As the weather turns wintry, fireplaces and wood burning stoves can provide economical heat and a relaxed atmosphere. However, when these popular heating devices are not properly maintained, the result can be dangerous and sometimes disastrous. The three most serious problems that result from poorly maintained chimneys are:
- Carbon monoxide poisoning – with chimneys, fireplaces and furnaces, most carbon monoxide problems occur because of improper exhausting of fumes.
- Chimney fires – creosote is a black or brown gummy substance that builds up on the flue and can catch fire. In many cases the first chimney fire is small and may go unnoticed, but it can cause cracks and loosen mortar joints that then provide the next fire with an avenue to reach the roof timbers and other combustible materials.
- Premature failure of the fireplace and chimney – poorly maintained chimneys can lead to failure of the basic structure itself. Small chimney fires can damage mortar joints and cause cracks. This can allow carbon monoxide to escape the chimney and leak into the living quarters of the home.
As frightening and fierce as the potential fireplace and chimney hazards are, they are almost entirely preventable.
Each year in the United States, more than 25,000 chimney fires are responsible for over $125 million in property damage. More than one-third of Americans use fireplaces, woodstoves and other fuel-fired appliances as primary heat sources in their home, yet it is estimated that less than 20 percent of American homeowners realize the importance of regular chimney maintenance.
To understand what causes a chimney fire, you must realize that when wood is burned, it gives off creosote, tars and resins. These products of incomplete combustion collect in the flue liner and if allowed to build up, they will eventually ignite. Creosote ignites at 451 degrees (about the same burning point as paper) and can quickly become a raging 2100 degree inferno. In fact, heating fires account for more than one third of residential home fires in rural areas every year.
Tips to Enjoy Safe, Cozy Home Fires
- Check the draft. Before starting a fire in your fireplace or woodstove, be sure the draft is wide open. This allows proper ventilation for your fire.
- Clean your chimney. Chimneys should be inspected and cleaned annually by a certified chimney specialist to prevent fire or carbon monoxide poisoning. Check your flue regularly for any obstructions such as squirrel or bird nests, debris, etc.
- Keep your fireplace and chimney in good condition. Check your chimney for cracks and loose mortar or bricks. Have any problems fixed before using your fireplace or wood stove.
- Burn only dry hardwood. If your wood is wet or not fully cured, it will not burn as hot as dry wood. It will also smoke more. Burning wet wood leads to creosote building up faster in your chimney. Only hardwoods should be used as fuel since softwoods have a high content of creosote and resin. Remember, hardwood trees have leaves and softwood trees have needles.
- Protect against chimney sparks. Install a spark shield/arrestor or wire basket on top of your chimney. The chimney should rise at least two feet higher than the roof peak or any tall, nearby objects. Add another foot if your roof is flat or nearly flat.
- Keep combustibles away. Woodstoves should be at least three feet away from unprotected combustible materials. Keep the area around the hearth clear of debris, decorations and flammable materials.
- Tend to your fire. Never leave a fire in your fireplace unattended. Make sure the fire is extinguished before going to bed.
A final thought…keep a fire extinguisher handy for every fireplace or stove. However, if a fire starts and you have any doubt about whether or not to fight the fire – Don’t! Get out and call 9-1-1.