Solved! Why do I have a leaky chimney and how do I fix it?

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Q: We love our fire pit and use it throughout the fall and winter. But recently I noticed water in and around the chimney. I think my chimney is leaking, but I have no idea what could have been the cause. Why do I have a leaky chimney?

A: For many homeowners, a fireplace is a cozy gathering place that makes the colder months a little more tolerable. But a leaky chimney threatens to spoil the mood and even renders the hearth temporarily unusable. If homeowners notice their chimney dripping water or moisture into the hearth or surrounding walls, a leaky chimney is almost certainly to blame. This is one repair homeowners won’t want to put off, and not just because they’ll miss the roaring fire in their living room. More often than not, chimney leaks indicate further water damage in the attic and surrounding walls. It is essential to stop the leak as soon as possible and to remedy any related damage before it becomes too serious.

A chimney leak can be the result of a problem with the chimney itself or with the roof surrounding it. It may not be clear at first whether homeowners should contact a roofer or a chimney sweep. Read on to troubleshoot the most likely causes of a leaky chimney and decide who to call for chimney repairs.

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You may not have a lid on your chimney.

A functioning chimney should allow smoke to escape from the house but prevent water from entering the interior. One of the most important features of the chimney that supports this function is a chimney cover or a flush cover. This is usually a piece of metal that fits over the chimney opening with a hole in the middle for the chimney cap. Most flush covers have a slight slope on each side so water runs off rather than pooling on a flat surface and leaking inside. A chimney without a cover is essentially a hole in the roof. Nothing prevents rain, snow, debris or even critters from falling directly into the fireplace.

The chimney cap or the frame cover may be damaged.

The chimney cap is a device that sits above the flush lid. Typically, the sides are screened to prevent sparks from escaping the chimney, and the top is covered to keep out water and other elements. Over time, the seal between the chimney cap and the flushing cover can break, causing the chimney cap to leak.

Even the best chimney caps can eventually suffer from age and wear. The chimney cap and flushing cover are usually made of metal and can break down due to rust as they age. One or both of these features may need to be replaced if they are no longer tight.

Leaky chimney

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Damaged bricks or worn mortar can cause the chimney to leak.

As many people know, homes with brick exteriors need some maintenance over the years to keep them from falling apart or succumbing to mold. Brick chimneys are even more exposed to the weather than siding, so they can be expected to wear out faster. The mortar may begin to crack, leaving gaps for water to enter, or the bricks themselves may begin to crumble. It is generally not effective to simply caulk the worn mortar as the surface underneath continues to deteriorate. For a long-term solution, it will probably be necessary to point the chimney (finish the mortar joints with a narrow ridge of putty or mortar) and replace badly damaged bricks. It’s also a good idea to have the chimney waterproofed after other repairs are complete.

Flashing keeps moisture and debris out of the roof – if damaged, it could let water in.

Flashing is the material that roofers place on parts of the roof where water could seep into gaps, usually at corners, edges, or where the roof meets a wall. Flashing is also installed around the base of a chimney. If this flashing is damaged or not installed properly, it will not create a shield against water or debris, causing water to leak into the chimney.

Leaky chimney

Photo: istock.com

Condensation accumulated inside the chimney could leak into the hearth.

The source of moisture from a leaky chimney isn’t always rainwater – it can collect from the fumes of a gas fireplace. This is especially common when the fireplace has been converted from wood to gas. Gas fireplaces emit a small amount of exhaust which can form condensation inside the fireplace. As long as the gas is emitted, the chimney never has the opportunity to dry out, and the constant moisture will damage the chimney and even seep into the surrounding walls over time. Fortunately, this problem has a simple solution: install a chimney liner to provide a moisture barrier and prevent the chimney from leaking in and out.

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If you notice water in your chimney, your attic is probably also suffering from water damage.

If there is water in the chimney, the source is somewhere between the top of the chimney and the hearth. Most often, the leak will not only be contained within the chimney, but it will also compromise other parts of the house as it travels downward. Water follows gravity, so a chimney water leak can affect any surface that gets in the way of water. If the roof flashing is to blame, water will seep into the attic as well as the chimney. Brick is also porous, so even excess moisture inside can seep through, making surrounding walls damp. In addition to resolving the source of the leak, it is important to do a thorough inspection of the entire length of the chimney to determine if there is water damage in the attic or the walls surrounding the chimney.

Leaky chimney

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A roofer can repair damaged or missing flashings.

If it is determined that the source of the leak around a chimney is the result of damaged flashing, a roofer is the best person to call, and quickly. Over time, even a small amount of water that runs off every time it rains can seriously damage the roof, attic, and walls affected by the leak. Many homeowners don’t visit their attic every day, so they may not see mold starting to form or other effects of water damage. It’s also important to note that wherever water can get inside, so can debris and small creatures. Rodents that travel along rooftops will not hesitate to make the attic their home if they can find even a small entrance.

Also, if all the roof flashings were installed at the same time, the chimney may not be the only part of the house vulnerable to leaks. The rest of the flashing is also old and will probably need to be replaced soon. It is advisable to stop this problem in its tracks before it becomes more serious and costly.

A chimney sweep can inspect and repair any problems with the chimney itself.

For most chimney leaks, it’s best to call a chimney sweep immediately to make the repairs, even if it’s not clear what they will be. Chimney sweeps know exactly what problems to look for, including condensation, rusty caps or covers, or damaged masonry. Homeowners may be tempted to do small repairs themselves to save on the cost of hiring a chimney sweep. But between the safety risks of getting on the roof and the possibility of prolonging or worsening the problem with improper repairs, it’s worth leaving that job to the professionals. Chimney repair is not a DIY project, so contacting a chimney sweep is the most effective way to get the chimney back in good working order.

Leaky chimney

Photo: istock.com

It is recommended that you have your chimney cleaned and inspected at least once a year.

Even if the chimney appears to be working properly, it is recommended that you schedule regular maintenance to have it cleaned and inspected at least once a year. For owners who use their fireplace often, it is wise to schedule more frequent maintenance.

Fire pits are a comfortable feature to have in a home, but they are only safe if they are well maintained. Homeowners should not overlook the risk of exposure to smoke or carbon monoxide if buildup blocks the chimney. Scheduling regular inspections and cleanings will ensure the fire pit is safe to use and avoid the need for massive repairs down the road.

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