There is something magical about the combination of cold air and the scent of a wood burning fireplace. And with bitterly cold temperatures this weekend, I’m sure a lot of people are going to be thinking about getting a fire going.
Properly maintained fireplaces can be the crowning jewel of the room during the cold months. You just cannot forget the “properly maintained” part. A fireplace is no different than your furnace or air conditioning in the sense that it should be serviced each and every year. One big difference is that you service your HVAC to ensure efficient operation. You service your fireplace to ensure efficient operation and to prevent a house fire.
On several occasions I have been present at a chimney inspection when it is determined that there has been a flue fire at some point. On every occasion the homeowner had no idea that there had been a flue fire. Here in lies the danger of a chimney. In many cases, a homeowner does not find out they have a dangerous situation in their chimney until it is too late.
A best practice would be to have your chimney inspected (a level 2 inspection requiring a special camera) and cleaned each and every year. Yes, that includes you gas log people as well. There is a common misconception that only people who burn wood are at risk by using their fireplaces. This is completely untrue. As with any natural gas heating appliance, the concern is proper venting of the production of carbon monoxide. If your chimney flue is dirty or damaged or just not operating efficiently, it could allow carbon monoxide to come down the chimney and into your home. Additionally, the condensation that results from the combustible air cooling during or after a gas fire is highly acidic. Its corrosive power can eat a chimney flue inside out.
Now back to the wood burners. I grew up with a father who I swear waited for the first sign of cooler weather to justify putting in a huge order for firewood. He and my older brother, Jason, would feed our fireplace as if they were feeding the engine of a locomotive. I loved it! As a child, there is nothing like the crack and pop of real wood in a fireplace. (Except when those little embers pop out and surprise you!)
Wood burning fireplaces are awesome and they require the highest level of attention. Creosote, a tar-like substance often found in wood burning fireplace chimney flues, is a bi-product of burning wood. Creosote can itself catch fire and cause a flue fire. Creosote build up can also affect the proper venting of the chimney flue. Here is a great “What you need to know when burning wood” list that I found on the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s website.
1. Get an annual chimney check. Have chimneys inspected annually, and cleaned as necessary, by a qualified professional chimney service technician. This reduces the risk of fires and carbon monoxide poisonings due to creosote buildup or obstructions in the chimneys.Keep it clear.
2. Keep tree branches and leaves at least 15 feet away from the top of the chimney.
3. Install a chimney cap to keep debris and animals out of the chimney.
4. Choose the right fuel. For burning firewood in wood stoves or fireplaces, choose well-seasoned wood that has been split for a minimum of six months – one year and stored in a covered and elevated location. Never burn Christmas trees or treated wood in your fireplace or wood stove.
5. Build it right. Place firewood or fire logs at the rear of the fireplace on a supporting grate. To start the fire, use kindling or a commercial fire lighter. Never use flammable liquids.
6. Keep the hearth area clear. Combustible material too close to the fireplace, or to a wood stove, could easily catch fire. Keep furniture at least 36″ away from the hearth.
7. Use a fireplace screen. Use metal mesh or a screen in front of the fireplace to catch flying sparks that could ignite or burn holes in the carpet or flooring.
8. Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Place detectors throughout the house and check batteries in the spring and fall. When you change your clocks for Daylight Savings Time, remember to check your batteries.
9. Never leave a fire unattended. Before turning in for the evening, be sure that the fire is fully extinguished. Supervise children and pets closely around wood stoves and fireplaces.
10. The CSIA recommends annual inspections performed by CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps. These chimney sweeps have earned the industry’s most respected credential by passing an intensive examination based on fire codes, clearances and standards for the construction and maintenance of chimney and venting systems. The National Fire Protection Association also recommends that all chimneys are inspected on an annual basis.