Enjoy Your Fireplace This Winter-- Safely

As winter approaches, many homeowners find themselves cozied up around the fireplace. Whether wood-burning or natural gas, a fire on a cold winter’s night is nostalgic and comforting. But fireplaces can be extremely dangerous if not properly maintained. Chimney fires, sparks, materials around the fireplace and carbon monoxide are some of the dangers related to fireplaces. The good news, though, is that with proper safety knowledge and practices, many of these dangers can be eliminated.

If you have a wood-burning fireplace, have the chimney professionally inspected and cleaned every year. A professional will complete an internal inspection of both the fireplace and chimney. They will check chimney cap - the mesh and metal covering the hole at the top of your chimney- for any wear. They will also check for any structural problems. If you have a masonry chimney, a professional will look for any cracks in the mortar. If you have a metal chimney, they will look for dented or rusted metal, or missing screws at joints. They will remove any creosote residue caused by the incomplete combustion of wood. If not regularly removed, hard creosote deposits inside the chimney can cause dangerous chimney fires. Using dry wood will help prevent the build-up of creosote. Ensure the wood burns hot and doesn’t smoulder, because that can contribute to creosote build-up. If necessary, the air flow can be increased to help your fire burn hotter.

Always place a screen in front of the fireplace to protect against sparks. There are many types of fireplace screens on the market which are both safe and stylish. Visit Home Depot web site for some examples. Keep a one-meter area around the fireplace clear. Use small amounts of dry wood to build your fire. You should never burn wrapping paper, boxes or garbage, which burn rapidly and create undue risk.

Even if the fire is dying down, ensure all embers are extinguished before leaving the house or going to bed. Hard as it is to believe, embers can take hours to cool off on their own and can catch on fire again if they are still warm. To put out your fire, spread out the embers using a fire poker.  You can also use sand, but not water, to cool the embers.

Clean the ashes out regularly. You can save mineral-rich ashes in a fireproof container for later use, which have many uses.  For example, they can be used in garden beds to repel pests or as a fertilizer for tomatoes. Visit This Old House for more uses.

Around the holidays, many people hang stockings and place ornaments around the fireplace. Always remove these items before starting a fire. Place your Christmas tree a safe distance away from the fireplace as well. If you have a natural Christmas tree, keep it well watered. It is dangerous to use your old Christmas tree for firewood after the holiday season since the dry needles will erupt in flames very quickly.

Natural gas fireplaces provide much of the same visual appeal and warmth as wood-burning fireplaces, but without the mess of ash and soot. You also do not have to worry about embers and can simply turn the fireplace off. However, safety is still just as important if you have a natural gas fireplace:

  • routinely read the user’s manual
  • have a licensed HVAC professional inspect your fireplace every few years
  • ensure your fireplace is completely turned off when not in use
  • do not wipe the glass of your natural gas fireplace with a damp cloth while it’s hot as it could crack the glass
  • if the pilot light or flame goes out, carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions

Carbon monoxide levels are another important consideration for any type of fireplace if your fireplace becomes faulty. Carbon monoxide is colourless, odourless, tasteless and can be deadly. Make sure that the area is properly ventilated and use a carbon monoxide detector. Carbon monoxide detectors are relatively inexpensive, are either battery-powered or plug-in, and are available at most box stores.

Always have at least one fire extinguisher in your home and accessible when using your fireplace. Check your fire alarms monthly to make sure they are working and replace the batteries when needed. If you have children, consider installing a hearthgate to keep your children a safe distance from the fireplace http://fireplacecenter.com/FireplaceCenter/Hearthgates.aspx.

Exercising caution and taking preventative steps will allow you to stay both warm and safe around your fireplace this winter. Enjoy!