Cause of smoke stains on wall - Picture

January 21, 2016

The chimney cleaner will be here in a few days. He's familiar with smoke stains on walls next to a FP, but when I showed him this picture he said it was a concern.

A little back story. We had two ice storms back to back and was without power for almost a week each time, between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

We went through two ricks of wood, the last rick was wet and a bit green. Not good, but we had no choice.

We also had a lot of downdraft smoke, but that could be from high winds. Air pressure wasn't an issue, we have an opening to the outside next to the FP, and would open a window.

I'm wondering if maybe we had a small chimney fire because of the shape of these smoke stains.

Also, take a look to the left of the FP about an inch away. There is a brownish water stain that runs vertical about a 2' long.

I noticed the stains when I was trying to get that dust bunny down. lol

Comments (27)

  • jrb451

    I've never seen staining like this. Looks like you're having some smoke travel behind the rock façade and not up the flue. I would be interested to know what the sweep's diagnosis is after their visit.

  • Oakley

    He'll be here Sat. morning. He thinks a "tile" could be cracked but is only guessing for now. I'm assuming he meant a tile inside the chimney?

    Doesn't it look like flames shot out? This FP is only 5 years old.

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  • jrb451

    I would think that if you had a chimney fire vicious enough to crack the flue tile then you would have been alerted to this by the event. Did you look outside and wonder why the front yard was lit up when it was dark? Hear a train nearby when you don't live near a track? Look like you have a roman candle shooting out of your chimney? Stuff like this.

    So your chimney's flue is made of tile and not a stainless steel pipe? Extending your flue to a greater height above the roof can help with the down draft issue and improve the draw.

  • Oakley

    I doubt flames came out, but it looks like they did by the shape of the stain.

    No, we don't have a ss pipe. We have a Rumford FP. There is tile set in thick concrete. Even if a tile cracked, the concrete would have to also crack.

    I just hope it's nothing major. This was a well thought out project, painstakingly built. All products came from Rumford.

  • petalique

    Off the top of my head, I'll surmise that ther is a crack in the (terra cotta like) flue. You needn't have had a perceptible chimney fire for the tile to have cracked. A cold chimney then a very hot fire before the tile warmed up a bit (say someone made a very quick, HOT fire from some very combustible material like pine cones, cardboard, small kindling of very dry pine branches or even very dry small hardwood) and the temperature differential was too great and the flue liner cracked under the thermal stress.

    Then the smoke/soot can escape from the flue into the surrounding area -- lumber/wood framing, then through the stone facing. Over the years, there might be gaps in the mortar. The pretty stone tile isn't intended to serve as a flue, so probably never needed to be air tight.

    So what you're seeing (whispy soot marks, soot cobweb) are symptoms that IMO speak to a cracked flue lining. This can be corrected (and should be as you don't want any of the hot exhaust to thermally pre-condition, then ignite, any wood framing or similarly combustible material.

    The flue liner material might have been caused by mechanical stress like settling, rain entering and softening the liner, or earthquake. But probably it is from the flue being cold, then "suddenly" getting very hot. This might be more likely if the chimney is on an outside wall; but I've seen it on a center chimney when he residents were never aware of any "chimney fire".

    It's good that you are going to have a professional look at the situation. I hope it's an easily affordable remedy and best wishes.

  • Oakley

    Stars, funny you should mention "earthquake." I live in OK., and we are now the capital of earthquakes. It's been on the news quite a bit, due to water disposal in the ground from fracking.

    Although they are happening almost daily, we've only felt two. Two or three years ago I was in bed about to go to sleep, the whole house shook and it scared me so bad I ran to the front door, while husband watched and laughed. I kind of looked like Lucy Ricardo. :)

    Last April, I was sitting here at my desk and it sounded like an explosion was close by, and again the house shook. It was loud.

    So damage from a quake is a real possibility, so is settling since the FP is in a newly built room.

    Let's say there's some cracked tiles, is it pricey to fix them? How does one get inside to fix it? lol

  • Oakley

    Also, I'm not sure it would be due to the flue suddenly getting hot. My husband builds a tee-pee like stack of wood then lights the fire. It can take a while for it to really get going. And if the tiles cracked because of a hot flue, then I think Rumford sold bad tiles.

  • petalique

    Hi Oakey,

    Yes, I've heard about fracking. I find it disturbing that contaminated water or waste fluids can be used and then contaminate aquifers -- FOREVER. That is outrageous.

