Stay Safe With These Fireplace Maintenance Tips

Lauren Murphy
Written by Lauren Murphy
Updated June 11, 2021
a stone fireplace with wood and fire with a bucket of firewood to the right
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Consider these fireplace maintenance tips to keep your home safe while you stay warm

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There’s nothing quite as cozy as watching your favorite movie in front of a fireplace on a cold winter evening. However, fireplaces can pose safety risks if they aren’t properly maintained. Left unchecked, fireplaces can cause house fires and drastically worsen air quality. Luckily, there are several things you can do to help ensure your fireplace provides safe, glowing warmth for years to come.

1. Know How Your Fireplace Works

First things first, you need to understand your fireplace’s anatomy and how its parts work together so that you can maintain it and keep it running correctly. Fireplaces draw in air from your home to keep the fire going inside. Smoke rises up and out of your chimney to release the excess heat the fire generates.The hearth is the structure at the exterior base of your fireplace, often marked by a raised stone or concrete surface. You can view the firebox from the outside of your fireplace. The firebox is—spoiler alert—where the fire is. A glass or screen door usually covers the firebox to prevent any hot embers or logs from escaping.

Inside, there are several moving parts. A damper is a door or valve you can use to control airflow in the fireplace, while the flue is the vertical passageway up the inside of the chimney that facilitates the outflow of smoke. The chimney covers the flue and leads to the open air outside of your house.

Even though gas fireplaces don’t actually burn carbon to generate heat, they still typically come with a vent or chimney. So you don’t need to clean out soot and creosote, but they can still collect debris and therefore require routine checks.

2. Clean Out the Ashes After Every Use

If you have a wood-burning stove, remove ashes from the firebox and dispose of them once your fire is completely out and the ashes are cold. When ash piles up in a fireplace, it can block airflow and create excess smoke.

Don’t use a run-of-the-mill household vacuum to remove ashes. Doing so could actually cause damage to the vacuum or blow mounds of ash into the air. Instead, use a special ash vacuum, which you can purchase online or at most home improvement retailers. These vacuums are designed to handle hot coals you may accidentally suck up (watch out—coals can remain hot for days) and they often come with filters that can prevent tiny ash particles from escaping into the air.

3. Sweep Your Chimney

Sweep your chimney at least once a year to remove soot and debris. Not only will a blocked or dirty chimney prevent Santa Claus from swooping down to deliver presents, but it will also eventually cause a house fire. If you have the right tools, you can clean your chimney yourself. But if not, hire a professional chimney sweep for about $250. 

If you decide to DIY it, make sure you wear a respirator mask so you don’t accidentally breathe in soot or creosote, which could damage your lungs. 

Either way, be sure to get rid of all creosote buildup. Creosote is a chemical mass of carbon that is formed during the wood-burning process. It can linger inside chimneys for as long as you let it and, over time, it can coat the inside of the flue and chimney and cause chimney fires.

4. Have a Professional Check Your Chimney Annually

If the mere thought of cleaning your chimney makes you cough, you’re unable or don’t know how to thoroughly clean your chimney yourself, or if you’re worried you didn’t do a stellar job, hire a professional to take a look. Hiring a well-established fireplace pro will give you peace of mind knowing your loved ones will be safe and warm when the cold weather hits.

side view of a Galvanized metal chimney exhaust on asphalt roof with a rain cap
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5. Add a Chimney Cap

Add a cap to your chimney to keep animals, fallen branches, and other debris out. Excess debris in your chimney can cause fires, so it’s essential to keep the area clear. Purchase a wire-mesh chimney cap from your local home improvement store.

6. Check the Damper

Periodically move your fireplace damper to ensure it’s working properly. You should be able to freely open and close it without any debris getting in the way. If the damper won’t fully open, smoke will enter the room instead of exiting through the flue.

7. Check Your Alarms

A reverse airflow in the chimney can cause carbon monoxide to enter the home. Similarly, an issue with the damper may cause smoke to flow into the house. Both smoke and carbon monoxide are hazardous to human health and can be deadly if exposure is significant.

Every month or two, or more often when you regularly use your fireplace, check to make sure all of your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working. And if you don’t have any, install them right away to help fireproof your home.

8. Burn the Right Wood

Burn split wood that has been stored under cover for at least a few months. Stick to seasoned hardwoods like oak, ash, and maple. Avoid freshly-cut “green” softwoods, like pine, poplar, and cedar, which won’t fully burn and will create soot and creosote.

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