For thousands of years, the chimney has been closely associated with our concept of home. Upon spying smoke curling from a distant chimney, the weary traveler ends his journey with lightened steps.
When I built my house in Vermont, as a much younger man than I am today, I designed a house with two chimneys. The house has a cellar, first floor, second floor, and attic; because I wanted the chimneys to rise five feet above the ridge, they had to be 40 feet tall.
Since I couldn’t afford bricks in those days, I spent a lot of time gathering, sorting, and cleaning stones. Three years later, when the two 40-foot stone chimneys were finally complete, my financial situation had improved, so I flashed the chimney penetrations with copper and lead. Each chimney has a copper cricket.
I love my chimneys. Like travelers of old, I love to see a wisp of smoke rising from my chimney-top as I trudge homeward. Much as I love this image, however, I fear that the days of the residential chimney are numbered.
Whether serving a fireplace, wood stove, furnace, boiler, or water heater, a traditional chimney can be problematic. What’s wrong with chimneys?
For these and other reasons, energy experts now advise builders to choose sealed-combustion appliances. Instead of a chimney, sealed-combustion appliances usually require a PVC vent through a home’s sidewall or roof. Sealed-combustion appliances have the following advantages:
Yet old-fashioned chimneys have at least one advantage over PVC flues: they don’t require any electricity. (Sealed-combustion appliances are usually power-vented.) Reducing a home’s electricity use is always a good thing. Moreover, old-fashioned chimneys can enhance a home’s “passive survivability,” defined by Alex Wilson as “a building’s ability to maintain critical life-support conditions in the event of extended loss of power,…