Keep the Home
Fires Burning - Safely
The crackling blaze of a family hearth can warm your toes
as well as your soul, add appeal to your home and even cut
down on heating costs. But much depends on how efficient
and cared for your fireplace and chimney are.
Keeping the home fires burning has never been easier.
Today, fireplaces come in all shapes and sizes - from the
traditional masonry type made of brick or stone, to the
prefabricated metal and free-standing models. They can add
drama and warmth to almost any room, and many have
energy-saving features and designs.
Regardless of the fireplace you have, enjoying it year
after year requires some effort. A fireplace needs to be
well-maintained and will only heat efficiently and safely
if it was built correctly in the first place.
To work efficiently, the firebox (the area above the
hearth where the fire is built) must be large enough to
contain a fire: draw sufficient air for combustion, have a
smoke shelf to prevent downdrafts from pushing smoke back
into the room and a damper to close off outside air when
it is not in use.
The chimney should be smooth and relatively straight with
a cap rising above the roof to avoid downdrafts. There
should be no large trees or buildings near the chimney
which may divert airflow.
A fireplace build 30 or 40 years ago will often suck more
heat out of a home than it contributes. Most can be made
more efficient simply by installing one or more
heat-saving additions. If your fireplace has no mantel,
for example, you should add one. A mantel above the
opening will keep the heat from rising straight to the
ceiling and will send warm air into the room.
Even when a fireplace throws heat into a room, great
quantities of warm air will be lost or smoke will be sent
into the room if it doesn't draw properly. To preserve
your home's heated air supply, install outside air vents
to fuel the fire. Some building supply stores carry
ready-to-install air vent kits that are set through the
back of the fireplace. To cure a smoky fireplace, you may
need to install a special chimney cap. Surrounding tall
trees can cause downdrafts that bring smoke into a room.
Forced air furnaces and fans or doors opposite a fireplace
can also pull smoke from the firebox and force it into the
room. Bird nests, beehives and leaves in chimneys can also
have the same results. Be sure to turn off fans and check
your chimney regularly for obstructions.
Heated air can also escape up the chimney when a fire is
smoldering and the damper must still be kept open.
Installing a glass door fire screen will help keep the
heat in and it is also a good safety feature. Even with a
fire burning and the doors closed, you can still enjoy the
flames and receive warmth since the glass reflects heat
into the room.
If you are really energy-conscious or want to use your
fireplace to substantially increase your home's heating
efficiency, consider installing a device that converts the
fireplace into a nearly airtight, wood-burning stove. Made
of heavy metal or cast iron, these units are built along
the same principle as a wood stove. Many have broad doors
with a viewing glass to enjoy the fire's appearance.
Similar to stoves, these airtight units use draft controls
so you can adjust heat output and burning rates.
Cleaning the fireplace and chimney
If you have just moved into a home with a fireplace, you
should inspect it thoroughly to ensure there are no
significant structural problems. This includes checking
the chimney for leaks and making sure it meets all the
The best time to do an annual chimney/fireplace cleaning
is in the fall, especially if you use your fireplace
regularly over the winter months. You can hire a
professional chimney sweep or do it yourself.
In addition to any obstructions, you want to get rid of
any creosote buildup in the flue and chimney. Creosote is
a tarry, highly-flammable substance formed when moisture
expelled from the burning wood combines with combustible
gases escaping unburned up the chimney flue. It can be the
cause of a chimney fire if not removed regularly.
Building and fireplace supply stores usually carry basic
chimney cleaning kits which will help you do the job.
Chimney cleaning also means working from the roof down, so
always consider your safety when doing the job yourself.
Clean the fireplace and hearth of ashes periodically
during the months you use it Vacuum or brush up ashes,
then wipe down the hearth. Remember, you can use ash in
the garden as a nutrient, soil conditioner or even pest
Never store any paper, wood or other combustible materials
directly in front of your fireplace.
Use a fire screen and fireproof throw-rug in front of the
fireplace to protect carpeting, other flooring or
furniture from sparks.
Never saturate wood with a flammable liquid to start or
rekindle a fire.
Never pour water over the fire to smother the flames. Use
baking soda: sand, dirt or plain cat lifter.
Never leave a burning fire unattended.