How to Prevent Chimney Fires at Little or No Cost

House fires escalate sharply in wintertime, primarily due to improper use of various heating apparatus in the home- chimneys being among them. It is true that nothing can compare to a home heated with wood- the pleasant aroma, the effusing warmth- but certain precautions should be taken to ensure that the wood-burning experience is a pleasant one. Chimneys can and do catch fire, and obstructed chimneys can vent noxious gases back into homes, causing carbon monoxide poisoning and even death.

Fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and chimneys need to be visually inspected before use each fall. This could involve little more than taking a flashlight and peering inside the stove, to check the condition of the firebricks, or looking up a fireplace to inspect the amount of creosote deposited on the lining. Also, looking down a chimney from above to assess the amount of creosote deposited is a good idea. Chimney caps should also be looked at for deposits. Why use chimney caps? They keep birds and animals from entering the chimney when not in use, and they deflect rain which can produce a damp, burnt wood smell into the home.

Cleaning the chimney is a must. Recognizing when to clean is as easy as seeing the creosote deposits visually. They are black and flaky. Use a wire brush to scrub the inside of the fireplace and stove. One need not go so far as to removing all the black stains. Stains are inevitable and removing them is for aesthetic purposes only. To clean from above, use either a logging chain, a rope with a wrench attached to the end, or a chimney brush purchased from Home Depot, Lowe’s, or other hardware stores. Be sure to have enough length to reach the bottom. Chimney brushes work the best, but you must measure the opening at the top of the chimney to purchase the right size brush.

It is a good idea to put some sort of block in front of the fireplace to prevent the soot and ashes from going into the room. Pull the vent pipe away from the chimney on a stove only after finished cleaning. Remove the debris and vacuum up the loose pieces that fall about.

Check for draft. Draft is the natural pull of air that draws up the chimney and enables the smoke to escape the home during a fire. Usually, sticking the hand inside the fireplace or stove is sufficient, as the flow of air can be felt. Striking a match and quickly blowing it out also shows which way the smoke travels and how well. Once draft is established, the chimney is ready for use.

Cleaning and maintaining a fireplace and wood stove is only half the equation in preventing chimney fires. The other half is choosing the right wood and taking measures to prevent creosote build-up during the burning season.

Choose hardwoods that have been seasoned, or dried out over a period of time in the sun. Wood contains water, resins, and tannins when freshly cut, and can deposit a great amount of creosote in a chimney when green that will quickly lead to an obstruction. Also, burning evergreens such as pine and hemlock is a poor idea, as these woods have a much higher resin content and leave easily combustible deposits inside the lining of the chimney. Chimney sweeping logs are designed to offset creosote, but are expensive and have questionable results. A much better idea is throwing an aluminum can into the fire periodically, as it is the burning metals that help to dry out creosote.

Lastly, periodically inspect the lining of the chimney throughout the burning season. If cleaning is needed, choose a day when the weather is relatively warm and after the fire is completely out. Also, install a CO detector in the home for peace of mind.

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