Sometimes you come across a house that clearly has a chimney or large ventilation pipe, but when you go inside, there’s not a fireplace to be seen. Curious to find out why, I did some research. Here’s what I found.
Houses without fireplaces have chimneys to properly vent exhaust from gas or oil-fueled appliances. In some cases, the property’s previous owners sealed up the fireplace and left the chimney standing since it’s part of the house structure or would be too much of a hassle to take down.
If you have an unused chimney in your home, you may be wondering what purpose it serves. Additionally, if it’s not being used, do you still need to ventilate, clean, and inspect it? Is it possible to tell if you have a covered-up fireplace hiding behind your walls? For these answers and more, read on!
Why Houses Without Fireplaces Have Chimneys
In many cases, houses that seem like they don’t have fireplaces actually do, they were just covered up.
Chimneys are most common in houses built before 1900 when older furnaces needed chimneys to remove fumes from the house. As steam, gas, and electric heating became more popular, fireplaces were no longer necessary. They just became another place where heat could escape.
So, the previous owners had the fireplace filled in, which was cheaper than fully removing the chimney. In some cases, the mantel was left as a decorative piece while other fireplaces were fully covered. While the bottom part of the chimney might not be visible in your house, it’s possible that the chimney is being reused in your house today!
Even if you don’t have a fireplace, other appliances make use of chimneys to vent fumes from combustion. These devices must have a safe way to ventilate gas, smoke, and other debris.
The chimney can be used by heaters such as:
- Water heaters
- Wood stoves
Flues, or pipes, carry waste from your heating appliances to the chimney where it can be safely removed from the home. This includes gas, soot, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants that you don’t want inside. To keep your home safe and clean, it is essential that even homes without fireplaces properly ventilate their chimneys.
Do Unused Chimneys Need To Be Vented?
Unused chimneys still need to be ventilated to prevent moisture from building up within the chimney and the house. Also, properly vented chimneys can be used to expel combustion byproducts from other heating appliances within the home.
As mentioned earlier, even if you are not using a chimney directly, other natural gas and oil-fueled appliances likely are. These devices rely on the chimney for properly carrying exhaust out of your home.
If the chimney isn’t well-ventilated, these gases can leave corrosive substances inside your chimney which can cause costly problems later on. Additionally, with nowhere else to go, dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide could be trapped inside your home. Well-ventilated chimneys will prevent buildup and pollution for your household.
Another reason why it’s important to ventilate an unused chimney is to prevent moisture buildup. No airflow means that moisture gets trapped inside of your chimney and house. This deteriorates the structural integrity of the chimney which could lead to more expensive problems in the future.
It’s better to properly ventilate your chimney now than to pay for repairs later on. Also, this moisture can damage the interior of your home. Moisture buildup inside of the house can lead to mold, mildew, stains, and weakened walls.
To prevent any problems in your home, it’s best to not completely seal both ends of a chimney. Many houses seal the bottom with a damper that keeps the cold out while leaving the top properly vented with a chimney cap. This allows proper airflow while also keeping the weather and other debris from entering your chimney.
But, if your unused chimney is properly vented, do you still need to clean it?
Do Unused Chimneys Need To Be Cleaned?
Unused chimneys still need to be properly cleaned and inspected for safety concerns. Chimney damage and blockages can occur even if they are not currently in use due to heating appliances, severe weather, pests, and moisture.
A chimney is an important tool that helps your house breathe, so you want to make sure it’s in good condition. The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends getting your chimney cleaned and inspected every year even if you don’t use a fireplace. These services will make sure that your unused chimney is safe, clean, and won’t cause any problems down the line.
Unused chimneys could still be venting harmful substances from your appliances. This includes soot from oil-burning heaters and corrosive chemicals from gas heaters, such as sulfur and chlorine. It’s impossible to tell what buildup is occurring inside of your chimney without the help of a professional. Cleaning helps to clear any blockages and prevent buildup in your chimney.
Another way that debris gets introduced to your unused chimney is through pests such as squirrels, birds, and mice. These animals can nest inside your chimney, bringing food and other waste into your home.
A chimney cap is a good way to reduce pests, but it’s not 100% effective. Many critters will find any possible way to enter the warmth of your home, including through a chimney. Regular chimney sweeping will remove these pests and keep your chimney clean and safe.
As we talked about earlier, moisture can affect the chimney and structure of the home. Damaged chimneys can collapse which is a safety and monetary concern for many homeowners. Water buildup can still occur in properly vented chimneys so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
A yearly safety inspection will make sure there is no serious damage from water or weather. They’ll inspect the inside and outside of a chimney to discover any hidden damage and recommend repairs.
Finally, even unused chimneys can be damaged by severe weather. Weak mortar joints in the structure are at risk of damage from lightning, hail, heavy storms, and strong wind. Weather is another way that moisture can be introduced to a chimney.
Any water that gets inside of cracks in the mortar will freeze and expand, causing even more damage. Blockages can also be formed by leaves and sticks falling inside of the chimney. A regular safety assessment can prevent and fix these concerns to keep your home safe.
How to Tell If You Have a Fireplace Behind Your Wall
Now that you know all about proper chimney safety and maintenance, you may be wondering how to tell if you have a fireplace hidden behind your wall. Fireplaces are essential for many families, with the percent of homeowners desiring a fireplace increasing to 55% in 2018. Fireplaces are great for keeping your house warm and provide a cozy decorative element for any room.
Here are some ways to find out if you have a hidden fireplace in your home:
- Research your house or get a survey done to figure out possible locations for fireplaces
- Check how many flues are in your chimney and where they lead to
- Knock on walls to see if you can hear a difference in sound between solid walls and a covered section
- Look for clues such as exposed brick, vents in the wall, or bumps under the paint
- Turn off lights and shine a flashlight across the surface of the wall to look for patches
- Remove baseboard to uncover hearth in front of chimney
After you have located a fireplace behind your wall, the next step is to properly restore it and get it inspected to make sure it’s safe to use. This is important to make sure your chimney is properly connected and ventilated before building your first fire.
If you’re interested in seeing an old fireplace uncovered and restored, check out this video by Ian’s Forge.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Fireplace Tips, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Chimney Safety Institute of North America (CSIA): The CSIA is your BEST resource for fireplace and chimney safety at home. They’re a non-profit governed by a volunteer board of directors dedicated to the education, training, and certification of chimney and industry related professionals.
- Self-Sufficiency and Off-Grid: If you’re like me and passionate about off-grid and self-sufficiency, see my number 1 resource—Abundance Plus. Check out their Frugal Homesteading Course on growing 90% of your own food. Get 7-days free and 10% off with the code: TYLER10