Q: I am a widow trying to maintain a 1929 San Francisco home in the wet, foggy Outer Richmond neighborhood. In the backyard, there is an old, crumbly, rusty metal door about 12 inches square that is the ash cleanout for a fireplace above in the first-floor living room.
This panel door fastens with a pivoting arm into its frame but is torn with rusty holes. It must be replaced. Is that standard fireplace equipment and replaceable?
Also, the fireplace has lost its ash-pit cover in the floor of the firebox. It must have fallen down into the ash pit.
Finally, there is no damper.
Needless to say, this fireplace hasn’t been used for some time. All this causes a draft in the living room, making it uncomfortable during cold days even when the central heat is on.
How can I get this old fireplace working again?
A: It sounds as if it’s been many years since your fireplace has been inspected or had maintenance work done.
Assuming the fireplace is structurally sound, we’re happy to say that the problems you describe are fixable and with not much money.
We recommend that you contact a licensed masonry contractor to install a new door for the ash cleanout and to install a chimney-top damper.
We also strongly recommend that you have the fireplace inspected for safety by the masonry contractor and swept by a chimney sweep. Sweeping will remove what may be years of creosote buildup in the chimney. A creosote buildup can result in a fire damaging the chimney and, in the worst case, setting the house on fire.
With luck, the contractor can supply a door for the ash cleanout that is compatible with the old one. If not, installing a new one is not a big job. An added bonus is that he’ll probably be able to fish out the firebox’s ash-dump door that you suspect (and we think rightly) was dislodged and lost down the ash dump.
Probably the best thing you can do is to install a damper. A damper, used properly, keeps warm air in your house when closed. Your heating dollars will not go up the chimney, and you’ll be cozier. And with the damper open, you’ll be able to enjoy a fire on those cold Outer Richmond evenings.
You don’t have to hire a mason to rip into your fireplace to install a damper. We suggest that you have him (or her) install a chimney cap with an integrated damper. You won’t have to touch the firebox, other than to attach a chain mechanism allowing you to manually open and close the chimney-top damper.
A chimney cap/damper is a spring-loaded metal cover that retracts to form a seal on the top of the chimney when the fireplace is not in use.
A chain is threaded down the chimney and bolted to a lever in the firebox, allowing the damper to be opened and closed from inside. When you want a fire, simply undo the chain. The cap opens allowing the smoke to escape.
We wish you well and hope these suggestions will help you to a cozier and comfortable home.