    The Tee pee way of getting a fire started is fine and that doesn't make a huge, suddenly very hot fire. But say if someone arrived home to a stone cold house and chimney, lit a fire, even teepee style, then added more fuel, closed FP or woodstove doors part way, then quickly fed air into and under the fire (fanning it, blacksmith style), the flue temperature could rise very quickly.

    These days it's very common for the chimney (flue) _liner_ to be made from a smooth tube of terra cotta or stainless steel. If the liner is cracked, there are no individual tiles to replace. There are ways to put in a new liner (probably something like stainless steel with a smaller diameter. Affordable, but not cheap. Maybe you don't even need that.

    Rumford is a fireplace design from Count Rumford. It is not a brand name.

  • akamainegrower

    As a first step, have a certified chimney sweep or other professional inspect the chimney interior with a video camera. This should settle the question of whether there are cracked liner tiles. BTW, the mortar, not concrete, does not surround the tiles. It sticks them together and seals the joints between them. If the liner is cracked, relining with either a stainless steel liner or a poured in place one will be necessary. Neither is cheap. It is also possible - barely - that the stains are a result of smoke leaking from the fireplace opening upon starting a fire before a good strong draft has been established. How such would have caused the stains to appear in the shape they are is impossible to say. Another similar possibility is that there is a void between the brick and the liner toward the top of the fireplace opening. This could have allowed smoke, especially since you were burning green wood, to enter the void and rise toward the ceiling where it found an escape between the bricks. A chimney fire, and/or a defective tile are certainly possibilities, but the photo suggests, at least to me, that the stains have been caused by smoke rather than the molten creosote associated with chimney fires.

  • PRO

    You have a serious problem. I would not use this fireplace until inspected and repaired. Judging from the stone on the fireplace and the lack of workmanship there, this fireplace may not be properly built. Either your flue liner is cracked or/and the smoke is finding a cavity to travel into and seep out in between drywall and grout joint. Could you post a photo of your firebox?

  • Oakley

    Thanks Starsplitter, that makes a lot of sense. We actually have a picture of the Count on the wall near the fireplace. The building plans and materials came from a Rumford store which is why it's still called a Rumford FP so people will know what materials are used & the design.

    I hope it's something minor, but I don't have a good feeling about this.

    AKA, the tiles are in thick concrete and the mortar between them. So if there's a crack, it had to go through the concrete which does concern me.

    The guy coming out is certified. It is hard to find a good cleaner where I live.

  • akamainegrower

    Oakley: I gather from your link that the components for your fireplace came from a Buckley /Superior Clay Corporation dealer. If that's true, I can see how smoke leaks could have easily occurred. At the Buckley site there is a photograph showing the liner tiles and the concrete lifts in which the liners are placed. Both of these appear to be in two pieces with vertical seams. More usual liners are extruded in one single piece. With so many seams in the liners and the surrounding castings, great care would be needed to avoid any gaps in the mortar. Smokey fires from green wood would have revealed any such gaps and left the kind of stains you see. If the brick seen in your photo is a facade and ends at the ceiling, that would be an obvious place for the stains to appear.

  • petalique

    akamainegrower, good find.

    Why would this style of segmented liner be sold? Seems like asking for trouble as the mortar or cement between the 30" liner sections could fail from deterioration, thermal stress or Frackquakes.

    Oakley, I'm glad you're getting it looked at by a certified inspector and I hope it isn't going to be an expensive fix. As Accent Masonry suggests, better to not use it until you ascertain that it's safe and in good shape.

  • akamainegrower

    starsplitter: pure speculation, but the Buckley Rumford fireplace seems to be a modular system with many different sizes available. The two piece tiles may have something to do with this. Normal concrete lifts are two piece. A single casting would be overly heavy. Such castings have thick walls so there is a large surface for the mortar. Thinner walled tiles would require much more care in mortar placement.

    The construction of Oakley's fireplace remains unclear. It may have a brick facade only where it is visible. The rest may be the concrete lifts plus liner only until the roofline is reached. It's also possible that more normal one piece liner tiles are used once construction is well above the smoke chamber. One or more cracked tiles remain a real possibility, but the smokey fires plus the modular construction leads me suspect smoke leaks rather than a chimney fire.

  • Oakley

    Pictures below.

    In no way will we use this FP until I'm a 100% certain it's in perfect condition.

    Accent Masonry , normally I'd be insulted if someone insulted something of mine, but I'm not, because I don't like how the rock looks either.

