How to deal with a nasty smell coming down the chimney

Q. I am getting nasty smells down my chimney, like burned wood and creosote. I wonder if the downdraft is caused by the use of exhaust fans in the house. How can I stop that odor?

DONALD, from Belmont

A. You have a reverse chimney effect, where the air pressure in the house is lower than outside, so air plunges down the chimney, carrying the creosote and other goodies lining the chimney with it. Closing the damper won’t do it, and closing off the firebox opening won’t either. Here’s a sure-fire cure, which a reader told me about: He bought a kerosene lantern, like those used for signaling on a railroad train. Open the damper, light the lamp and put it on the firebox floor. Its heat will get the air moving up and out. It might even work with the damper closed. Or, with the damper open, put in a bank of votive candles. It will give a festive look to your fireplace.

Q. My unit is two stories above a smoker, and I can’t get the old tobacco smell out.



A. Don’t give up. There are more and more smoke odor killers available, and many work on what’s there, but none works to keep the smoke out, so you have to keep doing it, often on a daily basis. If both the odor in the room plus the odor killer do not appeal, then moving to a virgin area (one where there has never been a puff) may be necessary. And who knows how the various treatments are affecting us. At any rate, there are two new types: Fresh Wave ( and Room Shocker (

Those crazy birds!

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When a caller wondered what to do about birds flying against the windows of a screened-in porch, the Handyman suggested using duct tape to sort of break up the look of the screens. Here is what Elizabeth Lawrence of Granville said she did: “I cut the plastic sleeves from the Globe and other newspapers into strips 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide and attached them to the screens with safety pins. The streamers flutter, diverting the birds away. It works on glass windows, too. Hang the streamers from above the windows with thumb tacks.’’ Any port in a storm, Elizabeth, and your idea goes right into the Handyman’s Hall of Fame.

Q. Several years ago I bought a gas log insert (natural gas) for my fireplace. I had it installed, and the guy said he had to take out the flue damper or put a bolt in it to keep it open. Naturally this causes a loss of heat when not using the fireplace unless I plug up my chimney. I am now reading that you can buy gas log inserts (natural gas) and not have any vent. New technology or was my gas guy wrong?

DICK, from Burlington

A. The gas guy is not wrong, but terribly off base when he mentioned natural gas logs without vents; they are approved in Massachusetts, which is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. I have a friend who sells stoves, and he refuses to sell ventless fireplace or ventless fireplace logs. They may be legal, but they can be lethal. The devices are legal because they are used, or should be used, only for supplemental heat. Anything more and the house will fill up with moisture and mold will grow. It happened to a caller who called me in a panic.

What you can do is replace that gas log insert with one that uses a power vent, exhausting fumes through one part of the double-lined exhaust pipe, and taking in combustion air through the other part of the exhaust pipe. These inserts bypass the regular chimney. And the best thing you can do is ban those ventless, potentially lethal devices.


Q. I have one of those round tub/shower valves that has worked well for several years. But recently it is very hard to turn, and is getting harder each day. Can I fix it?


A. Probably not. Those anti-scald valves are very sensitive, and can fail at any time. Have your plumber replace it.

Globe Handyman on Call Peter Hotton also appears in the Sunday Real Estate section. He is available 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays to answer questions on house repair. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton ( also chats online about house matters 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. Go to