What to do before you use your fireplace this season

Nov 9, 2017 | Fire Safety

The weather is turning colder, and soon we’ll be curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book or a board game to enjoy as a family. But before you use your fireplace for the first time for the season, here’s a reminder of some safety tips to help keep your family safe:

DO: Have your fireplace cleaned once a year

If you have a wood burning fire place or stove, experts recommend you have your chimney swept at least once a year. Ideally this should take place before its first use of the season. This can be a difficult task for a homeowner without the specialized equipment and expertise, so we recommend finding a professional (we’ve found the best way to find a pro is to read the reviews for Chimney & Fireplace Cleaning Services at HomeAdvisor.com).

A professional chimney sweep should not only clean soot and debris, but should also inspect the structure for cracks, loose bricks, or missing mortar. Chimney liners should also be checked for cracking or deterioration. It is also important that your chimney has a property installed cap in good working condition.

DO: Use seasoned wood or manufactured fireplace logs

Using seasoned hardwood or manufactured fireplace logs minimize the buildup of soot and creosote in your chimney.

  • Products such as Duraflame brand manufactured logs burn even cleaner than real wood. Just be aware that manufactured logs also burn hotter than regular wood, and can potentially warp a metal chimney if you burn more than one log at a time. Be sure to follow the directions on the bag for lighting and use.
  • If you choose natural wood, use a dense wood such as oak that has been split and stored in a dry place elevated from the ground for at least six months.

DO: Learn the most effective way to build a clean fire

A well-built fire helps direct smoke up your chimney and helps ensure sparks and embers don’t spark out of the fireplace and onto your floor. Here’s some quick tips:

  • First, make sure fireplace logs are stacked on a metal grate as far back in the fireplace as possible.
  • Use kindling instead of flammable liquids to start the fire.
  • Open the damper before you light a fire in your fireplace, and keep the damper open until the fire is completely extinguished.
  • Use the “top down” method with bigger logs on the bottom and kindling at the top. Check out this video from the Chimney Safety Institute of America for a demonstration.

DON'T: Burn just any type of wood

Unseasoned “green” wood and resinous softwoods (such as pine) produce more creosote, . That’s a flammable by-product of combustion that can build up in the chimney…and that lead to a fire within your chimney!

  • Warning signs
    A chimney fire can be serious, as cracks in masonry chimneys can allow flames to reach the frame of your house and chimney fires in prefab metal chimneys often require them to be replaced. There are a number of warning signs of a fire within your chimney, including a “sizzle” sound, loud cracking and popping noise, a lot of dense smoke, and an intense, hot smell. Here’s another helpful video from the Chimney Safety Institute of America that shows what happens when you burn “green” wood.
  • Avoiding toxic fumes
    And there’s another reason to only burn wood or manufactured logs in your fireplace: some items release toxic fumes that you don’t want your family to breathe.
  • No Christmas tree branches!
    One more note as we move forward into the holiday season: never burn Christmas greenery in the fireplace! Not only does it produce creosote as it if a softwood, but the branches from your Christmas tree, wreath, or swags also burn much hotter and produce a lot of tar that can cause injuries as well as damage to your chimney.

DON'T: Overload your fireplace

Though a roaring fire in the fireplace can be beautiful, it’s really not as safe as a more controlled burn. Just a couple of logs at a time is recommended. A fire that burns too hot can crack your chimney, which can result in an expensive chimney repair.

DON'T: Forget about what's around your fireplace

The construction materials and your own decor surrounding your fireplace can be a fire hazard.

  • Use a guard
    First, protect your family and your home from hot embers shooting out of the fireplace by using a mesh metal screen or glass fireplace doors. A guard in front of an open flame is especially important when the room is unoccupied.
  • Hearth size matters
    The size of your hearth (the floor area within a fireplace) matters as well. If they are not large and thick enough, they might not be sufficient to prevent the spread of fire. InterNACHI publishes a reference of the appropriate sizes for your hearth, but it is important to also keep the hearth clear of combustible items (that includes extra kindling or decorative items).
  • Take down the stockings
    If you decorate your fireplace mantel seasonally with garlands or hang stockings or cards from it, remove these items before starting a fire, even if you have a screen. In addition to being a fire hazard, the heat and smoke that can escape your fireplace while maintaining your fire may cause damage to your belongings.
  • Keep extinguishers handy
    And keep a fire extinguisher near the fireplace and teach your family members how to use it properly, just in case!

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