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For Builders the Evil Outside Chimney

For Builders the Evil Outside Chimney

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Published by The Seeker Of All

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Published by: The Seeker Of All on Aug 08, 2009
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04/21/2012

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For builders The Evil Outside Chimney
If you design or build houses I need to have a serious talk with you about chimneys. Iknow that chimneys are hardly the most glamorous aspect of the building business andmaybe your eyes glaze over when subject comes up, but I'm here to offer a different takeon chimneys, one you probably haven't heard before.So respecting your busy schedule and your lack of interest in chimneys, here is the bottom line: chimneys belong inside houses. The facts demonstrate without questionthat masonry chimneys built onto the sides of houses so their profile shows, or metalchimneys enclosed in framed chases, even though they might look alright, don't work well at all. In fact, I suggest that a chimney hanging off the side of a house like anafterthought is an abomination, functionally and aesthetically.Chimneys belong inside houses. I'm serious.But as I look around, it's apparent that the majority of houses less than 50 years old weredesigned and built by people who don't share my views. Outside chimneys are rampant.They are everywhere, hordes of them in tract developments, and ones and twos stuck on big custom houses. It's not a class thing — the urban rich and the rural poor all seem toget outside chimneys these days.Another thing I've noticed, a lot of people complain about their fireplaces being fussy andhard to light without getting a room full of smoke. And they complain because when thefireplace is not being used, the doors and the hearth are cold. If your houses havefireplaces, you've probably heard the complaints. Hey, you might be one of thecomplainers.I know what you're thinking. You think I'm going to make a connection between outsidechimneys and annoying fireplaces. Well, there is a connection and I can prove it, if you'lllet me explain.And it's not just fireplaces – wood stoves suffer the same problems when connected tooutside chimneys. Although oil furnaces have fans that pump exhaust gases into thechimney, their outside chimneys spill a lot of cold air into basements between firingcycles. Conventional gas furnaces and hot water heaters are famous for spilling their exhaust gas as well as cold air from the chimney into basements. The common feature of all these failures to flow properly is the outside chimney.I usually talk about fireplaces because they are the object of most complaints. Peopledon't give a damn what their gas furnace is doing, unless chronic backdrafting leads tocarbon monoxide poisoning. But when the male of the species has romance on his mind,or more serious still, is about to demonstrate his superior fire-building skills for theneighbors, and the room promptly fills with smoke, the air may be blue with more thansmoke. Anyway, the science is the same for all chimney vented combustion equipmentand the science says put the chimney inside.
 
You think I'm stalling. Okay, here's the proof. A chimney is an essentially verticalstructure enclosing a space full of air and/or exhaust gas. When it is operating, thecontents of the chimney flue are warmer than the outdoor air. Because of its buoyancy,the warm air and/or exhaust gas rises, creating the desired upward flow in the chimney.The flow and the force that cause it are referred to as draft.Chimneys are in the business of expelling air and/or exhaust gas outside. It is no trivialmatter when outside air comes down a chimney into a house. Backdrafting, as it is called by those in the know, is roughly like the wings falling off an AirBus. It is precisely theopposite of the desired behavior. It is a catastrophic event in the life of the chimney.Most builders and maybe even some architects working in moderate-to-cold climateshave heard of the "house as a system" principle which suggests that the house functionsas a system rather than as a number of unrelated parts and that its various sub-systems, particularly those that move or contain air, behave in an interactive way — one might saythey influence each other. You probably knew that already.And this: When it's cold outside, the warm air inside makes the house act sort of like achimney. The warm air in the house wants to rise because it is less dense, more buoyant,than the cold air outside. So, when it is cold out the air pressure high in the house is positive, slightly higher than the atmospheric pressure outside. And the air pressure lowin the house is negative, slightly lower than atmospheric pressure. This phenomenon iscalled stack effect. Somewhere between the high pressure high in the house and low pressure low in the house is a zone of neutral pressure which is called, rather cleverly, theneutral pressure plane. Now that we have the ingredients assembled, we'll build a truly lousy fireplace just toexamine the backdraft phenomenon. This particular one we'll build out of bricks althoughit could just as easily be a factory-built fireplace and metal chimney enclosed by a framedenclosure or chase.The fireplace is located on the first floor of a two story house. The first thing we decideis to have the back of the fireplace and its chimney project out from the brick veneer wallof the house. The projection is wide at the bottom and tapers above the fireplace to theoutline of the chimney as the brickwork rises. It's a nice architectural element, don't youthink, adding interest to an otherwise blank wall? As is normal in this type of construction, there is insulation in the walls of the rooms upstairs between the chimney brick and the drywall.It is 0°C or 32°F outside and the basement furnace is keeping the house at a comfortable21°C or 72°F. There is no fire in the fireplace, and hasn't been for days. The couple who bought the house are sitting in the living room near the fireplace and she comments thather ankles are cold. He reaches down to the carpet and verifies that it's cool there. Theytrace it to the fireplace and start to gripe about the jerk that built the house or the mason,or whoever it is they feel comfortable blaming.
 
Let's just stop here and take stock. The chimney is brick with a clay tile liner, noinsulation. For much of its length there is an insulation barrier preventing the chimneyfrom gaining heat from the house. The chimney gives up its heat to the outside and as theaverage temperature of the air in the chimney falls, the draft declines and the upwardflow in the chimney becomes less stable.Meanwhile, the house is at a stable temperature from top to bottom which is higher thanthe average temperature in the chimney now that it has cooled. The negative pressure lowin the house due to stack effect is more powerful than the draft being developed in thechimney and the chimney backdrafts. Remember the AirBus? The couple who bought thehouse are suffering the cold hearth syndrome and are ticked off as cold outside air gushesdown the chimney onto the hearth and into the low pressure zone caused by stack effectin the house.The
cold hearth syndrome
is caused when the house acts as a better chimney than thechimney. You might think that's a trite little saying and actually that's the reason I like itso much — and the fact that it's true and accurate in every way. The house works better asa chimney because the air inside it stays warm, buoyant and wants to rise, unlike the air in the outside chimney that gives up its heat to the great outdoors.Another thing worthy of note is that a cold backdraft like this is quite stable. Once the air starts flowing down, the chimney really cools off fast. That is why when you light a firein a backdrafting fireplace, there's a good chance you'll get a face full of smoke.Although our example uses a brick fireplace, note that a factory-built fireplace with its backside hanging off the side of the house in a flimsy frame chase is every bit as likely tospill cold air, odors and smoke into the room as is a masonry fireplace with its back showing from the outside. The common cause of their failure is their outside location.Bring the same systems inside and they'll work fine.Here is the harsh reality: When you combine an outside chimney with an applianceinstallation below the neutral pressure plane of the house, the system will suffer the coldhearth syndrome during cold weather. Period. The result is just as certain for furnaces andwater heaters, only it's not called the cold hearth syndrome, it's called a cold basement. Now, I don't know about you, but I find this astounding. In many areas of North Americathe majority of chimneys run up outside the building envelope, outside the heated space.And I just showed that if you do this, an appliance installed low in the house will screwup when it is cold outside. Don't you think we should have talked about this sooner?Don't you think someone should have said something?It's fashionable lately to talk about houses that are so tight that the stove or fireplace — or whatever — "can't get enough air". Meanwhile, the chimney is out in the cold, crippledfrom the start by its location. The not-enough-air claim is mostly nonsense. Few housesare so tight that a healthy chimney can't pull enough air to run a heating appliance.Openfireplaces, having a huge appetite for house air, are an entirely different matter.

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