House Doctor

APPARENTLY, there are Texas oil millionaires whose idea of a nice evening at home is to turn the air- conditioning up full and sit warming themselves by their log fires. Ridiculous, maybe, but gazing into a fire is one of the basic pleasures of life. You just don't get the same fun gazing into a radiator, unless you're that bloke with the funny haircut from the movie Eraserhead, and look what happened to him.

Of course, those of us who live in smoke-controlled areas are no longer supposed to enjoy a roaring coal or log fire, but there are ways around this. One is to burn smokeless fuel; this whimpers rather than roars, but still has more soul than the never-changing flames of a coal-effect gas fire. The other is to get a new-generation wood- burning stove with catalytic converter, whose emissions are acceptable even in smoke-free zones.

The great advantage for townies of wood-burning stoves is that we are surrounded by free fuel - almost every builder's skip on every street contains enough scrap timber to keep you warm for a fortnight.

Judging by the smell in the air on chilly evenings in London, quite a few people are doing this already, without catalytic converters, perhaps reasoning that the scrap timber would otherwise go to landfill - and that a bit of fragrant woodsmoke is as nothing compared to the motor traffic exhaust fumes poisoning us throughout the year. I couldn't possibly comment on this, but if the environmental health people catch you don't expect them to see it that way.

The Victorian house was built around its fireplaces and chimneys, and there are three things you should never do: 1. Block them up; 2. Knock them out; 3. Put gas fires in them - unless you line them first.

Why? In order:

1. Chimney stacks get constantly wet from the rain, which percolates down into the brickwork below; you need a ventilating draught going up the flue to dry things out. If your fireplace openings have already been bricked up, then make sure the flues have been vented within the rooms, preferably at ceiling level, to allow a bit of warm air to escape up them. This is a good energy-efficient way of ventilating your rooms, too.

2. Removing chimney breasts from old houses can change the structural geometry of the building. If you do remove a chimney breast you are supposed to support the brickwork above by spanning across to the opposite wall with steel joists; this is very rarely done, and movement and cracking can result.

3. A frequent cause of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is the venting of gas fires into old brick flues. The fumes can seep through the brickwork and kill people sleeping in the bedrooms above. Old flues used for gas appliances must always be lined with special steel or alloy flue liners first.

People trying to resuscitate fireplaces in old houses may have difficulty getting the fire to burn. This is usually because their draughtproofing and double-glazing have made the room airtight. As connoisseurs will tell you, an open fire is always best enjoyed with a cold draught whipping around your ankles - do they know that in Texas?

'Struck Off - The First Year of Doctor on the House', by Jeff Howell is available from Nosecone Publications, PO Box 24650, London E9 7XQ, price pounds 9 inc postage.

Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon.co.uk

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