Category: Major Systems

How To: Clean a Chimney

Do-it-yourself chimney cleaning enables ambitious, capable, and well-equipped home handymen to save hundreds of dollars annually.

How to Clean a Chimney


Some homeowners are so drawn to the fireplace that they ignore the mess and hassle that accompany its operation and maintenance, not to mention its notorious energy inefficiency. What cannot be ignored, however, is creosote. A gummy, foul-smelling byproduct of combustion, creosote builds up gradually and can become a very real fire hazard. According to some estimates, dangerous accumulations of creosote contribute to about a quarter of house fires. Though most people opt to hire certified specialists for the job, you can clean a chimney yourself, assuming you’ve got the right tools and are completely comfortable working on the roof. Here’s how.

How to Clean a Chimney - Brush Isolated


Spread out a plastic tarp or painter’s drop cloth to protect the floor surrounding your fireplace. Next, proceed to remove ash and stray bits of wood from the firebox. Once it’s free of loose debris, go ahead and open the damper. At this point, it’s crucial to isolate the fireplace from the rest of your living room. Using thick plastic sheeting and quality tape, seal the front of the fireplace completely, without any gaps in the seal. Cut corners here, and later you may be  left with fine dust coating all your furniture!

You need a set of goggles that form a dependable seal around the eyes. If you try to make do with run-of-the-mill protective eyewear, you may be risking a trip to the doctor. In addition, you’ll need a quality dust mask, a few different types of chimney brushes, and a sturdy ladder that can get you on the roof.

If you have no experience doing work on the roof, this isn’t the time to learn. Call a chimney sweep. Many of the most dangerous DIY projects take place on the roof; proceed with extreme caution!

Remove any hardware obstructing the top of the chimney, be it a chimney cap or animal guard, then get down to business with the largest-diameter chimney brush in your arsenal. Brush from the top down, working your way toward the smoke shelf—the flat area located in the “crook” behind the damper. Take your time and do a thorough job. When you’re done sweeping the flue, replace the hardware you removed, ensuring that all fasteners are properly secured. Make your way safely down the ladder.

Allow some time for the dust you’ve upset to settle into the firebox. After the waiting period has elapsed, peel apart a small opening in the taped seal you positioned over the firebox. Using a smaller-diameter chimney brush, reach through the opening and scrub as far up into the chimney as the brush can reach. When you’re finished, cover up the fireplace again, and let any additional dust fall onto the floor of the firebox.

When you peel back the plastic sheeting, do so slowly and deliberately. Stirring up soot would mean having to deal with a mess that’s even larger than the one already awaiting you. Another word to the wise: Be sure that no one opens any exterior doors, which would allow a sudden draft to send dust and ashes all over your living room carpet and furniture. The simple act of opening a door would defeat the purpose of having so painstakingly confined the dust and debris behind a plastic membrane. Move the sheeting carefully out of the way, then use a shop vacuum to clear the firebox. You may need to empty the vacuum midway through the job, depending on the machine’s capacity.

Additional Tips
Chances are you’re not eager to clean the chimney again anytime soon. Though creosote inevitably builds up over time, you can slow its accumulation by using only properly split and seasoned firewood. Also, steer clear of the slow, smoky, and smoldering fires that create creosote especially quickly. To avoid these sorts of fires, always provide adequate air to the fire. This practice encourages hot, clean-burning fires that generate the least creosote—in other words, the types of fires that will help keep you off the roof for as long as possible.

Bob Vila Radio: Is There a Leak in Your Gas Fireplace?

No mere annoyance, the sound coming from your gas fireplace may signal something serious.

Gas fireplaces have been showing up in more and more homes the past few years. They’re clean, easy to use, and add a nice ambience to the home. A drawback, however, is the noises they sometimes make.

Gas Fireplace Noise


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Listen to BOB VILA ON STOPPING NOISE FROM GAS FIREPLACES or read the text below:

If you hear a popping noise when the burner’s on, it may indicate that there are small leaks around joints in the burner assembly. To test for leaks, first turn off the burner. Once the ceramic logs have cooled off, remove them from the firebox.

