Curling up in front of a cozy fire is one of the joys of the fall and winter seasons. However, every type of fireplace, whether wood-burning, electric, or gas, can pose a potential danger to everyone in your home. Before you light that fire, please keep in mind a few important safety and maintenance tips.
1. Make sure the chimney is capped.
A cap with wire/mesh sides covers and helps protect against moisture, nesting critters, and other debris from entering the chimney. If the cap is damaged or missing, DO replace or repair it.
It is a very wise investment to hire a professional chimney sweep to clean your fireplace and chimney. A chimney sweep can also check the structure for loose bricks, cracks or disintegrating mortar. How often, you ask? The National Fire Protection Association Standard 211 states, “Chimneys, fireplaces, and vents shall be inspected at least once a year for soundness, freedom from deposits, and correct clearances. Cleaning, maintenance, and repairs shall be done if necessary.” As the national safety standard, this is the correct way to approach the issue. The standard takes into account the fact that even if you don’t use your chimney much, animals may build nests in the flue or there may be other signs of deterioration that could make the chimney unsafe to use.
Be sure to stock your woodpile with split, DRY, dense hardwood, such as oak, ash, or hickory. Many softwoods, such as pine, are known to contain a lot of resin. Resin makes the wood burn at very high temperatures and also has the tendency of cracking, which can throw out dangerous flaming particles. Also, the continuous use of pine results in the formation of creosote, which could create a potential fire hazard in the chimney. Although creosote builds up naturally and forms even with the use of hardwoods, the use of softwoods speeds up the rate at which creosote forms.
4. Burn designated firewood only.
Burning crates, lumber, pallets, scraps, or other treated wood can release chemicals into your home, compromising air quality.
Inside the chimney, there is a damper that can be open or closed. Make sure the damper is working correctly and that it is open and stays open before you start a fire. Once the fire is out, let the fireplace cool. Then close the damper to prevent heat from escaping from inside your home.
6. Structure your build.
Fires should be built at the rear of the fireplace on a metal grate. Crumpled up newspaper makes for great tinder, as do small twigs, pine needles, or pine cones. You can also purchase an easy-to-light fire starter product. NEVER use flammable liquids to start your fire!
7. Don’t build large fires.
Small fires=less smoke=less creosote residue. Fires that are too large will burn very hot and may crack the chimney.
Spark guards are screens that will help keep stray sparks in the fireplace and prevent errant embers from damaging floors, carpet, and furniture OR injuring people or pets.
9. Handle burning wood with appropriate utensils.
Once lit, never attempt to move wood around with bare hands. Practice safety and use fireplace utensils.
10. Keep glass doors open while burning.
Keeping glass doors open when burning allows heat into the room and helps with airflow to the fire. Once the fire has burned itself out, you can safely close the glass fireplace doors.
11. Check your detectors.
Make sure you have properly installed and functioning carbon monoxide and smoke detectors throughout your home.
Buying a home? Fireplace inspection during a home inspection
During a standard home inspection, inspectors should inspect readily accessible and visible portions of the fireplace and chimney, lintels above the fireplace openings, damper doors, and cleanout doors and frames.
According to the Texas Real Estate Commission’s Standards of Practice for Home Inspectors, an inspector shall report as Deficient:
- Built-up creosote in accessible areas of the firebox and flue
- The presence of combustible materials in near proximity to the firebox opening
- The absence of fireblocking at the attic penetration of the chimney flue, where accessible
- Deficiencies in the: (i) damper; (ii) lintel, hearth, hearth extension, and firebox; (iii) gas valve and location; (iv) circulating fan; (v) combustion air vents; and (vi) chimney structure, termination, coping, crown, caps, and spark arrestor.
The inspector is not required to:
- Verify the integrity of the flue
- Perform a chimney smoke test
- Determine the adequacy of the draft
- Inspect the interior of chimneys or flues, fire doors or screens, seals or gaskets, or mantels
- Determine the need for a chimney sweep
- Operate gas fireplace inserts
- Light pilot flames
- Determine the appropriateness of any installation
- Inspect fuel-fed devices
- Inspect combustion and/or make-up air devices
- Inspect heat-distribution assists, whether gravity-controlled or fan assisted
- Ignite or extinguish fires
- Move fireplace inserts, stoves or firebox contents
- Dismantle or remove any component
- Perform a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)-style inspection
- Perform a Phase I fireplace and chimney inspection