Gas Fireplaces: Less Maintenance Than Wood, but Don't Scrimp on It

By Jeanne Huber
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 1, 2007

Q How does caring for a gas fireplace differ from caring for a wood-burning fireplace?

A Read this answer and you'll know why sales of gas fireplaces are soaring.

With wood, you have the routine maintenance of removing ashes and cleaning up debris around the fireplace. Assuming your fireplace has glass doors, you also need to clean them regularly -- ideally, before each fire. Once a year, you need to call in a chimney sweep to inspect the chimney and chimney cap and to scrub off any creosote that has built up within the chimney. If you don't do this, particularly if you burn a lot of wood, you could get a chimney fire.

With a gas fireplace, there is no day-to-day maintenance. But you should arrange for an annual check by a pro, preferably someone from a company that sells the brand you have. The service technician should adjust the controls, particularly the ignition system if the fireplace lacks a pilot light. One feature that often needs attention is the millivolt generator, which helps the fireplace start when power is out.

The technician should also clean the fan and air passages and the inside surface of the glass. Homeowners can't get to this surface easily, and it's best cleaned with special products anyway, says Tom Stroud, senior manager of codes and standards for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, which represents fireplace manufacturers.

The association recommends having a chimney sweep check gas fireplace chimneys annually. If there's a direct vent through a wall instead of a chimney, you can check it yourself because a problem, such as a bird nest, would be obvious.

With both wood and gas fireplaces, the annual checkups should include making sure carbon monoxide detectors are in place and functioning. But homeowners should also check them periodically. Carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air, so these detectors should be placed on a wall about five feet above the floor or on the ceiling, but not directly over the fireplace. Put one on each floor or at least one near each sleeping area.

Is there a way to quiet creaky stairs?

Ignore advice you may see about nailing at an angle through the front of the tread into the riser; that's likely to split the nosing. Instead, fasten the tread more securely by pre-drilling and countersinking screws into the riser or the center support under the staircase. (Find this support by inspecting the top of the treads to see where the existing fasteners are located.) Use screws at least 2 1/2 inches long that have wide heads flat on the back or with integral washers. Avoid screws with bugle-shape heads because they won't hold as securely.

If you plan to paint or carpet the stairs, you might also try using a caulk gun to squirt construction adhesive into the joint. This sometimes provides enough of a cushion to keep parts from rubbing, which is what causes the noise.

If the sounds persist or if numerous steps creak, you may need to open up the underside of the stairs and call in a good carpenter to determine what is going on. It could be something simple, such as loose blocks along the riser-tread joints, or something more serious, like a failing support.

I replaced an old electrical outlet last week and now am wondering about it. Although it was a three-prong outlet, it was not grounded. The old, decrepit three-prong outlet had no grounding wire, and there was no obvious place to ground the new one. Is this okay or a hazard?

You're right to be having second thoughts. Installing a three-prong outlet that isn't grounded lulls people into thinking the wiring is safe when it is not. There may be a quick fix. If the electrical box is metal and wiring behind it is covered with metal, the metal may provide the ground if you link the outlet to the box with a short piece of new wire the same thickness as the other wires. Some metal boxes are pre-drilled for a grounding screw (size 8-32), while with others you will need a grounding clip. When you're done, restore power and use a voltage tester to make sure the circuit is grounded. Stick one of the tester's pins in the circular hole where the grounding pin of a plug would go and the other in the smaller of the slots, which should be connected to the hot wire. If the tester lights up, the circuit should be fine. If not, test the other prong in case the outlet was wired incorrectly.

If the light still stays off, pay an electrician to evaluate your system. If just one circuit isn't grounded, you may want to add a dedicated grounding wire that extends back to the electrical panel. Or you may be able to replace your new outlet with a kind known as a GFCI, for ground fault circuit interrupter; it provides most of the protection of a true ground, but you will need to add a label saying "no equipment ground" to indicate it isn't used in the standard way. Rewiring may be a better option, especially if your whole system lacks grounding or if you're frustrated by overloaded circuits that trip repeatedly or by a scarcity of outlets in convenient locations.

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