    Are you talking about how the rock was put on, like the big rock which has little rocks stuffed into gaps? Shoddy workmanship, IMO. I don't even lke the color of the rock. DH has no idea I feel this way, gotta keep the peace! :)

    Sadly, DH doesn't have an eye for design, and I wasn't home when he supervised the mason building the facade. Actually I hate it. It's ugly and I requested a darker rock, after buying numerous books to get an idea. At least the hearth and bench is beautiful.

    Akamainegrower, would you post the link to the picture of the liner? I tried finding it but no luck, unless it was the diagram, and I didn't understand it.

    The guy will be here in a few hours, and I'll report back when I get time. To be honest, this is Oklahoma and chimney cleaners are hard to come by, or they generally inspect/clean less complicated fireplaces, so I don't have complete faith in what he will say, unless he can prove to me if it's major or minor.

    Here are two pictures, one of the firebox, the other of the whole set-up.

    Firebox: (Remember, this is after the 2 back to back ice storms where a fire was going 24/7 for a total of 10 days of no power.) It's filthy! The Christmas picture was the only pic I found of the whole FP. LOVE the bench though.

    ETA: When I click on the first picture, it's huge. If it's big for you too, look at the lower back wall where you see a vertical gray line. That's where mortar came out and there's quite the gap there. Not sure if it's of any importance.

  • akamainegrower

    Oakley: I'm too computer inept for that type of link, but if you go to the Buckley Rumford website, click on components, then click on smoke chamber. The tiles are on the left in the photograph.

    I,m not sure I see the crack you're referring to in the top photo, but this part of any fireplace should not be cracking, nor should mortar be falling out. Either would allow smoke to go places it's not supposed to go.

    In the center right of the top photo you can also see smoke stains on the stone surface. A little smoke leakage on start up is pretty normal, but this looks like quite a bit of smoke escaping, possibly rising to the area where the ceiling stains are.

    Hopefully, the person coming to check the chimney will have a video camera to inspect the interior so you will be able to see any damage or lack thereof yourself. If he does not have such a camera, finding damage, especially if it is in the lower part of the chimney, would be very difficult if not impossible. You might try your local fire department. They may have an inspection camera themselves or be able to direct you to someone who does.

  • Oakley

    I'll ask about the camera. The crack, or area where the mortar crumbled is the only white vertical line you can see in the top picture. It's right above the gray ash/wood area, in the middle.

    Our house got very smokey. so bad that my eye's stung. That began when we burnt the last rick of wood that was wet.

    I don't think the smoke from the stain above the firebox hit the ceiling. If you look closely at the ceiling picture, you can tell it came out of the rock near the wall and ceiling.

  • PRO
    Victorian Fireplace Shop

    Water stains can indicate a problem with the chimney crown or the roof flashing by the chimney. The crown is a sloped bed of water that sheds rain and if it's cracked or deteriorated then water can be absorbed into the chimney and work its way down into your walls. As for the soot stains, is the air return for your furnace located near the fireplace? Appliances that pull air to operate (bathroom fans, range hoods, furnaces, dryers) need to get their air from somewhere and the chimney is often where this air enters, and this can happen while the fire is trying to burn and cause drafting problems.

    Keep in mind that soot is carbon; where there are soot stains, carbon monoxide has been present so sooty walls are a reason to be greatly concerned.

  • Oakley

    I'm sneaking in a comment while he's here. For the love of God have mercy on me. lol. "Install a wood burning stove with it's own flue!" "No, I don't need to check the chimney cap to see if you had a fire because if you had one you'd know it." What b.s.! That's just a little bit of what he's saying. I pretty much demanded he get up on his ladder and look at the chimney! Really.

  • petalique

    Oh, boy. Like akamainegrower, I suspect that the soot isn't from a chimney fire, but from sooty smoke exiting the flue, or going around it (perhaps at the firebox).

    Could your chimney have a squirrel's nest or other debris clogging it? Do you have a screened in chimney cap? We got our capped a few years ago, and before that, we'd get a few critters caught in it. I found a duck (RIP) at the bottom of the cleanout one day. I have no idea how the large bat got in one summer (after the screened in cap) -- maybe he got through the mesh. I let him out of the bedroom by opening the window (night).

    That elongated crack at the back of the firebox wall. Is that along a joint? It looks like it is between the blocks, not a joint. If a joint, aren't joints supposed to be staggered?

    How long ago was that fireplace installed? Was there any warranty? Your husband probably has some paper work with the design and any warranty.

