Common Mistakes with Fireplaces
Mistakes to Avoid When Using a Fireplace
Winter is the time of year when anyone with a fireplace thinks about keeping warm and relaxing by the glow of the hearth. It’s also a great time to think about fireplace safety.
Enjoy those logs you’ve been splitting with your log splitter, but take care when you do! Avoid these nine mistakes that people commonly make when using their fireplaces, so that you can savor your time by the fire all through the season.
Mistake #1: Not Cleaning Your Chimney
Did you know that, according to the U.S. EPA, the number-one factor behind home heating fires is the failure to clean out chimneys and other parts of an indoor fireplace or wood-burning stove?
The reason is that when wood burns, it produces a residue called creosote that gets carried away with the smoke. The smoke will deposit some creosote on the inner walls of your fireplace’s chimney as it rises.
Creosote is extremely flammable. Too thick a layer of it in your chimney, and it can ignite and start a chimney fire when the temperature rises.
Home heating experts recommend cleaning your chimney at least once a year. The best time to do it is before the weather gets cool, but any time you clean it is better than not cleaning it at all.
It's recommended that you hire a certified chimney sweep to perform a cleaning and inspection. Professional chimney sweeps are experienced enough to get the job done more quickly than a homeowner while still looking for hidden problems that homeowners can miss.
Additionally, they also use specialized equipment, such as commercial vacuums fitted with HEPA filters to prevent harmful particles from escaping into the home.
More frequent inspections can also help you avoid excessive creosote buildup.
Mistake #2: Leaving the Damper Closed
The damper is a structure inside the chimney that keeps it closed, preventing heat from escaping your home and blocking cold draughts when the fireplace isn’t in use.
The problem is that if you don’t open the damper before starting a fire, smoke from your fire will be unable to escape as well.
Don’t cause your living room to fill up with smoke. Before lighting your fire, be sure to open the damper. With many fireplaces, it can be opened or closed using a knob just above the firebox where you build your fire.
Mistake #3: Placing Items Too Close to the Fireplace
Everyone knows that cloth can catch fire. But it’s hard to resist putting a couch or cozy recliner close enough to a fireplace to warm your toes, and who can deny how great certain rugs look lying right in front of the hearth?
But safety always should come first. Firefighters, chimney sweeps, and other professionals recommend placing any flammable cloth items at least three feet away from your fireplace. That includes items like these:
- Throw rugs
- Couches, chairs, and sofas
- Curtains and window treatments
- Christmas trees
- Other kinds of room décor
If you like to hang stockings from the mantel so that Santa can fill them with holiday gifts, be sure to remove them and temporarily put them in a safe place each time you light a fire.
Mistake #4: Choosing the Wrong Firewood
Not all firewood is the same. There are several kinds of woods that make fragrant, long-lasting fires… and then there are some that cause risks.
No matter which species you choose (oak, maple, or any other), you should not use it if it’s green or unseasoned. Always make sure that your firewood has had at least six months outside to dry out. This process is called curing or seasoning your wood. Seasoned logs will look dry and cracked at their ends.
Unseasoned wood, also known green wood, releases excess moisture when it burns, which can lead to heavy creosote buildup.
If possible, buy your firewood early in the year. This not only will give you a wider selection but also will give the wood even more time to dry out and cure.
Additionally, a log splitter can help even if you buy firewood elsewhere. Use your splitter to split large logs into smaller pieces that will cure more quickly.
A word of caution also extends to using wood from conifer trees like pine and cedar. This wood contains a lot of resin that will pop, crackle, and shoot out sparks as the temperature rises. Because it catches fire so easily, it makes excellent kindling, but it’s safer not to use as your primary type of firewood.
Mistake #5: Using Lighter Fluid or Other Flammable Liquids
Of course you want to get your fire started quickly and easily, but when you’re using a fireplace, using lighter fluid, gasoline, or any other flammable liquid isn’t the way to do it. Doing so will cause your fire to grow too big too quickly for your enclosed fireplace to contain.
Instead, use dry tinder material like crumpled-up newspaper or dryer lint. Don’t use too much newspaper, though, or you’ll risk the same problem: your fire will get too big to control!
Mistake #6: Burning Material Other Than Wood or Fuel
Fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and other such structures are designed to burn wood or other types of fuel that the manufacturer lists. It might be tempting to get rid of torn Christmas wrapping paper, cardboard, Styrofoam, and other types of packing materials by tossing them into the fireplace on top of your logs, but this is not a safe choice.
Why? Because these materials might contain chemicals that can be toxic when burned and released into the air. Stay healthy, and dispose of non-wood materials properly, or better yet, recycle them when you can.
Mistake #7: Not Using a Fireplace Safety Screen
Nothing beats the warmth of a fire, but you can still enjoy sitting in front of the hearth when you have a spark shield in place to block sparks from landing on your carpet and starting a fire.
Glass shields offer the most protection, but they can be dangerous for small children who might not understand that there’s a transparent barrier in place. Extra caution should be used when children are present to keep them away from glass shields.
Wire screen or chain link metal curtains provide slightly less protection than glass shields but are still effective.
Mistake #8: Improperly Disposing of Ash
Creosote isn’t the only material you should clean out of your fireplace. Once the weather turns warmer and you’re done using your fireplace for the season, sweep all the wood ash off the bottom of your firebox.
You might think that you should clean out all the ash after every fire, but this isn’t the case. Leaving a layer of wood ash that’s about 1” high can provide insulation and help build fires. Don’t let that ash layer get too high, however. Sweep some away once it touches the grate; this much ash can start to inhibit fires.
When cleaning out ash, wait until it has cooled completely and you see no glowing embers before sweeping it away. Sweep it into a metal container with a lid for extra safety. Check your local regulations before disposing of wood ash. Some cities require you to hold it for safekeeping in that metal container for a week before throwing it out with your regular trash.
Mistake #9: Not Taking Other Safety Precautions
Even if you avoid making the eight other mistakes listed above, there still are basic steps you can take to keep you and your loved ones safe beside the fire:
- Have a small bucket of water or fire extinguisher available nearby in case your fire gets out of control
- Make sure your smoke detector and carbon monoxide detectors are operational, with fully functioning batteries
A safe fire is an enjoyable fire. By avoiding these common mistakes and following some basic fireplace safety recommendations, you’ll be sure to build fires in your hearth that burn brightly and carefully.