Next, mix a bit of liquid detergent with water and pour it into a spray bottle. Turn the now-exposed burner assembly back on and look for any small bursts of flame that appearing around joints. If you don’t see any, try spraying a little detergent mix on the various joints and fittings in the burner assembly. If you see bubbles, you’ve found the leak.If the leaks are around a joint in the assembly, use a wrench to gently tighten the fitting.

If you can’t find a leak—or the leak you find appears to be a hole in the assembly itself—you’ll want to call in a pro. Gas leaks are serious business and need immediate attention.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Bob Vila Radio: Venting a Fireplace Insert

Though there are at least a couple of different ways to vent a fireplace insert, not all are equal in terms of user-friendliness and fire safety.

With temperatures dropping, homeowners are resuming their seasonal quest to get the most heat for the least money. If you have a fireplace that’s inefficient, you might want to consider installing a fireplace insert. Most are considerably more efficient than the fireplaces they replace.

Wood Stove Inserts


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Listen to BOB VILA ON VENTING A FIREPLACE INSERT or read the text below:

The best way to vent an insert is into a stainless steel liner that extends through from the top of the stove through to the top of the existing chimney. That setup provides the highest efficiency, plus it’s easy to inspect and clean.

Though you can also vent the stove insert into the existing chimney, it’s a bit trickier. That’s because the proportions of the chimney may not match up with the size of the insert. If that’s the case, the chimney won’t draft properly; besides getting smoke in your eyes, you’ll also get a rapid buildup of flammable, acid-laden creosote in the chimney. A chimney liner that’s matched to your fireplace insert is a solid investment that helps keep your home toasty and safe.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

So, You Want to… Heat Your House with a Wood Stove

There's no denying the rustic, romantic appeal of heating with a wood stove. Before you commit, though, do your research and ask whether you're up to the tasks entailed.

Heating with Wood Stove


Recently, you were visiting friends, and as the night grew colder outside, you were snug indoors, mesmerized by the warmth and glow of their wood stove. “Let’s get one!” you exclaimed to your family. As charmed as you were by the stove, your partner and children were even more so. A wood stove; what a good idea!

But is it really such a good idea? As with so many other things relating to the home, the answer depends. Before going any further, be sure to do your homework.

The Pros and Cons of Heating with a Wood Stove 
In areas where wood is dependably available at low cost, wood-stove heating can save money over a gas or oil system. That’s never more true than for those who harvest their own firewood. Of course, it’s a lot of work to fell trees, saw them into logs, and split those logs into stove-length pieces. There are techniques and best practices here that might take the neophyte several seasons to master. You need to be realistic about your abilities and tolerance for heavy work.

Even apart from the amount of labor involved, heating the home with a wood stove takes real commitment. Every morning, you need to start a new fire. In the absence of a backup heating system, there must always be someone at home to tend the fire, lest the plumbing pipes freeze. There are good reasons for our having moved beyond wood heat long ago. For many people who enjoy a modern lifestyle, heating with a wood stove would be a monumental inconvenience.

Of course, unlike fossil fuels, wood is a renewable resource. For some, that’s reason enough to think seriously about making the switch from a traditional oil- or gas-fueled system. And it would be a mistake not to mention that there’s something deeply satisfying, on a primal level, about wood heat. It offers a connection to the land—and to human history—that simply cannot be matched by a system that’s controlled by a thermostat on the wall.

Heating with Wood Stove - Installed Detail


The Art and Science of Dispersing Heat
A wood stove-based heating system presents many challenges. One that continually frustrates many, even veteran wood-stove custodians, is the art and science of dispersing the heat that the stove produces.

One method is to use a wood stove fan, which is placed on top of the stove. This sort of fan operates quite differently from the fans used to create a more comfortable environment in the dog days of summer. Rising heat causes the fan blades to turn, and as they do, the fan pushes that heat outward into the room.

