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How to Enjoy your Fireplace Safely this Holiday Season

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There’s nothing cozier. more relaxing or more romantic than a fire quietly roaring away in your fireplace.  As beautiful and soothing as they are, fireplaces can be dangerous. One must always use caution when and be sensible when lighting a fire. Last year tragedy struck a nearby town when, on Christmas Eve, a fire destroyed a historic home in the midst of a massive renovation, and with it took the lives of three young children and two grandparents. A now childless mother and her partner were the sole survivors. According to the mother, the ashes were never properly disposed of that night as the little girls wanted to have a clear and fireplace for Santa Claus. The events of that night were indeed tragic, but we can all learn from those lessons.

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It is extremely important to have your chimney inspected at least every 2 years.

Fireplace safety starts in the chimney, in the area behind the flue where not much can be seen from the naked eye. We strongly suggest you contact a reputable chimney sweep to have a thorough look at your chimney and fireplace. There are chimney sweep scammers out there, so do your homework and make sure the person you hire is a reputable one.The chimney sweep will start by inserting a special brush into the fireplace and up the chimney. This is done to remove any soot and debris on the bricks. After this the flue, damper, smoke chamber, smoke shelf and firebox are all cleaned. The entire process should not take more than an hour. Once that process is completed the chimney sweep will most likely carry out a smoke test by lighting a small fire in the fireplace. This will ensure that everything has been properly cleaned and that your fireplace is safe to use. It is advisable to keep records of all reports.

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Burn safely

Never use flammable liquids to start a fire in your fireplace. It’s best to use starter logs and newspaper. Make sure you have a strong, secure grate upon which to place your logs. Be sure to use only seasoned hardwood as wood that has not been seasoned, or kiln dried, sizzles and fails to start a large, hot fire. Instead it creates excess smokes and promotes creosote build-up. Creosote is the tar-like substance produced from the burning of wood in your fireplace and chimney and produces soot and tarry smoke. The tarry remnants are extremely flammable.Never burn cardboard boxes, trash or debris in your fireplace. Never leave your burning fireplace unattended. It is important to extinguish the fire before going to bed or leaving the house, and imperative that you allow ashes to cool fully before you dispose them, and best to leave them in your fireplace until the following morning if you’ve enjoyed a fire the night before. The smoke from burning wood contains carbon monoxide, in order to prevent this toxic gas from entering your home leave the flue open overnight.

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Protect your home, inside and out.

Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home and inside and outside of sleeping areas. Test them monthly and change the batteries at least once a year. You may want to consider installing the new long life smoke alarms.

  • Firewood should be safely stack at least 30 feet away from your home.
  • Keep the roof clear of leaves, pine needles and other debris.
  • Your chimney should be covered with a mesh screen spark arrester. If there are any visible branches over or near the chimney, they should be removed.
  • Fireplace coals remain hot for long after the fire has been extinguished. Use a shovel to scoop the ashes into a metal container. Store the container far from combustibles, combustible surfaces and wood floors. You may also want to invest in a special fireplace vacuum. Many fireplaces have little trap doors at the bottom towards the back. The ash can be disposed down the trap. At the base of the chimney, perhaps in the basement, you will find another door containing the ash and you can clear it out from there, if preferable. Never use a regular house-hold vacuum to clean up ashes, because live coals may remain in those ashes.
  • You should clean the firebox (the area where the logs burn) at least once a week during the months you use it. It is actually suggested that you leave about an inch of ash because it acts as insulation, allowing the coals to heat faster and retain heat.  The fireplace should be thoroughly cleaned out once the fire season is over.

