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Posted by Steven in Colorado Springs, CO on 12/2/2014

When I first put together my list of Winter 2014 Projects I had in mind stuff that had been slowly accumulating in my head throughout the summer. The kinds of things you trip over while doing something else, the type of project that pops up when you look at something and say to yourself, "you know, I need to change that".

Can't say as I really saw this one coming.

Some backstory: Back during Tanglewood's design and construction I had decided to install a total of three fireplaces throughout the house. One propane fireplace was put into the apartment, another propane job was put in the library on the second floor, and of course there's the big wood burning fireplace in the center of the house between the kitchen and the great room. (I'd originally thought I would put a third propane fireplace in the master bedroom but we had to let that go when it was clear the design of the room made it infeasible.) I think it was the gas guys who actually did the fireplace installation proper--that's probably required by code and the fireplaces were here in that time frame.

So the other day my mother (who is in the apartment) remarked that there was "a lot of soot" in the fireplace over there and could I please come over to clean it? This surprised me a little bit, frankly, since propane is relatively clean burning and I hadn't seen anything like that with the liberary fireplace (though to be fair it hasn't been used nearly as much). Figuring I had perhaps an hour's work ahead of me I took a couple of tools, some Windex, and a work blanket to sit on (since sitting on the floor right there is pretty hard on the knees).

Oh! Great! Odin!
It became immediately apparent before I even took the front off of the fireplace that it was heavily sooted - I mean the inside was so bad that there was literally only one small "clear" spot in about the middle of the glass. I immediately fetched some more shop towels and stuff since this was going to be messy and cleared a path to the outside, then unlatched the glass and pulled it off.

Three main things happened at that point:

  • A decent sized cloud of carbon and soot billowed up from the glass and the fireplace as the air pressure equalized with my removal of the glass, partially blinding me;

  • About 10,547 dead Miller Moths fell out of the front of the fireplace where they'd been wedged against the glass to become desiccated, dusty husks, bursting into 22,445 little pieces of Miller Moths once they hit the floor;

  •  Approximately three cups of lava rock (which was in the bottom of the fireplace to cover the metal shell) that had been leaning up against the glass promptly fell out and onto the floor...and into the lower inside of fireplace...and into my shoes...and pretty much every place else they could fall. Making of course an enormous racket as they did so, momentarily deafening me.
It took me a moment of standing there and blinking and letting the gravel bounce around and stop making so much noise for me to process what had happened. Wanting to avoid spreading gravel any further than it already was I quickly pried off my shoes, then walked the glass cover outside for cleaning.

It took me several minutes to sweep up the gravel into a small bowl so I could put it back into the fireplace. How exactly so much of it had gotten "shifted" to be up against the glass I wasn't sure, but I speculate it was related to framing or flue work done after it was installed. I then spent a bunch more time cleaning out dust and the 9,862 Miller Moths that hadn't fallen out when the glass was removed--most of them seemed to have died after burrowing into the gravel, so there was a lot of digging involved here.

Once those messes were cleared up I went outside to address the glass. It was REALLY BADLY sooted up--just about the only part that did't have a layer of carbon on it was that 6-inch clear spot that I'd remarked on earlier. It took me a lot of work, cleaning cloths, glass cleaner, and a couple of razor blades (for one weird baked on patch that I think used to be a Miller Moth) to get that puppy cleaned up. With that done, I left it outside to dry while I went back to clean the fireplace itself.

As I'd expected it was equally bad--it just wasn't easy to see because it's painted a flat black. I spent a lot of time cleaning the interior of the firebox until a damp paper towel would come away clean (well, mostly clean). While doing all of this I figured there must be some reason why the fireplace was so sooty as I'd never seen a gas fireplace look like this, so once this was all done and I cleaned myself up a bit I set about to peruse the manual that came with the fireplace for some answers.

It turns out that writing useful propane fireplace manuals is (if this one is any indication) an ancient and presumably lost art in the industry, which is really rather sad. I assume the main reason for this is that the manufacturers figure people will just call a tech to do stuff anyway, so why bother making the manual useful and stuff? It was all very frustrating, but I did eventually tease out a couple of factoids:

  • The heavy soot was likely being caused by the fireplace not getting enough air; basically there was unburnt propane building up to make the carbon deposits.

  • The manual also made multiple mentions of how to install the lava rock (to cover the metal housing) and the rock wool (to provide a glowing ember appearance)....problem was, there wasn't any rock wool in the fireplace at all.
A quick check of the knobs under the fireplace confirmed the first finding...the air input was basically cranked all the way down to its lowest setting. I would guess that's how they're shipped and that this works great at sea level--but Tanglewood's up in the High Country. The installers clearly didn't do any adjustments here, they just hooked it all up, saw that it lit when they toggled the switch and then they were done. To be generous, they really didn't know what they were doing.

My second finding took a bit more research to suss out. Turned out that these fireplaces definitely came with little baggies of rock wool to provide the "glowing ember" effect of real wood, but there was literally none of that in either one (I checked the one in the library partway through this knowledge journey). It wasn't tucked under the fireplaces with the knobs and controls, it wasn't in any of the paperwork, it wasn't in the stacks of manuals I made sure to retrieve during construction--it simply wasn't anywhere. I suspect that those same installers (who I'd already decided really didn't know what they were doing) likely threw it out, or possibly stole it for their own use--no idea really. I just knew I was missing something.

Since I already had the fireplace opened up I took a day to track down some rock wool locally. This was an interesting experience. Turned out that neither Lowe's nor Home Depot carried it at all (in fact the local ones didn't have anything at all fireplace related, which I thought was odd). While Ace Hardware did in fact know what rock wool was they didn't carry it in their stores--but while I was at the largest local store looking I ran into a great gentleman there who knew who did carry it. He pointed me at a fine establishment that caters to gas fireplaces called Western Fireplace Supply, and one quick drive later I'd found exactly what I was looking for! They had everything I needed and after chatting with them a bit I made a mental note to contact them in the future should my fireplaces ever need maintenance work--they clearly knew what they were doing (as opposed to my installers, who seemingly did NOT know what they were doing). Two bags of rock wool later I was on my way back to Tanglewood, and today I finished dressing out both fireplaces and putting them all back together.

They really do look nicer now with those glowing embers, the missing rock back where it belongs, the complete lack of Miller Moth carcasses, and of course a glass front you can actually SEE through.

An unplanned but thoroughly satisfying project indeed.

Steven in Colorado Springs

My Construction Website

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