Fireplace Maintenance

Fall is in the air. Even though the drop in temperature is slight here in Atlanta, it's enough to get folks thinking about colder months ahead and toasty fires. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are thinking about getting your fireplace ready for the season. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireplaces and chimneys cause more than 25,000 house fires every year, resulting in at least 10 deaths annually. Some of the dangers of fireplace operation include the following:

  • Sparks popping into the room and setting fire to rugs or furniture
  • Combustible materials placed too close to the fire
  • Chimney fires
  • Carbon monoxide seeping into the house
  • Harmful particles in smoke

Careful operation and routine maintenance can minimize these dangers and allow you to use your fireplace in safer conditions.

For example, an annual inspection is a must. As a homeowner, you can perform a basic inspection yourself. Is the chimney in good shape? Are there obvious leaks or stains? Does the flue have a cap? Does the damper seal off the flue completely?

A professional chimney sweep will complete an internal inspection of the fireplace and flue and look for any internal or structural problems. He will also remove creosote buildup before it becomes dangerous. Creosote is the residue that results from fires and sometimes condenses on the inside of the flue. When it builds up, it can catch fire, resulting in chimney damage and potential spread of fire to the house.

Keep in mind, though, that an open fireplace will usually result in some smoke entering the room. The particles in this smoke could aggravate the problems of those who already have respiratory conditions such as chronic bronchitis or asthma. Breathing particles over the long term can contribute to lung disease. Older adults and children are especially vulnerable.

In order to lower the risk when using your fireplace, you should:

  • Keep all combustibles a safe distance away from the hearth.
  • Use a fire screen to prevent sparks.
  • Install a spark arrester at the top of the flue to guard against roof fires.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
  • Install smoke detectors on every level of your home. You should also have a carbon monoxide detector.

Operating a traditional wood-burning fireplace is not difficult if you follow a few simple guidelines. First, you should begin by choosing the right fuel. Be sure to burn hard woods, such as hickory, ash, oak and hard maple. Soft woods such as pine and spruce generally don't burn as well or provide as much heat. Also, be sure your wood is seasoned, or dry. Wood needs at least six months -- many experts suggest at least a year -- of drying to reach the 20 percent moisture level that is recommended for a good fire [source: Taylor]. One way to be sure your wood is seasoned is to knock two logs together and listen for a hollow sound, not a dull thud. Seasoned wood is also darker and has cracks in the end grain. Avoid using wet or rotten wood, and never burn trash or cardboard in your fireplace. Pressure-treated wood and chipboard are also inappropriate.

To start the fire, you need kindling -- smaller pieces of wood that will take flame easily. Stack a few split logs on your grate and place kindling around and below them. Make sure the damper is open before you light the kindling with newspaper. Don't use too much paper, as flaming scraps can be carried up the flue and onto your roof. Never use gasoline, lighter fluid or a butane torch to start a fire.

Once the fire is burning, you may still encounter problems with puffs of smoke entering the room. One cause of a smoking chimney is a house that's too tight. If there aren't enough openings to make up for the air drawn up the chimney, it can cause negative pressure in the room, creating a partial vacuum. Air pressure forces air down the chimney to compensate, resulting in a smoky house. The solution is to crack a window near the fireplace to let air in.

If you're looking for a fireplace that gives you both efficiency and the pleasure of watching the flames dance, you might consider a gas model. You can't roast marshmallows in them, but you'll have the advantage of a clean and convenient source of heat.

A modern gas fireplace emits no smoke and vents its waste gases to the outside through a tube in the wall rather than up a chimney. It incorporates air-movement channels that maximize the warmth supplied to the house. The fireplace consists of incombustible "logs" covering gas vents, and the fire itself burns behind glass doors. It gives off both radiant and convected heat and provides an experience similar to an open fire.

One benefit of a gas fireplace is that it may help lower heating bills. It lets you heat the room you are spending time in while you keep your thermostat low and the rest of the house cooler. You stay toasty and your furnace gets a rest. Most gas fireplaces take advantage of sealed combustion. Their doors have gaskets that block all air. The fire draws air outside air through a pipe to support combustion, so no warm room air is drawn out of the house.

If you want to add a fireplace to an existing home, a gas fireplace makes sense. Because it doesn't require a massive masonry hearth and chimney, it can easily be included in a new family room. You sacrifice much less floor space and still have a fire to look at. You can also buy a gas fireplace insert that fits into a traditional fireplace hearth and boost its energy efficiency. As with its wood-burning counterpart, the gas insert has its own flue that snakes up the masonry chimney.

Because gas burns very cleanly, there are even vent-free fireplaces on the market. In this case, the combustion products -- carbon dioxide and water vapor -- simply enter the room, along with all the heat produced. Although highly efficient, they are also subject to debate. In a tight home, a vent-free fireplace can deplete oxygen or create an excess of moisture. The American Lung Association warns buyers to be careful of the emissions given off by vent-free appliances [source: American Lung Association].

Gas fireplaces are easy to use and require little maintenance. Some come with a remote control, so that you can adjust them from across the room. You will occasionally have to remove dust, soot and carbon buildup from the logs and make sure the door gaskets are intact. As with any gas appliance, if you smell gas, turn off the supply and call an expert.

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