Another option is to buy a plug-in blower. Positioned beneath or next to the stove—but not too close—the blower runs on electricity and pushes heat away from the unit. In some homes heated by a wood stove, there are multiple fans running at once in different rooms, each strategically positioned to maximize heat flow. Sometimes these are ceiling fans; sometimes they are small fans mounted at the corners of doorways.

Consider an Alternative to a Purely Decorative Fireplace
While a wood stove can be a viable sole heating solution for some homes in some parts of the country, it more commonly serves as a valuable companion to an existing gas- or oil-fueled system. But there’s a third option, one that gives the average homeowner a compelling reason to consider the wood stove.

When most of us hear the word “fireplace,” we picture an open hearth in the living room or a stone chimney billowing smoke into the evening. These decorative fireplaces are prized not so much for their heat production as for their aesthetic value. The trouble is that they’re so inefficient; the same way an open window would, a decorative fireplace rapidly leaks heated air (air you’ve paid to heat) out of the house.

A wood stove offers much the same benefit—something beautiful to gaze at—without seriously compromising your home’s overall energy efficiency. So if you’re looking to improve on your existing fireplace, or if you’ve always wished that your home had a fireplace, a wood stove may be your best bet.

It all depends on what you want to get out of the wood stove—and what you’re willing to put into it.

Bob Vila Radio: Every 2 Years, Flush Your Water Heater

To improve the performance of your water heater and extend the useful life of the tank, don't forget to flush out the sediment buildup every couple of years. Here's how

If you want to make sure you’ll have hot water whenever you need it, it’s a good idea to flush your water heater every couple of years.

Flushing a Water Heater


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Listen to BOB VILA ON FLUSHING A WATER HEATER or read the text below:

Over time, mineral sediments build up, and those sediments can not only cut down on efficiency but also cause corrosion, shortening the life of the tank.

To flush the water heater, start by cutting off the electricity or gas, whichever powers your heater. Also, shut the valve that supplies water to the tank (it’s at the top of the tank). Then proceed to attach a hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the tank, positioning the other end of the hose outside the home or into a drain below the level of the drain valve. Open the valve.

Next, open a hot water faucet in the house. That’ll allow air into the system and soon, water should begin draining out the hose. Be careful: Water exiting the heater will be very hot!

Once the tank’s finished draining, close the drain valve, open the supply valve, and power up the heater.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Bob Vila Radio: Avoid Common Mistakes to Minimize Heating Costs

Heating and cooling the house isn't cheap, but by knowing which frequent missteps to avoid, you can cut out unnecessary expenses.

Home heating bills are high enough already; don’t push yours even higher by making these common mistakes.

Efficient Heating - Vent


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Listen to BOB VILA ON EFFICIENT HEATING or read the text below:

First, avoid obstructing the flow of air through return vents. Though vents may not be the most attractive fixtures in your home, covering them with such things as furniture and drapes ultimately cuts down on the overall efficiency of your heating system. Likewise, don’t be tempted to close off vents in unused rooms. That, too, will make your system work harder than needed, driving up costs.

Meanwhile, make sure your thermostat isn’t exposed to heat from direct sunlight or from heat-producers like lamps or AV equipment. That can fool the thermostat and trigger activity that does not make your home more comfortable.

Finally, use the correct air filter. Cheap, flimsy filters reduce the quality of air in your home, while overly efficient filters, counter to intuition, can make systems work harder, especially older systems. Check your manual or call your HVAC supplier to determine the most appropriate filter for your HVAC components.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Bob Vila Radio: Get the Fireplace Ready

Before having your first fire of the season, read these tips on operating your wood-burning fireplace with the utmost efficiency.

When you’re pulling your parkas and mittens from the back of the closet, it’s also a good time to make sure your fireplace and chimney are safe and ready to operate at top efficiency.

Get the Fireplace Ready


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Listen to BOB VILA ON FIREPLACE EFFICIENCY or read the text below:

First, be choosy about the wood you burn. Seasoned hardwoods are best. Stay away from burning scrap wood derived from crates or pallets; when ignited, they may emit toxic fumes.

