Is Your Fireplace Safe?
As you light up your fireplace this winter, avert disaster by avoiding these 6 mistakes
Winter weather has set in and it’s hard to resist that urge to curl up on a comfy chair in front of a roaring fire. Whether it’s alone with a good book or spending time with the family, the fireplace works like a magnet, drawing everyone in front of it. But the fireplace isn’t a fixture that can be neglected for nine months and used for three without upkeep. Steer clear of these fireplace mistakes.
Mistake 1: Leaving it dirty. If you use your fireplace every year, have it and your chimney cleaned by a professional every year. Be on the lookout for cracked bricks or chipped mortar. Soot falling down the chimney, also known as creosote — a dangerously combustible substance — is another red flag. The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association recommends having a cap attached to your chimney to keep animals and debris out.
Mistake 2: Keeping items too close to the fireplace. John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, advises keeping combustibles — items that can burn — at least three feet away from the fireplace. That means everything from furniture to books to a bucket of tinder. Also, says Drengenberg, “keep a sturdy screen in front of the fireplace so that, if you have an ember that pops out, it won’t come into your living area and start a fire or burn your furniture.” Glass doors serve the same purpose.
Mistake 3: Burning damp wood. “Burn only dry, seasoned wood,” says Drengenberg. “Damp wood creates a lot of smoke and is hard to ignite. It also won’t burn as nicely.”
Mistake 4: Helping the fire along with the wrong stuff. Some people are tempted to use accelerant liquids like gasoline to start a fire. Don’t do it. “You could blow the chimney off your house,” says Drengenberg. Newspapers and food scraps are also a bad idea, as is burning wrapping paper. It may float to the top of the chimney and get stuck, filling your house with smoke.
Mistake 5: Being careless with embers. When cleaning out the fireplace, it’s crucial to make sure the embers have cooled down completely first. If they haven’t and you try to remove them, you may start a new fire by supplying them with oxygen. Put the embers in a non-combustible container (like metal or ceramic) with a tight lid and store it away from your house and garage.
Mistake 6: Forgetting about what you can’t see. Don't forget that your chimney may be exposed other places in your house, like a second floor or an attic. Make sure to occasionally inspect it there as well. If there’s smoke damage or issues with the bricks or mortar, it should be checked out by a professional right away.
A final note, about flues: “If the house has a metal flue pipe,” says Drengenberg, “it should be far enough away from the wood” of the structure. These flues can reach temperatures north of 1000 degrees F and can dangerously heat up the wood of a home if not properly installed.