With fall upon us and winter approaching fast, it won’t be long before you’ll have a hankering for a nice warm fire to curl up next to. If you have an operable fireplace in your home, the joy of a nice fire in the winter can be one of life’s simple pleasures. There’s something about the “home fire burning” that will never get old.
Fireplaces, on the other hand, do get old and they require maintenance to stay safe. Here are a few tips to help you be sure your fireplace is ready for the season.
Wood Burning Fireplaces
Wood burning fireplaces are more likely than gas fireplaces to start unwanted fires. They also have the propensity to completely fill your house with smoke in two seconds flat, not that I would know anything about that.
A clear escape pathway for smoke and those little glowing embers is essential. So if you haven’t used your fireplace in a while, the first thing to check is the inside of the chimney. Chimneys should be clear of deposits that can build up over time on the interior parts. These not only reduce airflow, but the deposits themselves can be flammable and cause fires where they shouldn’t be. Chimneys should also be kept clear of obstructions. Squirrels built a nest in my home’s chimney one time. Bad idea for them and no fun for me either.
Chimney cleaning and overall fireplace inspection is the kind of thing you really should leave to professionals. They have specialized equipment and training that ensures the job is done properly and they can spot a safety concern you or I might miss.
Trees and External Obstructions
I once owned a house that had a huge tree that was constantly growing over the chimney. Every year I had to climb up there and trim away any branches that were even coming close to the chimney. Your chimney should be the tallest thing around and nothing should be above or adjacent to the top of the chimney. No satellite dishes, no trees, no nothing.
Firebox, Doors, Chain Mesh
A standard wood burning fireplace has a firebox where the fire is built. This should be kept clean and inspected for any cracks in the mortar where fire could escape. Your fireplace should also be equipped with operable doors and a chain mesh screen that can be closed if the fire is getting too big or the wood you’re burning starts popping and spewing hot embers into your living room. Make sure these are operating properly and easily before you start burning for the season.
Hearth and Home
The area just around your fireplace inside is also an important safety check zone. Be sure there is nothing flammable close to the fireplace opening. Common culprits are rugs on the floor, upholstered furniture set too close and nearby window treatments. Just remember that a wood burning fire can eject a chunk of burning wood anytime without warning, so make sure there’s nothing around that would be prone to catch fire if that happens.
Gas fireplaces are a different animal that come in many forms. Some are old wood burners that have been retrofitted with a set of gas logs. If that’s what you have, many if not all of the above tips for a wood burner would apply, with the additional task of inspecting your gas line and logs for any leaks or damage.
Other types of gas fireplaces are sealed. The fire is behind glass so you can see it, but there are no doors that open and close to touch it. These fireplaces are sealed systems that have direct exhaust venting built in to your home. Since closed systems don’t offer much access to the parts, you’ll need a gas fireplace specialist to check the system. A service provider can also give you guidance as to any required maintenance or repair.
Watch the Exhaust Vent
One common mistake that homeowners make when operating direct vent gas fireplaces is to place flammable items up against the exhaust. These vents don’t always look like chimneys and sometimes they come out of the wall, not the roof. It pays to know where that vent is and be sure not to lean your summertime deck umbrella up against the metal vent on the wall. Those exhaust vents get very hot and have been known to ignite flammable items.
Care and Maintenance
The bottom line with fireplaces is to just be careful. They can be beautiful and so enjoyable but don’t forget that fire is involved and and the house isn’t fireproof. Keep good maintenance habits, don’t leave fires unattended even for a little while and pay attention to all of the parts of the system.
Do that and you’ll enjoy season after season of beautiful fires on cool winter mornings.