The fireplace is a centuries-old home feature that, prior to forced-air heat, was often a source of warmth for an entire home. Now that most modern homes have a furnace, the fireplace is usually decorative, or a source of additional heat for a cozy family room during the winter months. They still remain popular — homeowners love their fireplaces for their added comfort and warmth. Take some time, before the real chill begins, to check and maintain your fireplace to keep the fires in the hearth burning safely and efficiently all winter long.
Since you’ll be learning basic fireplace maintenance, it can’t hurt to first go over the basics of a fireplace and how it operates. Knowing how to use one properly goes a long way toward maintaining it effectively.
Generally, fireplaces consist of a firebox (where the fire burns) connected to a flue (which is surrounded by the chimney) where the smoke and gases from the fire escape to the outside of the house. Often there is also a hearth, usually made of brick that extends out into the room from the firebox, and the mantel, where you can hang your Christmas stockings and other holiday decorations. The damper, basically a small door or hatch, separates the firebox and the flue, and when closed, helps keep drafts and moisture from traveling down the chimney into the fireplace or the house. The damper must be open when a fire is burning, otherwise the smoke, gas and fire have no place to go but into the room with you.
Properly lighting a fire goes a long way toward maintaining your fireplace. First, start with the right wood to burn. The best-burning woods are dry, hard woods, such as ash, hickory, oak and maple. Softer woods will obviously burn and work, but they don’t burn as long as hard woods and don’t provide as much heat. Never burn trash or treated wood in your fireplace. Never use lighter fluid, or any kind of gas to light your fire.
Firewood should be dried for 6 months to a year before using in your fireplace, for optimal burning.
Place a pile of easily combustible material, like a small amount of newspaper or wood shavings, in the firebox first and then add a layer of kindling — small sticks or pieces of wood. The kindling should be arranged so that air can flow up through them from below. Place them in a grid or lattice-like pattern. Arrange your firewood or logs over the kindling inside the firebox. Use a long match or a multi-purpose, or “grill” lighter to light the kindling, etc. under the logs. Make sure the damper is open before you light the fire. Also, open a nearby window to help create a draft that will pull smoke up from the firebox into and out the chimney.
Leaving an inch of ash in the firebox from a previous fire can help insulate the new fire and keep it hotter and burning longer.
Step 1. Clean the Firebox Periodically
During winter you can leave some ash in the firebox from previous fires. It’s best not to let them become too deep though. If the ash layer is 2” or greater, you should remove the ash. Otherwise, the firebox should be cleaned once per week. During spring and summer when you’re less likely to use the fireplace, remove all of the ashes from previous fires. You can remove ash using a fireplace shovel and a metal bucket. Empty the bucket into the trash, or sprinkle the ash in your garden or compost pile. Next, vacuum out remaining ash and debris with a shop vacuum. Be sure that the ash has been cool for at least a couple of days before vacuuming.
Remove soot stains with soapy water and a heavy-duty sponge. For tougher stains, scrub vigorously with a stiff wire brush and muriatic acid to clean the firebox. Mix a solution of acid and water, as directed by the manufacturer’s instructions and then apply it to the stains. Let the solution sit for at least 20 minutes, and then scrub with the brush.
Muriatic acid can be hazardous to handle. Use with caution and follow all instructions on the container.
Wear gloves, safety goggles and a dust mask when cleaning out the firebox.
Step 2. Check for Creosote Buildup
Creosote is residue from wood that burns incompletely in a fireplace, which builds up inside the chimney flue. Over time, creosote deposits can develop and reduce airflow, decreasing fire efficiency and can present a safety issue due to creosote’s combustibility. Creosote is highly flammable and can lead to an unwanted fire inside the chimney, which can then potentially spread to other parts of the house, if not removed. Use a flashlight to look up inside the flue and chimney to search for build-up. If unsure, contact a certified chimney sweep to inspect your fireplace and chimney. A sweep can remove the creosote buildup for you and can also look for any structural issues inside the chimney. You should have your fireplace inspected and cleaned by a professional at least once a year, if you use it frequently.
Step 3. Inspect for Structural Issues
While it’s probably best to call in a professional for a proper inspection of your fireplace, there are things you can look for yourself to know if you need to do repairs. Check the firebox for any cracks or signs of damage. Test to ensure that the damper opens and closes correctly.
To inspect the chimney, use a ladder to access your roof. Ensure that the chimney cap is in good condition and isn’t clogged by debris. The cap keeps excess water, leaves and debris, and animals from entering the chimney. The mesh screen also can trap embers and sparks from landing on your roof, which could lead to a fire. Remove anything that may be trapped in the screen. Also check to see that the mortar between your chimney’s bricks is not cracked or otherwise failing. Check the flashing between the chimney and the roof to ensure that it is still watertight and not cracked or damaged. If you see any stains or signs of dampness, you may have faulty flashing. You can repair any cracks in the flashing, using silicone caulk or flashing sealant, if need be.
When in doubt, call a professional chimney sweep for a thorough inspection and/or repair.
Observe basic ladder safety procedures to avoid serious injury from a fall. Invest in an adjustable ladder stabilizer that attaches to the ladder and braces onto the roof.
That’s it! Your fireplace is in proper working order and ready to keep you warm all winter.
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