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Home Safety

Tips For Using Your Fireplace

Tips For Using Your Fireplace
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Now tell the truth – have you had your chimney cleaned lately? The honest answer is, probably not. Yet it’s one of the best tips for using your fireplace safely.

However, just because people are building fires, that doesn’t mean they’ve taken the necessary maintenance steps to fireplace safety.

“We have an enormous number of chimney fires in this area every year,” said Jerry Forbes, who owns Morrill & Forbes Chimney Sweeps in Carmel, California, with his wife, Helen. “They’re pretty tragic. People don’t think about it until it happens.”

Inspecting Your Fireplace

If you are lucky enough to have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, then Safety Rule No. 1 is getting an annual chimney inspection by a reputable company, and having it cleaned as needed.

Any time wood is burned, it creates a sticky compound called creosote, which clings to the inside of a chimney. Creosote itself can catch on fire if chimneys aren’t cleaned regularly; needless to say, chimney fires can spread to the rest of the house with disastrous results.

Warner says some great tips for using your fireplace safely is doing a regular visual inspection of the chimney. Looking at the outside can reveal cracks or missing bricks that need repair. Taking a peek up the inside of the chimney can help you spot flaking or glassy creosote deposits, strong indications that the chimney needs cleaning.

But creosote isn’t the only hazard, according to Vicki Warner, owner of The Hearth Shop in Monterey, California.

Why You Need A Spark Arrestor

“Your spark arrestor also needs to be cleaned,” she said. “And if you don’t have one, you need one.”

A spark arrestor is a screen that fits securely over the top of the chimney, which prevents burning embers or sparks from escaping. Leaves, twigs and other debris can get caught in the screen, and so a regular cleaning of this feature is also important.

More Tips For Using Your Fireplace

Forbes said there are some general steps you can take for fireplace safety as well. One big one: Don’t use the fireplace for burning trash or mass quantities of paper. This, too, can lead to chimney fires.

Choose well-dried hardwoods such as oak for your fire; woods like pine and eucalyptus are more likely to leave creosote deposits. Don’t use painted or pressure-treated wood, which can release toxic gases when burned.

Whatever you do, don’t chop up your Christmas tree for the fireplace; and don’t use flammable liquids, like gasoline or lighter fluid, to start a fire. “This is very dangerous,” said Forbes, who has seen all this and more in his 35 years of chimney sweeping and inspection.

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Building A Fire The Right Way

Building a fire the right way is also vital to fireplace safety and can cut down on maintenance.

First, make sure the damper is open before anything starts burning.

It’s also a good idea to warm the air in the flue before you start the fire. This will help the smoke go up and out the chimney; if you leave cool air in the chimney, it will tend to create a backdraft that pushes the smoke into the room.

Warner suggests folding newspaper into a cone shape and lighting the top like a torch; holding this in the fireplace for a few minutes will be sufficient to create a better updraft.

Next, more tips for using your fireplace involve building a proper fire. It takes just few crumpled pieces of newspaper under a generous portion of kindling or tinder, and topping that, some smallish logs. Don’t try to put on big logs right away, said Forbes; they won’t catch or will smolder.

He advises tending the fire for the first half-hour until it gets going, and then checking on it frequently after that. “When the fire starts to go, then it can take the larger pieces of wood,” he said.

Don’t let the fire smolder, because this will also tend to add to the coating of creosote, Forbes said. A smoldering fire produces cooler smoke, which lingers in the chimney.

“The longer the smoke stays in the chimney, the more chance there is of buildup,” he said.

If you do see smoke coming back into the room, try setting the grate further back in the firebox, and push logs to the back as well. Raising the grate may also help, Warner said.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Other mistakes that can be made are in the cleanup after a fire. When taking ashes out of the fireplace, it’s best to use a metal bucket with a lid, said Warner, in case there are still hot coals in the pile.

Forbes recommends leaving several inches of ash under the grate, which will make it easier to get a fire going the next time. The ash acts as insulation for the coals; a healthy bed of coals keeps the fire burning brightly.

Sooty bricks can be cleaned with TSP (sodium phosphate), Warner adds.

Fireplace owners may also want to invest in an anti-creosote powder or spray that is applied to wood before burning. This cuts down on the amount of creosote that that wood will produce.

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