the old system. What do you think? Should I go for it? What precautions should I take?
A: We think gas starters are a great idea. As you said, they take almost all the work out of building a fire — just push the button.
Of course, to get that convenience means you’ll have to provide electricity and a gas line to the fireplace. Retrofitting a gas starter to an existing fireplace is not a huge job, but it does come with some challenges and there are a few things you should be cautious about.
This project is not one for a do-it-yourselfer. Unless you are experienced working with wiring in older homes and you are comfortable fitting gas piping, this is a job better left to the pros.
While it’s true that Kevin ran the gas lines and Bill did all the wiring in Kevin’s home, we’d had a lot of experience with wiring and piping prior to taking on those jobs. Bill had the good fortune to befriend an electrician he’d hired for one of his projects who let him work along and showed him the ropes. Kevin spent three summers during his college days repairing and installing gas services for PG&E in Oakland, Calif.
In any event, whether you tackle the job or contract a professional, this job requires a permit and inspections by the city or county building inspector.
The electrical work is pretty straightforward. You’ll need to supply power through a switch to the starter. Usually you’ll be able to tap into an existing circuit, but if the circuits have the maximum number of receptacles allowed by the electrical code, you may have to install a new circuit breaker.
Your house is an older home, so it may have a fuse box instead of circuit breakers. If it does, this might be a good time to upgrade to a new service panel and convert the fuses to circuit breakers. Your electrician or the city inspector can guide you in this decision.
Running gas to the starter might be a little more problematic, mainly due to the age of the piping. Assuming the gas lines in the house are as old as the house itself, they are more than 70 years old. When working on a system this old, leaks at the joints are a real possibility.
Also, the pressure and size of the meter play a role in determining the volume of gas available to operate all of the gas appliances in the home.
Most early gas systems are undersized by today’s standards. To determine if you have sufficient pressure and volume to add the starter, give PG&E a call. They will be happy to send a service person to look at your service and gas lines to make sure the system will handle the additional load.
Make sure that whoever installs the gas line tests for leaks. The inspector will require a pressure test on any new piping that is installed.
Once the new line is fitted, but not connected to the existing lines, a pressure gauge is attached and air is pumped into the line to a pressure of between 25 and 30 pounds. If the pressure holds for 24 hours, there is no leak and the installation is safe.
When the new line is connected to the old line, make sure all of the joints near the connection are tested with a solution of soapy water. Soap solution and the bubbles it produces will pinpoint leaks.
One final thought: Consider replacing the old gas lines themselves. While this is usually unnecessary, it might make sense if you are planning to update your heating system or you are considering a kitchen remodel with new gas appliances.
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