How to Safely Maintain Your Wood-Burning Fireplace

‘Tis the season for enjoying cocoa in front of a roaring fire, while the bitter, blustery wind blows outdoors. In order to enjoy that fireplace, though, it requires regular maintenance to ensure it operates safely and efficiently.

Left to its own devices, a poorly maintained fireplace can diminish the air quality in your home. Add that to the fact that it’s a fire hazard. Here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your fireplace, while staying safe and snug.


Wood-Burning Fireplaces 101

Most wood-burning fireplaces are built of heavy masonry materials, set atop solid foundations and fitted with masonry chimneys. Others are factory built and feature triple-walled, stainless steel chimneys. A masonry fireplace’s firebox features heat-resistant firebrick, while the chimney’s interior is lined with heat-resistant, square clay “tiles.” For safety reasons, the visible part of the chimney, hearth and fireplace are constructed of non-combustible materials, such as stone, brick or tile. Sometimes, a chimney is capped with a metal or stone slab, which keeps rain and snow out. It also features a screen up top to keep birds and animals out of the chimney — and out of your house. The screen is important for another reason, too: it contains sparks and embers that reach the top of your chimney.


Typically, fireplaces also feature a screen or mesh guard to prevent embers from popping into the house when a fire is burning. Fireplaces may also have glass doors. These should remain open when a fire is burning and closed when there is no fire, or when a fire is reduced, in order to contain embers. Additionally, a small, cast-iron door (or damper) with a handle sits just above the fire. This leads to the chimney and should always be closed while the fireplace is not in use. However, it must be opened each time a fire is lit. 


Caring for Your Fireplace

After each fire, remove ash once the fire is completely out and the ashes are cold. Worried about the mess? An ash vac can help. Not sure what to do with all that residual ash? It can be sprinkled on flower beds, as it’s a great source of nutrients for plants.

It’s important to note that sweeping your chimney is important to its safety — don’t forget to schedule an annual inspection with a certified chimney sweep, as your chimney will get coated with soot and creosote when used. Left unchecked, the coating builds up and can catch fire. On top of being an extremely dangerous fire, it’s one that can seriously damage your fireplace; everything above the damper is only meant to withstand hot smoke and gases from the fire — but not heat from the actual fire. 

While an inspection and cleaning is an annual affair for sure, it should always be done when creosote build-up reaches 1/8-inch or more. Plan on scheduling the cleaning at the end of the season, before summer arrives. When the weather is warm and balmy, humidity in the air can combine with creosote, forming acids that have the potential to damage masonry and cause noxious odors.  

When a chimney sweep cleans your chimney, they’ll likely lay a drop cloth in front of the hearth and wear a respirator so they don’t ennhale harmful soot and creosote dust. They’ll inspect your fireplace, looking for cracks in the firebox, chimney or liner, as well as loose or missing bricks or mortar. The chimney sweep will also make sure the damper is properly positioned and working correctly; ensure your chimney cap is in good repair; and make sure the chimney itself is structurally sound.

You may note that a professional uses metal or plastic chimney brushes and a vacuum to remove soot and creosote from the interior walls of your chimney and damper ledge. Depending on the condition of your fireplace, they may also use a chemical cleaner on your fireplace.


Fireplace Safety

  • If you’re just moving into a new home, don’t use the fireplace until you’ve had it inspected and cleaned by a certified professional — especially if you live in an older home. 
  • Install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms (if you don’t have them already), make sure they work and plan to replace their batteries at a regular interval, ideally every six months.
  • Keep things like carpets, drapes, furniture and hearth rugs away from your fireplace when it’s burning. And make sure nothing combustible is within 12 inches above the metal plate at the opening of your fireplace.

Fireplace Maintenance

  • Although an inch of ash at the bottom of a fireplace makes it easier to maintain a fire, you should always clean ash from the fireplace when it reaches the bottom of the grate. Don’t forget to wear a mask for safety reasons!
  • Get your wood-burning fireplace and chimney cleaned and inspected by a certified sweep annually, at the end of the burning season. Do this more frequently if you notice that creosote and soot build-up over 1/8-inch on the inside of your chimney. You can find a qualified, certified professional via the non-profit Chimney Safety Institute of America.


What to Burn and Not Burn

  • Burn only seasoned wood that has been cut and dried out of the elements for at least six- to-twelve months. Note that split wood dries and burns better than whole logs.
  • Not sure how to tell wood is well-seasoned? Knock logs together and listen for a sharp ringing sound. “Green” (or unseasoned) wood, by contrast, makes a dull thud. Avoid using green wood as it does not burn as cleanly, meaning it creates more soot and creosote build-up.
  • Seek out hardwoods like oak, ash and maple logs for your fireplace — they’re denser and heavier than softer woods, such as cedar, poplar and pine.


How to Start an Efficient Fire

  • Test out the function of your fireplace by lighting a few small pieces of seasoned wood. Light them from the top down. If smoke doesn’t exit vertically from the fireplace into the chimney, but enters the room, immediately troubleshoot and correct any problems. These can include creosote/soot build-up; other debris in the chimney, like bird or animal nests; a damper that is closed or partially closed; or wet wood that isn’t burning well.
  • Fireplace fires start from the bottom up, like a campfire (tinder, kindling, big logs),. By contrast, wood-burning stoves do best when loaded top-down, beginning with big logs on the bottom, followed by kindling and a tinder top.
  • Be sure to incorporate enough tinder, such as fatwood sticks, newspaper or dryer lint, to get your fire going, and to help larger logs catch.
  • It may seem obvious, but be sure your firewood is cut shorter than the width of your fireplace — 16” or shorter is standard. 

Looking for additional ways to care for your home? Perhaps you could use some decorating advice. Don’t forget to check out our blog — it’s loaded with ideas to help your house function, tip-top, and feel like a home.

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