Fireplace maintenance: don't let your autumn go up in smoke

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ September 26, 2013

Imagine enjoying the crackling flames of your fireplace as you kick back in the recliner and watch your favorite show on TV. Sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? Now imagine that in the middle of this idyllic scene, dark smoke starts billowing out from the wall or down from the second floor. That's the sort of scenario that puts a damper on the entire year. Unfortunately, it could happen if you aren't conscientious about your wood stove and fireplace maintenance.

Many chimney fires can be prevented by proper fireplace maintenance

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that from 2008 to 2010, there was an average of 25,900 residential fires each year that could be directly attributed to chimneys, chimney connectors, or fireplaces. Their statistics show that those fires caused an average of about $135.8 million dollars in property damage annually.

What's sad is that many of those chimney fires could easily have been prevented. If you have a fireplace or wood stove, here are a few recommendations from the U.S. Fire Administration:

  • Inspections - Have your wood stove, fireplace, and/or chimney inspected by a certified chimney specialist each year. You may be a skilled DIYer, but unless one of your ancestors roamed the streets of London or New York working as a chimney sweep, you probably don't have the right tools to properly inspect and clean your flue.
  • Hearth - Keep the area around the fireplace hearth clean and free of any flammable materials.
  • Screens - If your fireplace has a retractable screen that can be pulled across its face, first make sure it's operable, then use it whenever a fire is burning to prevent the escape of popping embers. If your fireplace doesn't have a built-in screen, purchase and use a portable unit.

Now a special word of advice directed toward anyone who recently purchased an older home constructed during or before the early 1900s: do not use its chimney(s) until they have been inspected by a certified contractor.

Many parts of the country did not have building codes back then, and if they did, the codes weren't always enforced. It's not at all unusual for an older house to have an unlined chimney, and that can be a fire waiting to happen. As mortar ages, it often dries out or becomes brittle and may fall out from between the bricks used to build your fireplace chimney. If the masonry is exposed, it's usually easy to spot these potential trouble areas. However, if portions of the chimney are hidden behind walls, the missing mortar can go unnoticed and cause big problems.

When a fireplace burns, the draft created pulls hot ash up through the chimney. Where there is missing mortar, that ash can escape the confines of the chimney and come into contact with the aged and very flammable lumber used to build the home. If your old house has a damaged liner or is missing one altogether, a chimney contractor can often install a stainless steel unit that makes the fireplace safe to use. While these stainless steel liners aren't cheap, they can keep you and your home from becoming a fire statistic.

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