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How to Start a Fire

If your fireplace has an adjustable damper, open it all the way. Begin by crumpling single sheets of newspaper or other tinder into grapefruit-size balls, or twist them into batons, and place one or two underneath the grate or in between the andirons on the floor of the firebox. Next, lay some kindling; Martha Stewart suggests 6 – 12 pieces in a crisscross pattern, over the newspaper. Leave spaces between the sticks for air circulation. Next, place a couple of thin, split logs on top of the tinder and kindling.Keep in mind that air good circulation is essential to a successful fire.  Light the tinder with a long match or fireplace lighter. Once the fire has started and the small logs are burning, add two more small and then a larger one. As the warm air rises up the chimney and into the room, cool air is sucked up into the spaces between the logs, fanning the flames. It’s important not to over-feed the fire, which can smother the fire or cause it to blaze out of control.According to Stewart “Tinder is the first thing to catch fire, so it should consist of a highly flammable material such as brown bags, twisted newspaper, applewood chips, dried hemlock and birch twigs, birch bark, and the feathery tips of dried pine branches. She advises us not to use use paper with colored inks, since it can leave a flammable residue in the chimney, yet most newspapers today are printed in color. Tinder ignites the kindling.” She adds that “dry corncobs, pinecones that are well-dried and free of sap, and fatwood (highly flammable, resin-laden sticks from coniferous trees) are also good fire starters.”

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What wood burns best?

Firewood needs to be seasoned, or kiln-dried before it is to be used. Freshly cut wood is still full of water and will burn unevenly. It also produces excessive smoke and ash. An indication that your wood is fully dried and ready to use is the tiny radial cracks along the cross-sections of a split log. The best woods to use are hardwood logs from broad-leafed deciduous trees. Hickory, oak, maple, ash, beech, and birch are great choices and birch is exceptional as it leaves no ash. If you’re looking for a fragrant wood, you might want to try cherry, pear, or pecan. Stay away from softwood logs from needle- and cone-bearing trees. They should only be used for tinder and kindling since they burn very quickly.

 Save energy: keep heat from escaping

Even when a fireplace damper is closed, the sealing is often not very effective. Adding glass doors to the front of your fireplace can efficiently keep the cold air that comes down your chimney from entering your living area. Since one must wait for the fire to be completely out and the ashes to be cold before closing the damper, the glass doors are really a must. If the damper is closed too soon a smoldering fire still produces combustion gases that contain carbon monoxide.  And, while it may seem obvious, it is important to reinstate the fact that closing the damper should never be done until the fire is completely out.

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Necessary fireplace tools and gadgets

Before one is ready to use one’s fireplace, it is essential to have the proper fireplace equipment.

  • A sturdy screen is necessary to keep embers from flying out into the room.  Fireplace tools are generally sold together and included you will see a brush, a poker, a shovel, and tongs. We strongly advise not to skimp here, as you can really get what you pay for. You will want something durable and sturdy that will not fall apart while in use.  Specifically check all handles to make sure that they are secured, or that they are in one with the rest of the tools.
  • You might also want a log carrier or large basket to store your fire logs and kindling near the fireplace.
  • You may also consider an ash can and a fireplace vacuum.
  • A sturdy grate or andirons onto which you will place your wood will ensure that the logs stay put and don’t roll off.  The grate should have sides deep enough to keep the wood in place.
  • Firebacks help retain the heat in the firebox so that it does not all go up the flue.
  • A night shield or guard will keep the heat from the home from escaping up the chimney overnight – this can be a specially designed shield or metallic, fire-resistant blanket or, if your fireplace has glass doors, shut them after the fire is out and you are ready to retire for the night

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Fun facts about fireplace ash

  • Ash can De-skunk pets!  A handful rubbed on Fido’s coat neutralizes the lingering odor.
  • Hide paving stains. According to This Old House ash absorbs wet paint spatters on cement; sprinkle the ash directly on the darkened spot.
  • Ash is a great compost enricher. Sprinkle ash into your garden before you add the organic compound to your soil. The ash will enhance its nutrients but adding too much can ruin the mix.
  • Ash is a great pest deterrent! When spread evenly around your garden beds it will repel slugs and snails.
  • Ash is a natural ice melter. It won’t leave a residue like salt, which can also harm your pet’s feet. It won’t hurt the soil or concrete beneath either.
  • One tablespoon of ash per 1,000 gallons of water adds enough potassium to control pond algae. The ash also strengthens other aquatic plants that compete with algae, slowing its growth.
  • For plump juicy tomatoes, this Old House editor McGrath adds ¼ cup into the hole prior to planting them.
  • I’m not sure I’d want to do this but apparently a damp sponge dipped into the sooty ash makes a fine fireplace door cleaner, and if you’re feeling really adventurous, a paste of ash and water makes a wonderful and non-toxic metal polisher for your silver!

We wish you all many warm and cozy fireside evenings this winter. Please be safe!

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