Consider installing a top-mounted damper. Providing a tighter fit than conventional dampers, they function much like a chimney cap to help keep out rain and snow. If you decide to go with a conventional chimney cap, choose one that’s stainless steel. They’re a bit more expensive but last longer due to their rust resistance.

Of course, keeping the chimney clean is a must. Have the sweeps come in at least once each year. If you burn more than three cords of wood a season, have them come twice. What you gain in fireplace efficiency, not to mention peace of mind, is worth the extra cost.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Bob Vila Radio: Save Big Bucks with Attic Insulation

Ever get the feeling your energy dollars are going through the roof? You might be exactly right! By installing attic insulation, you can cut your heating and cooling costs by as much as half. Start here.

Looking to put a dent in your monthly heating and cooling bills? The answer may be right over your head. If your attic isn’t insulated, you’re missing out on a prime opportunity to cut costs.

Attic Insulation


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Listen to BOB VILA ON ATTIC INSULATION PREP or read the text below:

No matter what type of insulation you end up using, start the job by preparing the work area. That includes clipping portable lights onto rafters, so you can see what you’re doing. Also, if there’s no flooring in the attic, lay down sheets of plywood for a solid platform to work from.

Now’s also an optimal time to check the attic for any signs of discoloration or mold; either might signal a roof leak. While you’re at it, use weatherstripping or expanding foam to seal up any air leaks around chimneys, plumbing stacks, exhaust fans or anywhere you suspect outside air might be getting through.

Attic insulation can literally cut your heating and cooling bills by as much as half. So whether you hire a contractor or do it yourself, your wallet will thank you.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

The Benefits of Radiant Heat Are Invisible, and That’s a Good Thing

Of all the advantages offered by radiant heating, perhaps most appealing is the fact that it's virtually unnoticeable.


You’ve probably heard about radiant heating, a new technology that delivers comfort via hydronic panels installed underneath the floor. There are many things to love about this home heating alternative. For one, it operates silently, in contrast to roaring forced-air systems or clicking baseboards. Another benefit, one that particularly appeals to allergy sufferers and those concerned about health: Radiant heat involves no ductwork, so it does not recirculate indoor air pollutants and irritants throughout the home. As well, the energy-efficient attributes of the system are a major draw for budget-minded or eco-conscious homeowners. Often overlooked among all these benefits is a less obvious, but no less appealing, fact about radiant heat: It’s invisible.

We’re so used to living in the midst of our heating systems that we almost take the frustration for granted. The radiator hulks in the corner, rendering that portion of the room unusable for any other purpose. But for the presence of the baseboard, you would have arranged the bedroom furniture in a completely different way. Now consider radiant heating, whose components live entirely beneath the flooring, whether wood, tile, or wall-to-wall carpeting. So situated, radiant heat never interferes with your plans for the space. You gain not only some extra square footage, but also complete freedom to organize and decorate the room as you see fit. When you think of radiant heat in that way, it’s a wonder that we put up with bulky, inconvenient heating system components for so many decades!

One way or another, conventional heating systems are noticeable. Take, for instance, today’s most common type—forced-air heating. When it kicks on, heat blasts into the room. Gradually, the room cools down, only to receive another blast. Baseboard and radiator heating are likewise noticeable: The room is warmest, perhaps too warm, right next to the unit. The farther away you go, the cooler the room gets, until you’ve reached the other side of the space (where you might feel the need to put on a sweater). With radiant heat, there are neither blasts nor variations. There’s simply steady, even heat that calls no attention itself.

There’s only one place you notice radiant heating, and that’s on your monthly utility bill. Radiant heat consumes less energy than conventional systems, in part because it’s everywhere. Picture a room in your house: Inevitably, its conventional source of heat—be it a vent, baseboard, or radiator—is doing its best to hide somewhere on the perimeter. Radiant flooring, however, extends across the entire space. Given that level of virtually complete coverage, radiant heat needs far less energy to maintain a comfortable temperature than does a heat source that’s confined to a corner. Further, we all know that heat rises. So while conventional heating systems pump a great deal of heat toward the ceiling, radiant flooring puts the comfort where it’s needed most, at floor level. Invisible in every other way, radiant heat makes itself known when it comes to money savings over the long term.