    I wish that I could fly our chimney guy out to you. What's it mean, "a wood burning stove with its own fuel" ? You're not using it to heat your home, but, I gather, for ambiance, fun, enjoyment and a bit of warmth now and again.

    Oakley, I'm going to look online for chimney sweep/inspector classes for you <tempted>.

  • Oakley

    LOL, Star. I think I'm ready to pass the test! The FP is only 5 years old. We do use it to heat the front part of the house on cold days and when we were without power. Rumford's are the best at doing that. We had lost power once for 3 weeks w/no FP. After lots of research we decided a Rumford was what we needed because we added onto the house with a 20 x 30' room.

    There was hardly any soot in the flue. I saw the pathetic little puddle on the FP floor and was stunned. However, right under the cap area on the chimney, there was the bad kind of creosote, but it was a tiny tiny area. He used a chemical to get it off.

    He's almost certain the smoke was from the wood, and got between the rock and whatever is behind it. He said we burnt the worst kind of wood possible, but we had no choice.

    No camera was used to check out the flue, but it was clean enough to look at with a flashlight to see if there was a crack. Nothing obvious was found, but DH is going to do an experiment later with dry wood.

    The guy kept insisting the smoke stains at the top was due to me burning a candle on the mantel. Uh, no. Because 1) short candles don't leave horizontal streaks, or feathered out streaks feet apart & that high up, and 2) I burnt candles on the other end of the mantel where the ceiling is much lower, and there's not one stain mark anywhere in that area.

    I nearly fell over when he told us he didn't need to check the chimney or the cap. He said the sun wasn't shining and he wouldn't be able to see very well. We got him an extra flashlight. :) Thank god, because he worked up there quite a while getting that creosote off. lol

    Also before he started working, he suggested to us we should put a wood burning stove in the firebox using the flue that would come with it. WTH?

    Anyway, we're pretty certain the FP is in good condition and we're going to do a burn test with the new wood. He also gave us a small fire reflector plate thingy that's not noticeable.

    We got two bottles of anti-creo-soot spray, if I'm saying the name correctly.

    After he left I think DH was glad he is married to me because I asked so many questions, and the sweeper would not have gotten on the roof without me being there. But I bet the guy is afraid to come back! lol

  • Oakley

    I also wanted to thank you all for your help! My husband looked at me this morning like I had two heads because of all the sudden knowledge I learned, and the rapid fire questions I was asking the sweeper. :)

  • petalique

    What's that saying? If you want something done right, ....

    Did you have to pay him? Certified? Or "certifiable"? Keep your receipt. Sounds like your chimney flue didn't get inspected other than by drive by.

    i like the way you persuaded Mr. Inspecto to do more than just walk into the family room with his bag of marshmallows and willow stick. Did you say you just stood there and opened your blazer a bit more so that he couldn't miss the holster?

    i think you can buy inspection cameras. Maybe the come on a stick. Or you can start your own chimney GoPro Flue Flow business.

    On the PBS This Old House, one of the guys or an HVAC cohort had this cannister of fake smoke. He used it to demonstrate how a home's heating ducts were leaking hot air. Maybe you can sidle up to Richard "Trethewy" (not the correct spelling) and he can send you a can or the vender's link. See if any phonetic smoke goes from inside the firebox and comes out at the in-room chimney facade / ceilng area. Wheeeeee!

    I'm thinking that mister certifiable inspector might do well in public office -- say in Washington DC.

    it's best to burn well seasoned hardwood. In our garage and outdoors we have a large flat topped section of hardwood tree stump that serves as a chopping block for splitting hardwood (already split) into smaller pieces for kindling. We use a splitting maul, not an axe. It's actually fun to split wood and is good exercise.

    So, are you better off today than ...?

    Oh, and what did inspector say about the crack at the back of the firebox and missing mortar? Did he chalk it up to your burning candles in the firebox? Did he recommend getting some matching Legos?

  • akamainegrower

    Oakley: If you want to conduct a DIY inspection: A hand mirror held inside the fireplace opening on bright day can actually show a good deal of the chimney's interior. Incense sticks are a pretty good way of checking for smoke leaks. They can be held near places you suspect smoke is escaping into. Held up near the ceiling where the stains are might show air leaks from the chimney into the living area or vice versa. It would be much better to use the incense sticks than to build a fire with new wood. The latter will not show much at all about where the smoke goes.

