How to Safely Use Your Fireplace

Updated December 16, 2010
Nearly 15,000 fires each year are caused by creosote build-up, the National Fire Protection Association estimates. (Angie's List/Summer Galyan)

Now that the weather is turning cold, many homeowners may be ready to light up their fireplaces.

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Now that the weather's turning cold, you may be ready to light up your fireplace. But before striking the match, follow these fireplace safety tips.

Tips to keep your chimney clean

• Get an annual checkup. The National Fire Protection Association recommends at least an annual chimney inspection. You can go every two or three years without chimney cleaning if you use your fireplace sparingly. Just make sure the chimney can do its job of properly venting hot, toxic gases and carbon monoxide from the heating system to the outdoors.

• Avoid burning pine, any sappy woods or unseasoned wood. Seasoned wood is best because it will help reduce creosote build-up in your wood-burning chimney system.

• Wood should be dried for at least 12 months in an area protected from moisture.

• Wood that hisses, sizzles or foams when burned is moisture-laden, and builds up soot and potentially flammable creosote more quickly.

• Don’t let your fire burn for 24 hours.

Ways to protect your family

• Install carbon monoxide detectors to warn of harmful gases.

• If you notice a smoky or burnt wood smell emanating from the fireplace when the A/C is on, the chimney probably needs a sweep. In hot weather, a chimney can draw air into the house through the damper. If you smell that, you’ve got a sooty chimney.

• Never let a fire burn for more than a few hours at a time.

• Burning only dry, well-seasoned hardwoods to help reduce creosote build-up in a wood-burning chimney system.

• Your chimney is used the most during cooler months, but so is everyone else’s. Schedule cleaning for spring or summer. If a chimney repair is needed, you won’t be inconvenienced if your fireplace is out of commission for a few days. It’s easier to schedule in spring or summer, and you may end up getting a discount.

Avoid chimney sweep scams

• Beware of companies that offer pricing that seems too good to be true. It could be an attempt to convince homeowners that expensive repairs are needed.

• Make sure the chimney sweep company is certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America or The National Chimney Sweep Guild.  These groups require companies to agree to abide by its code of ethics.

• Don’t hire on price alone. The average price should be around $200 (that does not include a video inspection).

• Make sure the chimney sweep checks for any damages caused by storms, lightening or even ground shifting. Related: Chimney sweeps offer maintenance advice

More helpful chimney tips

• Get your chimney flashing inspected (the seal between the chimney and the roof). Flashing prevents rain water and snow melt from entering your home and causing costly water damage to your walls and ceilings.

• Have a sealing damper installed in your wood-burning chimney to save energy dollars and eliminate unpleasant off-season odors.

• Install a high quality, long lasting chimney cap to keep out debris and prevent birds, animals and insects from nesting in your chimney.

• Make sure you have an appropriate chimney liner. This is something your service company can check for you. Chimney liners are required in new construction to separate hot heating system emissions from the structure of your home.

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