Radiant Heat vs. Forced Air


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How To: Wire an Outlet

A do-it-yourselfer can replace an electrical outlet on his own, so long as he takes the proper precautions. Read on to learn how to get the job done safely.

How to Wire an Outlet


Simply put, electrical work is dangerous. With projects of any complexity or sophistication, we wholeheartedly recommend hiring a licensed electrician. There are, however, simple repairs and updates that are appropriate for budget-minded do-it-yourselfers ready to proceed with careful attention to detail. By following these tips, you can replace an old or damaged outlet. It’s a simple job, and so long as you take the proper precautions, it’s safe.

Adding a New Outlet
Adding a new outlet requires running a cable between the outlet location and the home’s electrical panel. That’s much easier said than done. For this job, we recommend that you hire a licensed master electrician, not least because building codes often stipulate that a permit is necessary for new electrical work, and in many parts of the country, only a pro can obtain the required permissions. In other areas, a homeowner can pull his own permits after passing a government-administered test.

Converting to a Three-Prong Plug
Old-fashioned two-prong outlets aren’t grounded, which makes them dangerous in the event of an electrical fault. Without an electrician, it’s safe to convert a two-prong to a three-prong outlet only if the electrical box housing the outlet is metal and the cable feeding the box is armored. If these conditions are met, the box provides ground-fault protection (even though the outlet does not). How can you tell, without opening the wall, if the electrical box meets the criteria? Simple: Use a voltage tester. Insert one prong into the outlet’s shorter slot (the “hot slot”), then touch the other prong to the screw securing the faceplate. If the tester lights up, the electrical box is grounded; you can go ahead and convert the two-prong to a three-prong. If your electrical box isn’t grounded, you can still convert to a three-prong, but the replacement must be a ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI (the type of outlet with a red button on its front).

- 4-in-1 screwdriver
- Voltage tester
- Needle-nose pliers
- Wire strippers

Before you go any further, it’s imperative that you cut power to the outlet you are replacing. Go to your home’s electrical panel and toggle off the switch associated with the circuit that sends electricity to the outlet in question. After you shut off the power to the outlet, use a voltage tester to double-check that it’s really off. Insert the tester’s probes into the top two slots on the outlet. If the tester lights up, you toggled the wrong switch on the electrical panel and you’ll have to try again. Continue your trial-and-error until you are certain the outlet is no longer receiving electricity. Don’t have a voltage tester? You can use a lamp instead, so long as you know the lamp works. Plug the lamp into the outlet, and if it doesn’t turn on, it’s safe to proceed.

How to Wire an Outlet - Screwdriver


Unscrew the outlet’s faceplate. In most faceplates, there’s a single screw in the middle. Remove that screw, and the plate should come off easily. Next, unscrew the mounting screws that secure the outlet to the electrical box. Finally, gently pull the outlet away from the receptacle.

You can now see three wires extending from the wall to the outlet. If the wires are attached to screws on the outlet, simply loosen those screws in order to free the wires. If the wires are snaked into holes in the back of the outlet, press the release slot and pull the wires, assuming they don’t come out on their own. Put aside the old outlet.

You’re now ready to wire in the replacement. First, connect the neutral wire (white) to the silver screw on the side of the outlet. Make sure to orient the hooked end of the wire so that its curve goes clockwise, the same direction in which the screw turns as you tighten it.

Connect the ground wire to the green screw, using the same technique as described above.

Connect the live wire (black) to the gold screw, which is the last remaining on the outlet casing.

Carefully maneuver the wires back into the electrical box, then screw the outlet to the box via the mounting screws at top and bottom. Finally, position the faceplate over the outlet and screw it back in.

Go back to the electrical panel and restore power to the outlet you’ve now finished replacing.