Saturday, October 24, 2015

Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke...

I have always loved the movie Mary Poppins.  Mary Poppins was the movie I watched over and over and over again as a kid, the one I watched so many times that it shriveled up and died in the VCR, tattered strands of tape all twisted up and hanging out of the VCR slot.

Mary Poppins was released by Disney in 1964.  At that point, my house was already a respectable 44 years old.  Geek factoid: The production used the sodium vapor process for the combined live-action and animation scenes.  I love how the Wikipedia article on the sodium vapor process says it's very simple in principle, and then proceeds to describe it over several rather complicated paragraphs.  Basically, it involves illuminating the live-action stuff with a very specific wavelength of light and a bunch of other wizardry for combining that imagery with other footage.  Disney used this process a lot and the 1960s and 1970s.  It could be done with more precision than bluescreen and also did not pose limitations on makeup and costume colors.  The Mary Poppins team won an Academy Award for their use of this technique.

Mary Poppins depicts London in 1910 ("It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910. King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men!"), at which point they were probably burning coal in their fireplaces (blech!), sending plumes of grossness through their chimneys to "up where the smoke is all billowed and curled".  This was 10 years before my house was built, and I'm actually not sure if coal ever would have been burned in my fireplace.

Anyway, I just had a chimney sweep come and work on my chimneys!

Chim chimminy, chim chimminy, chim chim cher-ee, a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be...sort of.

The cold season is coming on (kind I write this, it's about 90 degrees outside), and in my endless quest to reduce drafts in this old house, I decided it was time to deal with the chimney.  It didn't have any kind of damper or cap on it; it was just open to the sky.  Consequently, rain comes in, and heat goes out.  Plus, I'd never had it cleaned or inspected for problems.  I have no intention of actually burning anything in it (because why?), but I thought it would be a good idea to make sure it wasn't going to, you know, fall over or something.

The main chimney (there's another one for the stove vent) is made of river rock that somebody in 1920 probably just went and picked up from the Santa Ana River wash (which you certainly aren't allowed to do anymore).  It has a lot of character, and it matches the chimneys and adornments on a lot of other craftsman-style houses in my neighborhood.

My river rock chimney. Photo Copyright 2013 by Andrew Morang
I had a chimney sweep come and give my chimney a complete inspection and cleaning, and he also installed a cap and a damper.  (He did wear a top hat, but he swapped that out for coveralls and a respirator when he was actually cleaning.)  He said the everything was in great shape, although overdue for a cleaning.  But, we had some problems with the damper that he didn't notice initially, and I had to get him to come back to fix it.

Clean fireplace
A top-sealing damper is a clever little device that sits on top of the chimney and can be open and shut as desired via a pull chain or lever inside the fireplace.  When shut, it clamps down over the chimney hole to keep warm air from escaping.  If you're going to burn a fire, you open it to let the smoke out.  This little assembly sits inside a cage with a roof over it to keep animals and rain out even if the damper is open.
Chimney cap with top-sealing damper

Damper pull chain
Unfortunately, the damper didn't seal adequately after the initial installation.  Most chimneys are flat on top, but mine slopes outward.  The damper seal kind of hung out over this sloping part, leaving an air gap underneath.  Also, the damper lid, when closed, was misaligned with the damper seal.  When I went up on the roof and discovered this, I was very disappointed.  Bummer.  Had to call the chimney sweep, have an awkward conversation, and ask him to come back to fix it.  At least he was extremely nice and professional about it.  It was also really helpful that he was technological enough to receive photos of the problems by text, so he immediately understood exactly what I was talking about.

He came back and fixed it, and this time I went up to the roof with him to inspect it.  I should have done that the first time.  Lesson learned: Suck up the awkwardness and inspect the workman's work while he's still there.  Better to catch the problem immediately.

Damper problem #1 - air gap under cage
Damper problem #2: Misalignment with seal
Check your workmen, step in time, check your workmen, step in time, never need a reason, never need a rhyme, check your workmen, step in time!

Hollywood doesn't make movies with dance scenes like this anymore...

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