Maintaining a chimney after storm damage

04/15/2010 12:00 AM |

Vera Chinese photo
Roofer Paul Golanec repairs flashing, the sheet metal that keeps the gap between the chimney and the roof watertight, on a home in Laurel Tuesday. The recent wind and heavy rains led to a surge in reports of leaky chimneys and related water damage.

When Brian Tully saw water stains around the molding of the fireplace in his Southold home, he knew exactly where it was coming from.

“The flashing wasn’t good to start with,” he said of the sheet metal that’s supposed to make the area between the roof and the chimney watertight.

Lucky for Mr. Tully, a roofer was able to repair the damage quickly, but many people on the East End have reported similar problems due to high winds and water pressure from last month’s storms.

Local businesses say they’ve been inundated with calls in the past weeks from homeowners complaining of leaking chimneys and other forms of water damage. Although the flood of service inquiries is undoubtedly good for business, experts point out a few key steps to make sure chimneys stay dry.

Bob Schmidt, owner of Laurel Stone Supply, a masonry retailer in Mattituck, offers free consultations and says he has received up to 10 calls a day from people concerned about weather damage.

Mr. Schmidt explained that all masonry — be it brick, stone or stucco — is porous. As a result, chimneys absorb rain that can cause leaking and cracks from repeated freezing and thawing. “Brick is basically a sponge,” said Mr. Schmidt, adding that the water can travel down a flue pipe into a fireplace or even into a boiler. “Gravity takes the water down and it looks for the path of least resistance.”

The best solution for water-saturated masonry is to apply a high-quality sealant once the chimney is dry. Mr. Schmidt said the best sealants contain siloxane and allow vapor to escape while preventing water from getting in.

“You can buy cheap sealers and sometimes it can create more problems,” he said, adding that the sealant his business sells usually lasts about 10 years. Applying it is simple and can be done using a garden sprayer, he said.

One red flag indicating whether or not a chimney is taking in water is a white buildup of salts along the chimney’s side, known as efflorescence. “It’s a residue that’s evaporating off the surface,” he said.

If a chimney has cracks, usually due to repeated thawing and freezing, a sealer will not solve the problem. Instead, Mr. Schmidt recommends waiting for drier weather and using caulk to fix any breaks before applying the sealant.

Melissa Wintjen, manager of Hampton Hearth, with offices in Southold and Southampton, recommended installing a chimney cap if one is not already in place, to prevent rain, moisture and animals from entering a chimney.

She noted that even those with chimney caps in place were affected by the storms. Her company responded to almost 50 people on the North and South forks whose chimney covers had blown off during heavy rains.

“Some [people] don’t know where [the covers] went,” Ms. Wintjen said.

She said the best chimney caps are made of stainless steel and, when installed properly, can last a lifetime.

Experts also recommend making sure that the chimney’s flashing is installed properly to prevent problems like the one Mr. Tully experienced.

Roofer Paul Golanec, who owns PRG Inc., said he has repaired about 15 chimney flashings, including Mr. Tully’s, in the past month. He normally does that number of flashing jobs in an entire year, he says.

“It seems like a lot of people’s chimneys aren’t flashed properly,” he said. “If it’s not done right, it’s guaranteed to leak.”

He also stresses repairing cracks before they get out of hand and turn a simple repair into “a major project.”

Mr. Golanec advises against homeowners repairing their own flashing, noting that he’s seen some people make matters worse by trying to fix their chimneys using tar.

“Hire a professional,” he said.

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