When the weather outside is frightful, a cheery fire roaring in the fireplace can indeed be delightful. That’s why home fireplaces are so popular. And while it’s true that the average fireplace is more about aesthetics than energy efficiency, that’s OK – not everything can be valued in dollars and cents.
But what’s not OK are these sobering statistics: According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are more than 20,000 home fires caused by fireplaces in an average year. Fireplace-related fires are responsible for around 40 deaths annually, and cause more than $100 million in property damage each year.
There’s no need for the scary stats to diminish the joy you derive from your fireplace. But the stats do offer some great incentive for heeding the following expert-recommended tips for maintaining and operating your fireplace safely:
Keep the fire in the fireplace. You can’t get any more common-sense than that, right? Use mesh screens or a glass enclosure to contain sparks and embers. (But don’t completely restrict airflow into the fireplace while a fire is burning.)
Be picky about the fuel you use. Burn only wood that has been purposed for firewood. Don’t burn discarded lumber, construction scraps, broken-up crates, etc., because such wood may have been treated with chemicals. When burned, those chemicals may be released into the air in your home. The very best firewood is a hardwood that has been allowed to cure for at least half a year after being cut and split. Soft woods such as pine are less desirable, because they’re more likely to contribute to creosote buildups in your chimney.
Use proper fire-starting techniques. Never use flammable liquids to start a fire in your fireplace. The best technique is to use a bit of newspaper along with some kindling. Before lighting a fire, make certain that the damper is open and that the chimney is drawing. Cracking open a window in the same room as the fireplace will help to assure that the chimney will draw properly.
Keep the chimney cleaned. Deposits of creosote can build up on the interior walls of chimneys over time. Creosote is very flammable, and once ignited, burns very hot. Creosote-fueled chimney fires are a major cause of home fires. Have your chimney cleaned and inspected once per year by a certified professional. If you use your fireplace extensively (you burn more than 3 cords of wood per year), have the chimney cleaned twice each year.
Cap your chimney. Chimney caps can keep debris, animals, rain and snow out of your chimney. If your chimney doesn’t have a cap, hire a chimney sweep to install one. Opt for a stainless-steel cap over a galvanized metal cap.
Don’t use your fireplace for burning trash. Though it may be tempting, avoid using your fireplace to dispose of burnable trash such as wrapping paper and broken-down cardboard boxes. Burn ONLY wood. Burning other materials may release lots of sparks into your chimney, and greatly increase the risk of igniting any creosote deposits.
Careful with those ashes. Did you know that the ashes in your fireplace could contain embers capable of starting a fire up to 3 days after your last fire? That’s why lots of outside fires have been started by embers that were dumped or placed in trash after cleaning-out a fireplace. Place your embers in a tightly sealed metal container isolated at least 10 feet from your home and other structures. Allow the ashes to cool completely before disposing of them. And resist the temptation to use a vacuum for cleaning up ashes.
Don’t leave a fire unattended. If you’re going to bed and the fire is still burning, put it out. If you’re leaving your home and the fire is still burning, put it out. And never leave small children unattended in a room with a fire burning in the fireplace.
Keep the ‘Frightful’ Outside…
Frightful winter weather outside, and a warm and roaring fireplace inside – truly a delightful combo. Just be sure to exercise some care in operating and maintaining your fireplace. It would surely be a shame to let a fire transform the inside-delightful into something worse than the outside-frightful!