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Damper basics

To choose the right damper, consider the number of fireplace openings,

the throat design, and the labor for installation and repairs
By Robin L. Daugherty

n a masonry fireplace, the heat loss and directs heat into the escaping. Open it fully when start-

I damper controls heat and gas

flow and forms a barrier to
back draft in the firebox. When
room, eliminates downdrafts, and
keeps animals, wind, and rain out
of the fireplace, home, and in
ing a fire. Once the fire starts, re-
duce the opening size to maxi-
mize the heat. Don’t reduce it too
open, it allows gases and smoke some cases, the chimney. much or smoke will filter back in-
to pass through from the fire Keep the damper closed when to the room.
chamber to the smoke chamber. the fireplace is not in use to pre- Dampers are made from either
When closed, a damper reduces vent warm air in the home from steel or cast iron. Most types
have a framework with a pivoting
valve plate that swings open to-
ward the back of the fireplace
with the help of a chain, lever, or
exterior turnscrew device.
Five types of dampers can be
installed in a masonry fireplace:
blade, form, high dome (high
form), universal (square form),
and chimney-top. The first four
dampers are typically installed
during new construction. Chim-
ney sweeps usually install chim-
ney-top dampers as a repair if in-
ternal dampers burn out or
function improperly.

Damper options
Blade and form dampers work
best in single-opening fireplaces
because their throat capacities
are generally too small for multi-
ple openings. The oldest type of
masonry fireplace damper, the
cast-iron blade damper, has a
valve plate with a welded handle
that extends into the firebox for
opening and closing. Its main ben-
efit is its sturdy, cast-iron con-
struction that resists warping and
burning out.
The form damper generally is
made of steel. It incorporates a
blade damper inside a metal box
form that serves as a throat be-
tween the firebox and flue, saving
the labor and costs of building a
complete smoke chamber.
High-dome and universal
dampers are good choices for
A universal damper’s funnel shape promotes even burning of the fire in a multi-opening fireplaces because
multi-opening firebox. they cover more of the firebox and
throat area. They provide more reach into the firebox to adjust
room for the additional smoke re- the damper, thus eliminating mess
leased in multi-opening fireplaces. and the chance of being burned.
Both may be either steel or cast
iron. Some masons prefer a high- Chimney-top dampers
dome damper over universal mod- Chimney-top dampers fall into a
els because its built-in downdraft separate class from conventional
shelf forms a large part of the dampers. Like high-dome and uni-
smoke chamber. This shelf allows versal dampers, they can be used
the chimney flue to be construct- with any type of fireplace, but
ed directly over the firebox to pro- protect it from the top rather than
mote draft. The damper’s height from inside the flue. Because of
also reduces the possibility of ma- this, they also function as chim-
sonry blocking the valve plate. ney caps when closed. In most The high-dome damper’s built-in
downdraft shelf extends upward,
The main benefit of universal cases, these dampers are in-
creating a large portion of the
dampers is their suitability for sin- stalled on chimneys after the orig- smoke chamber.
gle-opening, multi-opening, and inal throat damper has burned
corner fireplaces. Universal out or malfunctioned. most internal dampers don’t fit
dampers are deeply sloped on Although they differ from con- well in the small Rumford throat.
both sides. The sloped sides are ventional dampers by design, Builders who use chimney-top
designed to fit comfortably into chimney-top dampers function in dampers say they have one draw-
the narrow throats of multi-open- a similar way. All open and close back. Because they are exposed to
ing fireplaces. The wide throat by means of a weight- or spring- the elements, moving parts may
and funnel shape help promote loaded chain mechanism that freeze when temperatures drop,
even burning of fire everywhere in runs from the top of the chimney, making the damper inoperable.
the firebox. The universal damper down the flue, and into the fire-
also saves on labor by integrating box. Some adjust to open the flue Proper installation
the damper, smoke chamber, and to different settings, thus control- When a damper is installed cor-
lintel in its sloped design. ling the amount of draft. Some rectly, it should last the life of the
Internal dampers open and chimney-top dampers have lock- house. Incorrect installation of a
close with a push-and-pull action, ing mechanisms that are said to damper can create potential
but types of handles vary. Some form an airtight seal on the chim- smoke problems, crack internal
are operated by inserting a poker ney top and muffle outdoor masonry and masonry facing, and
into a lever or by a pull-chain con- sounds when they’re closed. cause the damper to burn out.
trol that extends from the damper Most chimney-top dampers Before installation, you must as-
into the firebox. Others have a ro- come ready to install. In contrast, semble the damper according to
tary turnscrew control that ex- most internal dampers must be as- manufacturer’s instructions. Be
tends through the fireplace’s ma- sembled before being installed. sure all moving parts work freely
sonry face and is turned to open For repairs or replacement, chim- before it is installed because it is
and close the damper. Although ney-top dampers can be lifted out difficult to remove once mortared
the traditional poker control is of the flue. Builders say mortared- in. When placing the damper in
most common, rotary control in internal dampers are much the flue, make sure its handle is
mechanisms have gained popular- harder to remove because they are centered in the firebox.
ity because users don’t have to embedded in the flue. Because of In a new masonry fireplace, the
the extra time and effort involved damper should be bedded loosely
in installing or replacing internal in the throat in enough refractory
dampers, labor costs for installa- mortar to make it level on top of
tion are usually higher than labor the firebox. Place the damper at
costs for chimney-top dampers. least one shiner course of fire-
One builder says it takes at least a brick higher than the angle-iron
day or two of labor to remove and lintel that covers the firebox open-
replace an internal damper. ing. To allow for expansion, leave
Chimney-top dampers work about a 1⁄2-inch space around the
well for fireplaces or masonry damper’s ends and solid sides.
stoves that will be used as a pri- Some type of noncombustible, fi-
mary heat source because they brous insulation, such as mineral
Although chimney-top dampers
differ in design, all open and close
hold heat in more efficiently after wool, should be placed around
by means of a weight- or spring- the fire is out. Some builders of the space and the adjacent ma-
loaded chain that runs down the Rumford fireplaces also prefer sonry to prevent heat loss. The
flue into the firebox. chimney-top dampers because space compensates for movement
and the insulation insulates.
When installing a damper, take
care to avoid some common
• If the damper is mortared in too
tight, expansion when it heats
up can cause masonry on the
face of the fireplace to crack.
• If too much space is left around
the sides, without insulation,
outside air comes in and heat-
ed air escapes from the room.

