Q: We have a 20-year-old home with a brick wood-burning fireplace that has an ash pit. Is the clean-out door usually inside or outside?

I can’t find a clean-out door outside, but the previous owner did heavy landscaping in front of the chimney so it could be hidden. Also, our basement was refinished and a closet was built where the ash pit door would be, so it could be behind the drywall.

The problem is we have water coming in this closet when it rains, and it has caused bad mold. I have had to rip the carpet out of the closet. I decided to do some investigating and cut out a small area of drywall; I found my wood studs rotting from the water. So we have a serious problem here.

Could the ash pit be filled and causing this water problem? Some Web sites say ash pits are big enough to hold ashes for a lifetime without cleaning them out.

How do I determine where the door to the pit is before I start to tear out the rest of the wallboard? Or should I be focusing on a different problem causing the water leak?

A: An ash pit is a hollow space built into a fireplace below the firebox. It extends from the bottom of the firebox to the ground, and can measure a couple of feet to 8 feet deep for houses with basements. A cast-iron door is usually installed at the base of the ash pit so that ashes may be removed.

Sweeping ashes into the pit all but eliminates the need to remove ashes from the firebox with a shovel. Whether an ash pit will take a lifetime of ashes depends on a number of things, including frequency of use and depth of the pit.

We agree that you have a serious problem, but we doubt that the ash pit is the cause, although wet ashes could be a contributing factor. We also think that you’re looking in the right place for the door to the ash pit.

Although the previous owner may have covered an outside door with dirt, we don’t think that’s likely. It doesn’t make sense to place the pit door on the outside when there is ready access from the basement. Continue tearing out the drywall. You’ll have to do this anyway to expose the rotten framing. If you don’t find the door, start digging on the outside of the chimney to try to expose the door.

We think the problem is water infiltrating from the outside. Because the previous owner did “heavy landscaping” around the chimney, we suspect this is the source of the problem.

Likely as not, water from summer irrigation and winter rains has saturated the ground and is infiltrating the basement. You don’t mention any puddling, so the leakage isn’t monumental. But it’s enough to feed the fungus that is rotting out the stud walls and has ruined the carpet in the basement closet. Ashes in the ash pit could be saturated and acting as a sponge, helping to maintain the saturation level.

With luck, the problem is not a real tough fix. Check the grade on the outside of the house around the fireplace. Make sure you have at least 6 inches between the top of the dirt and the bottom of the siding. Regrade the dirt so that it slopes away from the house.

Also, if you can divert rainwater away from this area with gutters and downspouts, that will probably help a great deal.

If this doesn’t help, it might be time for more drastic measures. Depending on the severity of the problem, consult an architect or a landscape contractor to discuss ways to divert the water from the house.

Try the contractor first. The inside damage is done. The carpet is ruined and the wall is rotted. Treat the mold with a chlorine bleach solution. Remove all the drywall and give it a chance to air out while you determine the cause of water infiltration from outside.

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