Q: My fireplace is drafty. How can I correct this problem?
A: The most likely cause is a poorly sealing damper. Spend some money on a high quality fireplace damper for a tight seal. You'll recover the cost in your heating bill after two or three winters.
Q: My fireplace smokes a bit when I start a fire. How do I fix this?
A: If the problem corrects itself once the fire gets going, you've simply got a cold chimney. Cold air sinks. You can probably feel the air coming down when you arrange the wood. You need to warm the chimney up. Roll up some newspaper tightly and light the end. Hold your makeshift torch up the flue so the lit end is past the damper. This should help warm the chimney enough to reverse the draft. You'll be able to hear the reversal when it happens.
Q: My fireplace smokes constantly. How can I correct this problem?
A: One usual reason a fireplace will smoke lack of air. It's easy to check if the problem is lack of air. Just open a nearby window to create a draft and see what happens. If this is the problem, the air coming in the window will feed the fire and allow it to burn hotter and cleaner, sending smoke up the chimney. In an airtight home, you may need to open a window just a smidge any time you have a fire. An upstairs window is best.
Q: I tried that. Lack of air isn't the problem. What now?
A: Another equally likely problem that's a little harder to check for is blockage. Shine a flashlight on the damper to make sure that it is opening fully. Shine the light up the chimney to see if you can see any blockage. You may need to get on the roof and shine the light down the chimney as well. Remove any leaves or birds' nests or whatever else you see. If this doesn't work, it's time to call the chimney sweep and get a professional opinion.
Q: Can I improve air flow without opening a window?
A: Yes. If your house is too airtight to get a good fire going without opening a window, you can install an "outside air kit." This kit is just what it sounds like. It draws in air from the outside to help the fire burn. You can keep all your windows closed. You can get this kit from the manufacturer of your prefab fireplace or from a brick yard for your masonry fireplace. Many certified chimney sweeps sell them and will install them as well.
Q: Do the glass doors need to be closed if I use an outside air kit?
A: No. You can leave the doors open if you like. But since the air kit provides all the air the fire needs, you can also close the doors. You've increased your options.
Q: Should I leave the glass doors open or closed?
A: When you're just starting a fire, you want the glass doors to be all the way open. The fire needs plenty of air so that it can burn hot and clean. A cool fire will produce more smoke and creosote buildup in the chimney. Once you can see embers (glowing coals) in the wood, it's safe to close the glass doors partially to control the fire. When the fireplace is not in use, keep the glass doors close (and the damper too!) You'll save on your heating bill.