Damper costs
Damper costs vary depending
on size, style, materials, and geo-
graphic region. For an average 36-
inch damper, the most frequently
used size, a cast-iron blade damper
usually costs $35 to $45; a steel
form damper costs $30 to $35; a
steel high-dome damper costs $45
to $50; and the steel universal
models typically cost $160 to $170.
Prices of chimney-top dampers
vary widely. One manufacturer’s
prices range between $108 for one
that fits 8x8-inch flue tiles and
$182 for one fitting 24x24-inch flue
tiles. Another manufacturer offers
an 8x8-inch for about $87, and
that firm’s largest, a 17x17-inch,
sells for about $140. A third manu-
facturer’s prices range from $95
for an 8x8-inch flue to $153 for a
17x17-inch flue.
Each type of damper fills certain
fireplace needs. The blade damper
works well in venting single-open-
ing fireplaces. The form damper
helps create a throat between the
firebox and flue in single-opening
fireplaces. The high-form damper,
which can be used in any kind of
fireplace, has a built-in downdraft
shelf that permits the flue to be
built directly over the firebox. The
funnel-shaped universal damper in-
tegrates various chimney compo-
nents in its design, saving on labor
and providing an even burn
throughout the hearth. In selecting
a damper, choose the one that best
suits your taste and the design of
the fireplace you’re building.

Copyright 1991
The Aberdeen Group
All rights reserved