NYC to Ban Wood Burning Fireplaces in Historic Brownstones?

finished - kitchenIf you are thinking about putting in a new wood burning fireplace or restoring that old fireplace, will the new Mayor’s proposal affect you?  Bill de Blasio recently announced proposed updates to New York City’s Air Pollution Control Code that might affect your decision to not wait.

Now, de Blasio already has mixed review in this household.  Forcing certain 10 year olds to go to school in a snow storm and then cancelling after school programs so that their first Valentine’s Day dance was cancelled, did not go over too well.  We are conflicted on the horse carriage in Central Park ban (couldn’t proper regulations fix it such as only owner-driven horses) and positive about bringing the fireworks back to the East River.

When we first heard this news we were panicked because we spent a tidy little sum on reconstructing our fireplaces and the thought of not using them was quite distressing, not to mention we counted on them being a factor in our home’s resale value.

According to various news media websites (not always so reliable) the proposed changes would include banning new fireplaces from being in built in residential homes. If you are like us, a wood burning fireplace was high on our list of must-haves when we were purchasing our home.  Long snowy winter nights just wouldn’t have been the same without being able to curl up by the fire.

It is unclear how the new rules would affect homes that already have fireplaces that require reconstruction.   Would it make a difference if there is a chimney in existence but no smoke boxes?  Ours were really decorative heat conduits that pumped heat from the coal burner through the house.  From what we’ve read it looks like as long as the chimney is there that you might be ok.

For those who already have reconstructed fireplaces, the proposed codes say you can still use them but the regulations would require that home owners only burn wood with a low moisture content.  We are fine with that.  How they are going to enforce it is another question.  Are they going to hire wood police?  I hope retailers who sell wood only sell approved wood because I can’t tell the difference.

Apparently, it has only a handful of sponsors so we shall see where it goes.

**and for those who read the NY Times article that made us look like environmental hussies, the point I made was that, like stairs, the novelty will wear off and we will probably only use it a few times a year and we would of course follow the law on what to burn.

Restoring Old Fireplaces

When we were looking at houses, one of our must-haves were at least one working fireplace.  When my husband and I first met, I had an apartment with a working fireplace and it was so cozy and romantic.  But behind the romance there is a lot you have to know to get a working fireplace

Parlor floor mantle

First, most realtors will tell you that if there is a fireplace mantle in the house that “you can get it going” with a little restoration but what they don’t tell you is the cost.   At one point in time our house had six working fireplaces.  We know this because there are six separate chimney flues.  Even though you see only two chimneys on the roof, each of those chimneys house three separate flues.

In the third floor rental unit the mantles were removed and the hearths were dry walled over.  On the garden floor there is one marble mantle (still painted over) and one brick hearth (both closed up).

On the parlor floor there are two marble mantles with metal summer doors (see above).  After our offer on the house was accepted, we looked at the house more closely during the inspection.  In one of the fireplaces, part of the summer door was removable and we saw that there was no bottom.  We asked some contractors and architects for possible explanations and they thought that the house had never had wood burning fireplaces and that there was coal burning heat in the basement and that these were essentially decorative openings to let the heat in.  Turns out they were wrong.  Yes, these were actually once wood burning fireplaces.  We finally got the summer door off of the other mantle and there was a brick bottom on it that clearly had been used to burn wood. This opening (or firebox) was also much deeper than the other one and it is an unsolved mystery why they are different.

The Anatomy of a Fireplace

chimney-diagramA fireplace and chimney is made up of several parts including the mantel, the hearth, the firebox and the smoke chamber.  Over the years these components can get damaged, wear out or no longer fall within modern code requirements.

The Cost

When we first priced fireplace restoration, we researched the average cost in our area for this type of work.  In New York City, the prices varied from five to seven thousand dollars per fireplace.  That does not necessarily include all the extras.  Do the chimneys need refurbishing?  Do you need a new boiler flue liner?    If the house has not been updated in a while, you probably will.  That will run you about an extra three thousand.  Do they need to rebuild or enlarge the hearth to make sure it is up to code?  –an extra thousand there.  If the hearth opening is too narrow, they may need to remove the mantle so it can be enlarged.  That will cost you, in addition to the fact that with a marble mantle it may CRACK when removed.  There is nothing they can do to prevent it and the cost of replacement is on you.  Finally, there is the smoke test which must be performed by a third party company, and as with all construction related inspections, it is not cheap.


IMG_2679A certain amount of fireplace restoration can be done without a permit from the DOB.  However, if you are in the process of doing a renovation then it must be done under the general construction permit.  This means that it must go under your contractor’s insurance and therefore your contractor will “manage it” i.e. tack on a 20% fee.

And then there is the mess.  When we first contemplated our renovations we though we would put off the fireplaces because they weren’t an absolute necessity and we knew they were expensive. Afterwards, we thought we should get some estimates to verify how much it would cost.  We acquired three estimates and they were roughly the same price.  In addition to cost, we learned the physical requirements of the project.

Ouch - glad we did not paint up here.

Ouch – glad we did not paint up here.

When chimney liners are replaced with modern flexible steel liners they need to open the walls above the mantle as well as on any floors above.  While they do put plastic around their work, mess is inevitable.  We realized how crazy it would be to finish the other renovations and then reopen walls after they had recently been re-plastered and painted not to mention the damage that may be done to the floors as well.

Best Old-house Advice You Will Ever Get

Do the fireplace restoration before you start anything!  Once you have filed with the DOB for construction permits, then you must put the fireplace restoration under that permit.  Our house sat there for over a month while we waited for a Letter of No Objection that never came and then waited another month for the preparation of filing drawings and paperwork.  We might have saved ourselves filing fees and mark-up fees, not to mention the fact that something on the house would have been progressing, by starting right after closing.  By not restoring the fireplaces first thing, it also stalled the work in the rental unit. We didn’t want our new floors to be scratched up by the sand in the mortar which gets all over the floor and is ground in by the construction workers’ boots as they walk around.

Cost and mess aside, we were very happy we decided to refurbish the fireplaces.  They look great and will increase the value of the home in the end (we hope).  We look forward to future delightful snowy nights with no place to go.

To keep our metal summer doors looking fresh, we periodically used a black metal polish.  We used a brand called Meeco’s Stove Polish.



fireplace upstairs

Fireplace as we found it covered with several years of paint

They framed to mantle to prevent damage.

This is the chimney in the rental unit that had to be opened up.

This is the chimney in the rental unit that had to be opened up.

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Installing the new firebox.

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Frame and summer door stripped down to original metal.

Frame and summer door stripped down to original metal.

The wall will be re-plastered later by our contractor.

The wall will be re-plastered later by our contractor.