Vent Free Fireplaces Caused Soot Damage and Her Mother's Headaches (?)

Apr 7, 2003 (Updated Nov 19, 2007)

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The Bottom Line As I listened to her story, she sounded so self important, so intelligent, so sincere, so innocent, and yet,...

I had her on the telephone, listening to her crying, her house was soot damaged and her mother was suffering from headaches. I felt she had the order of important issues mixed up, but she truly seemed more upset about the state of her home than her mother's health.

The lady was from Ohio, and she shall remain nameless. She and her husband had been successful, having recently purchased the brand new home of their dreams. At over 7,000 square feet of living space, including a mother-in-law apartment, and completely decorated in white, she can't understand what could have possibly gone wrong.

As I listened to her story, she sounded so self important, so intelligent, so sincere, so innocent, and yet,... so naive.

What could have possibly happened, to make her bright white, $500,000.00 plus dream home, turn gray and somewhat black? She's only talking to me because she has heard that I might be an expert in the field of vent-free gas fireplaces. She has two vent-free fireplaces, assisting with the huge job of heating her mammoth dream home. Both fireplaces, I quickly discover, installed by a no-name contractor, hired by her "custom" home builder, and purchased from a local cash and carry distributor.

The tale of woe unfolds. First, she assures me how successful both she and her husband are and second, how hard they have both worked, in order to earn the right to build their dream home,to their extensive specifications.

"Seven thousand square feet!" I whistled to myself and slightly out loud, over the phone. She was quick to explain that a large portion of the home had been set aside for her dear mother's, "in-law" apartment.

She was asking me for advice about the two 30,000 Btu/H unvented gas fireplaces they had strategically placed in the center of the house, to assist with the massive heating bills. Heating bills that would usually be considered normal, (?) for a 7,000 square foot house in the middle of Ohio. Despite the additional installation of two conventional forced air furnaces, which were more than capable of heating this palace in the middle of no-where. They were using two vent-free fireplaces to "supplement their heating needs, with the so-called benefits of 99% vent-free gas efficiency.

To make a long story short, she outlined how her white dream home had quickly become gray and in some sections, black. Carpets, walls, and expensive new furniture had all magically changed from a pristine white to darker shades of gray. As an after thought, she throws in her suspicion that her mother's headaches are somehow related to the changing color of her home.

What could have gone wrong? Why was her dream home looking like a nightmare? Who was going to fix it? Who was going to pay for the damages? Oh yes,...and what of her aging mother's health?

She quickly moves on to explain that her insurance company has denied her damage claim for more than $25,000.00. A claim she says is supported by the professional house cleaners who have surveyed her carpets, walls and furniture. The builder has also denied any responsibility for the damages, referring her to the supplier of the vent-free fireplaces. Of course, the cash and carry suppliers of the fireplaces deny any responsibility, claiming she should seek relief from the installing contractor, who obviously did something wrong. The installing contractor can't be found and likely has no liability insurance anyway.

At this point, the lady breaks down into incoherent sobs, pleading for my understanding and assistance.

I'm a long way from the scene so, over the phone, I insisted on having an expert, with specific test equipment, brought out to the home and arrange to call me with the necessary test data and information I need to form an informed opinion. It's set up for the following week, with the added bonus of having him call me while he is still at the home. Between us and his equipment, we conducted a number of tests, as I waited on the telephone. He is my eyes and hands. He's also very good at what he does, with his state of the art combustion analyzers and other necessary test equipment. My advantage is in my knowledge of some of the idiosyncrasies of the fireplaces he is testing. Eventually, we figured out what the original installing contractor had done wrong, to both fireplaces. Things that local gas company technicians and two other service people, sent by the builder, over several visits have missed. We corrected the problems and I thought the book was closed on a happy note.

The lady from Ohio, had paid a modest fee to the two specialist technicians who had conducted the tests and fixed the problems with her fireplaces. I charged nothing for my advice, or my time on the phone, and yet she called me again a few weeks later to ask if I will help her and her husband. They wanted my expert testimony, in their proposed lawsuits against the builder, their insurance company and the company that built the fireplaces.

I refused to assist them with all of their legal shenanigans. For one thing, they have too many fronts to battle, for another, they don't even know who was really to blame for their problems. (The installing contractor is long gone.) The insurance company is far too large to take on and the builder has already ensured he has a back way out. "He didn't specify the vent-free fireplaces,... they did."

The husband calls me a few weeks later, again trying to get me to join them in their lawsuit, but I know a losing cause when I hear one. I can hear his wife wailing in the background and I feel for them.

A week later, the lady from Ohio tried one more time to get me to come to their legal assistance. She was emphatic that this fiasco had cost them over $25,000.00 in damages and that someone was going to pay. When I pointed out the facts, as I understood them, she agreed to leave me alone.

Before hanging up the phone, I asked, "How's your mother doing?" and she replied, "Oh, her?...She's okay."


I've been busy for the past several months, but this true story stuck out in my memory as one that needed to be told. If you really want to heat your homes efficiently, look towards the safety of vented, efficient, space heaters, fireplaces and furnaces. The choices are endless and the safety aspects of vented gas appliances are worth their weight in gold, to you and your family members.

P.S.: For anyone who really cares about what was wrong with the two above fireplaces. The installer had added excessive amounts of lava rock (supplied with the fireplaces) to the base of the burners, choking off the secondary air to the burners and creating small amounts of soot and harmful levels of carbon monoxide to flow freely into the home. Which is to be expected with a vent-free gas fireplace, which has been set up or installed incorrectly.

The lady's elderly mother slept in a ground floor apartment close to the fireplaces and is lucky to be alive today. I'm quite sure her headaches were the real symptoms of the early stages of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Damages to the house, as bad as they were, in my opinion, were secondary to what might have been. This was a typically unnecessary application of vent-free fireplaces, but not the worst I have encountered.

Despite my private warnings to the lady from Ohio and her husband, they continue to live in that house with the two vent-free fireplaces today, and her mother.

Something that I feel begs to be questioned is,... why? Why would two intelligent, financially successful people invest many hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and furnish their dream home, and then try to save a few hundred dollars per year on their heating bills?

The old saying, "Penny wise and pound foolish," springs to mind.

Take care of yourselves and your loved ones. Use common sense, check out the installing contractor's credentials, vent fuel burning appliances and live well.


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