    Where I would be concerned is the chimney cap and the small amount of soot (creosote) swept out of the chimney. Hard, glazed creosote such as the sweep removed chemically is dangerous. Clogged caps slow down the draft which in turn leads to more creosote deposits and a house full of smoke as you have already learned. At this point, I think you have to consider the possibilty of two things happening. The smoke leaks which you see as staining on the ceiling. And a contained chimney fire that burned off the creosote deposits except in a small area of the cap.

  • PRO
    D K and Sons

    Some observations and three things. The stone work is fairly consistent and in my opinion fairly well done. If it was natural stone, which is hard to be sure from the pictures I think he did a decent job. I'm sorry you don't like it, I think it is a nice rustic Rumford FP, but since you live there, it is much more important that you like it. Thing 1. A chimney inspection without video footage of the liners is not an inspection, it is a joke. Keep looking until you find a certified chimney sweep, the National Chimney Sweep Guild is a good place to start. Thing 2. If the facade is natural stone then there is probably a gap between the stone and the fire box that is leaking smoke behind the stone and it is escaping out the top. You can confirm this theory by simply looking for a gap between the stone and the fire box at the bottom of the arch. Lay on the hearth and look straight up. If you burned quite a bit of nasty wood, you could have had this occur just from the time of burning bad wood. I am disappointed to hear it smoked the house out, properly built a chimney should be able to handle even really smokey conditions, but a lot of factors could come into play as you have heard from everyone else. If there is a gap between the stone and back up material in the fire box, it can be filled with ceramic fiber or ceramic rope which are both readily available at most farm/hardware stores. Just stuff it in the gap until it is firmly filled. No need to jamb it in there super tight, just fill the gap firmly with a putty knife and ceramic fiber or rope. The smoke deflector might help as well, but that is just a shot in the dark. As long as you don't mind the look, it won't hurt anything.

    Thing 3, the crack in the box might be a joint coming out, hard to tell. A good sweep would have noticed it and determined if it needed repair or not. Repairing this with refractory mortar or refractory cement should be simple enough. I am not a big fan of fire boxes built shiner style like yours is, but it is pretty common. I would bet the mason built a Rumford firebox and then tapered it to a common chimney without buying all the Rumford throat transition pieces which can be quite expensive. The fact that it smokes might have more to do with a tight house or an exhaust fan running, but if you didn't have electricity then we can rule out any exhaust fans. Opening a window will help with an over tight house, and of course burning dry wood.

    Find a certified Sweep and you will figure out the problems and a solution, although there is not much you can do about not liking the style, personally I like it.

  • petalique

    Excellent comments, DK & Sons.

    I meant to say that I too find it a nice looking fireplace and stone work.

  • Oakley

    Star, you're a nut, but in a good way! LOL.

    Yes, it's natural stone. We had the same stone put on the exterior in various places next to the brick. The rock is very pretty at night with the dimmed can light shining down on it. It's not as bad in the daytime now that I found the perfect picture to set on the mantel.

    On the Sweeper's website it says he was certified by the OKC Fire Marshal. I don't think that's the type of certification you all are talking about. lol. I do find it odd though that he didn't know something as simple as holding an incense stick next to the rock, or even a match to see if air is coming out. My husband is going to do that when he cleans the stain off.

    I did ask him if he had a camera to look for cracks and he said I could hire someone with a digital camera and pay a thousand dollars for them to do a five minute job. Seriously, that's what he said. It was kind of funny when I was throwing out all those questions, he said he has 30 some years experience. Experience in what exactly? lol

    I told my husband about how the lack of soot may have been indicative of a small chimney fire, and he said there was a lot more that fell onto the damper. So who knows?

    The fire reflector is small and not noticeable unless you stand right in front of it.

    He did fill in the gaps with new mortar, not sure what kind he used. By then I had given up and left the room and let my husband deal with him.

    DK, I'm pretty sure the smoke, or big haze, was the result of the firewood. We're on an acreage and had already cut down our dead trees (which we seasoned) to use, so people who sold firewood around here was down to selling wood that wasn't seasoned. Lots of wind during those days, and I was probably opening the windows on the wrong side to prevent air from coming in, instead I opened windows for air to go out.

    AKA, the cap wasn't clogged. It was fine. It was just a very small area that had the glaze a bit down the chimney, which could be because the last Sweeper didn't clean it very well.

    We will be very cautious the next time we build a fire and will be watching it like a hawk. As long as we don't lose power again!

    Any of you in the big storm?

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