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The Care and Feeding of
Your Fireplace

There's nothing more comforting that sitting around the fireplace, enjoying the warmth and beauty of a nice wood fire.

To keep your fireplace operating as safely and efficiently as possible, the chimney and firebox should be inspected at least every other year and cleaned when necessary.

Care

Inspections:

When was the last time your chimney was given a "physical"? The whole system should be checked from the firebox (what is commonly called the fireplace) up to the top.

The damper, firebrick, mortar, masonry, etc. should be inspected for problems such as missing mortar, broken bricks, etc.

Cleaning:

Chimney cleaning is a fact of life if you burn wood. Creosote deposits can ignite, creating a dangerous chimney fire. The formation of creosote is inevitable, and when it reaches a certain thickness (usually around "), it's time to do something about it.

Soot and mortar that has fallen down around the damper can impede its proper operation and reduce the efficiency of the fireplace. Cleaning the system and checking the damper for proper operation are important steps in maintaining your fireplace and chimney.

Caps:

Water is one of your chimney's worst enemies. Combined with creosote deposits and/or ash, water forms corrosive compounds that can deteriorate your chimney.

A chimney cap will help keep rain out along with leaves and other debris, and also critters like birds, squirrels and raccoons who might find your chimney flue a very attractive home! (And if you've left your damper open far enough, you may have some very unwanted visitors inside the house!)

Dampers:

An open or partially-open damper leaks a lot of expensive heat. Make sure your damper operates and closes properly, otherwise a lot of your heating dollars go right up the flue when the fireplace is not in use.

Feeding

Having an efficient, enjoyable wood fire is an art. Only burn dry, seasoned wood, and avoid slow-burning, smoky, smoldering fires. These types of fires create more creosote than hot, "flame-y" fires that have little or no smoke, so you'll have to clean the chimney more often.

Although your wood supply may last longer if you burn a slow fire, you are building up creosote faster than with a hot flame-y fire.

One way to see if your firewood is seasoned properly is to clunk 2 pieces together. If you get a "bowling pin" sound (you keglers know exactly what I mean!), you've got 2 nicely seasoned pieces of wood. If you get a dull thud, there's moisture in the wood and it's not seasoned long enough.

Dry, seasoned wood burns more cleanly, hotter, and with less smoke, so it's much better all the way around that unseasoned wood (plus it's very difficult to get unseasoned wood to catch on fire to begin with).

Never use flammable liquids to light a fire, and never burn trash or large amounts of paper. At Christmas time, a lot of people are tempted to burn the gift wrappings, and even their old Christmas tree. Never do this!! You are inviting disaster if you do.

You should have an emergency plan just in case you ever have a chimney fire. Have a fire extinguisher readily available that is labeled properly for a wood fire (check with your local fire department for their advice), and an escape plan for you and the family.

If you have a chimney fire, always call the fire department immediately, and get everyone out of the house. If the fire is small you can, if you so choose, initially try to fight the fire with your fire extinguisher, but only after having called the fire department. If the fire gets out of hand, you'll want them already on their way to your house, without delay.

If you can do so without getting hurt or burned, try to close the damper (or the glass doors if your fireplace is so-equipped) to reduce the amount of air getting to the fire. However, if at any time you feel too endangered, get out of the house, and let the fire department take over.

Final Thoughts

Sitting around the fireplace can warm the cockles of your heart, but it may not be enough to heat your home. Since the fireplace takes air from the room (air your furnace has heated already), it can actually cost you money to have a fire.

You can lower the thermostat but then the rest of the house gets cold. You can also try to pipe in some outside air by cracking open a nearby window or door, but then you get a cold draft.

Suffice to say that having a fire in the fireplace is mostly for the fun of having a fire in the fireplace, not necessarily for heating your house.



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Tom Mugridge
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