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Tuesday 6 December 2016

When that poor chimney draft does its best to drive you daft

Joe Barry

Published 16/11/2010 | 05:00

Without a good draw from the flue, you are in deep trouble. But usually you only find out if the flue works or not after the house has been built
Without a good draw from the flue, you are in deep trouble. But usually you only find out if the flue works or not after the house has been built

One of life's greatest irritations must be a smoking chimney, especially one that begins to draw nicely when the fire is first lit and then, just when you turn your back, fills the room with acrid smoke. Or one that keeps a merry blaze in the hearth except when the wind is blowing from the north or east.

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Twenty-first-century builders and architects seem to have forgotten the importance of designing a flue that provides a good 'draw'. Without it you are in deep trouble, but usually you only find out after the house is built. At that stage, all the swear words and expletives we might murmur about builders are of little use. It's a bit of a mystery, though, for, despite being told that it is all to do with the size of the flue, I have seen huge chimneys you could fit a small boy down that still smoke.

In past centuries, when a new house was being built on Achill Island, apparently there was always one craftsman whose job was to ensure that the chimney would draw properly. It was, of course, of vital importance, given that all the cooking and warmth for the home depended on a good fire.

Styles

The trick was to take stock of the relationship between the chimney and the roof, the nearby houses, the prevailing wind and the contours of the surrounding landscape. This is why so many of the old cottages on the island had different styles of chimney and which, in time, came to be widely admired by painters and lovers of the picturesque.

Back in the 18th Century, fireplace design was in its infancy but things changed when the famous Count Rumford began to tackle the problems of drafts and smoking fires. He was an amazing character who started life as plain Benjamin Thomson in Massachusetts, USA.

He then got into a spot of political trouble and was forced to move to England, where he published a paper on how to make a chimney that actually worked as intended.

King George III must have been fed up with smoky rooms, for he was so impressed that he knighted Benjamin, who then moved to Bavaria where he served as a minister of war. There, he was awarded the title of 'Count' for his services to the Holy Roman Empire.

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His best known invention, the Rumford Fireplace, was only 15 inches deep and had a massive chimney that would absorb and retain heat. They are still in use and the design can be viewed on the internet.

The north wind used to cause havoc in one of my own chimneys and whenever it blew, I knew I was in trouble. I tried everything to cure the persistent down-draft and first put in a canopy, which I was advised would greatly increase the draw, and catch those sneaky wisps of smoke that curled out from the fire place, crept up the mantelpiece and around the room.

That failed, so the next trick was to try different cowls on the chimney top. One rotated and permanently showed its back to the wind while another spun at high speed in windy conditions and was supposed to create an up-draft. The chimney still smoked, so eventually I gave up and replaced the open fire with a wood-burning stove, which copes perfectly despite the poor draw.

Ineptitude

Having cursed and sworn at the ineptitude of the architectural and building professions, -- could this be why so many of them are tied up in NAMA? -- I suppose I should now be thankful for the badly designed flue because the stove is so much more efficient, giving out far more heat and using a fraction of the fuel that the open fire required.

I get the local chimney sweep to call every year and he removes any accumulated soot, leaving both the room and stove spotless.

This is in stark contrast to what happened many years ago when an aunt of mine asked if one of the farmhands would clean the main chimney in her old two-storey house.

Not wanting the job of a sweep, the farmhand decided to go up on the roof and work downwards with the brushes. The room, of course, filled with soot, but, not being content with this, he then poured down a bucket of water for good measure.

He was, of course, made to clean up the ensuing mess -- but it ensured he wasn't asked again. Some people said he was stupid. How wrong they were!

Irish Independent