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Wood Burning Fireplace Safety

Image by Hayden Scott

When most people think of chimneys, they think of fireplaces and have memories of cold winter evenings sitting relaxed and cozy in front of a crackling fire.  To make this a safe reality, your fireplace needs regular care and cleaning to assure a safe and efficient fire.   Here are some suggestions:

Chimney and Fireplace 

If it has been several years (or never!) since you had your fireplace chimney cleaned, you should have it done by a professional chimney sweep.   At a minimum, check to make sure the chimney is clear of any nests from birds, squirrels or other animals. 

Check the flue damper operation. Make sure it opens and closes fully, and that it is able to be locked in both the open and closed positions.
Check the chimney draft. Make sure the chimney will draw up the fire and smoke properly. Test this by taking several sheets of newspaper and rolling them up. Then with the fireplace damper in the open position, light the newspaper in the fireplace. The smoke should rise up the chimney.  This pulling effect is called draft. The simplest way to increase the draft in your chimney is to burn the fire hotter - hotter air is lighter, so it has more pull.  If it doesn't have the proper draft, you have an obstruction and need to call a professional to clean the chimney of creosote, ash and possible debris.

Inspect the fire brick in the fireplace. If you see any open mortar joints have them repaired immediately!   A fire can spread into the stud wall behind the masonry fire brick through open mortar joints.

Clean the hearth area weekly to prevent dust and soot buildup. Never use an abrasive cleaner inside the fireplace as many leave a flammable residue.

The Firebox

The firebox is the area that contains the fire; it is commonly constructed of either metal sheeting or firebrick. Since the heat of the fire keeps the firebox clean, very little upkeep is required.  Gently scrub the walls of the firebox opening with a stiff-bristle brush (not a wire brush) only to the height of the lintel (the heavy steel brace that supports the masonry above the fireplace opening). 
If your fireplace does not have an ash pit or box, shovel the bulk of the ashes into a bag or metal container and vacuum the remaining lightweight ashes.  Do not sweep or vacuum until all the embers have been extinguished for at least 12 hours.

Glass Enclosures

Glass enclosures for the fireplace are constructed of tempered glass.  Clean the glass facing the fire after every other fire to remove the residue of soot.  One chimney sweep recommends cleaning the glass with a damp newspaper dipped in cold ashes.  Others recommend using a razor paint scraper.  Both work.

The Grate and Fireplace Tools

The grate is usually made from cast iron and can accumulate a buildup of creosote tars. Cast-iron tools may be cleaned in the same way as grates. To remove buildup, take the grate or tool outside and hose it down. Sprinkle an abrasive cleanser on the surface, and scrub with a stiff-bristle brush or steel-wool soap pad.  For andirons and brass or brass-plate tools, there are many products that can restore them to their original beauty with a little time and effort.

Chimney Caps

Chimney caps, also called rain covers, are one of the most inexpensive preventive measures you can take to prevent water penetration and damage to a chimney.  A well designed cap will keep water out and prevent birds and animals from entering and nesting.  They also function as spark arrestors, preventing sparks from landing on the roof or nearby combustible materials.

Chimney Fires

A chimney fire can create loud cracking and popping noise, dense smoke, and can be dramatic enough to be detected by neighbors or people passing by.  If a chimney fire occurs, call the fire department immediately.  When chimney fires occur in masonry chimneys, whether the flues are an older, unlined type or are tile-lined to meet current safety codes, the high temperatures at which they burn (around 2000°F) can melt mortar, crack tiles, cause liners to collapse and damage the outer masonry material.  A professional should inspect the flue before starting another fire.

Starting the Fire

The damper must be fully open before starting a fire and left open until the fire is out. If a source for outside air for combustion exists, be sure that it is open before you light the fire.  Never start a fire with liquid fire starters, such as gasoline, kerosene, etc.  Don't overload the fireplace. 
Be sure to close the screen to prevent sparks from flying out into your living room and keep the base of the fireplace free of excessive ash accumulation.


Burn only seasoned, well-dried wood to minimize dangerous creosote buildup.  All firewood contains water.  Freshly cut wood can be up to 45% water, while well-seasoned firewood generally has a 20-25% moisture content.  Well-seasoned firewood is easier to start, produces more heat, and burns cleaner.  If your wood is cut 6 months to a year in advance and properly stored, the sun and wind will do the job for free.

Storing Firewood

Even well-seasoned firewood can be ruined by bad storage.  When wood is exposed to constant rain or covered in snow, it will reabsorb large amounts of water, making it unfit to burn and causing it to rot before it can be used.  Wood should be stored off the ground, if possible, and protected from excess moisture when weather threatens.  Also don't forget that your woodpile looks like heaven to termites, so keep it away from - and out of -the house.

#holidaysafety #fireplacesafety #chimneysafety #woodburningsafety #fireplacemaintenance #chimneymaintenance

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