Homeowner’s Manual: Fireplace and Chimney (Updated for 2021!)
Fireplace and Chimney
When the weather begins to cool and leaves start to fall, it’s time to check out the fireplace. Visually inspect the firebox, looking for loose or shifted bricks (if brick). If necessary, have a qualified chimney sweep replace them and repoint mortar cracks. Check the damper for proper operation and inspect the flue. Excessive soot or creosote buildup should be removed to prevent a chimney fire. Gas log lighter pipes should be free of excessive corrosion and should burn evenly along their entire length. Helpful hint: To help prevent ashes from clogging the gas holes in the lighter pipe, install the pipe with the holes pointed side-ways or down. Whenever the fireplace is not in use, be sure to close the damper to prevent heat or cooling loss “unless you have gas logs installed in the firebox”. Always make sure the damper is open before you build a fire. Under current building standards, when artificial gas logs are installed in a firebox, with a damper, it should be permanently blocked open to prevent spillage of combustion product into the room. If possible, turn off your heating when using the fireplace. If you choose not to turn off your heat, it may be necessary to open a window in your family room to provide maximum ventilation and draw for the fireplace. Periodic maintenance should include touch-up caulking between the fireplace and wall.
Inspect the chimney crown for cracking (masonry) or rusting (metal). Cracking or rusting should be repaired to prevent water penetration and deterioration. The rain cover and spark arrestor screening should be in good condition. If none is present, after-market cap/screen units are available. After measuring the top flue tile for size, purchase and install one. If the chimney is wood, be sure that wood and trim and sound; if masonry, that bricks or stone are not loose or cracked, permitting water penetration.
If constructed properly, fireplaces will perform safely and dependably. Fireplaces, just like anything else, wear over a period of years and need to be maintained to extend their life. Here is some information for safely maintaining and operating a fireplace.
Maintenance for Safety
- Keep the fireplace in good condition by repairing cracks in the flue lining, bricks and mortar.
- Keep the flue clear of soot, creosote, and obstructions. Inspect the fireplace and chimney at least once a year to prevent creosote buildup.
- Install bird and animal guards on the chimney. Squirrel and bird nests can stop up chimneys.
- If you choose a natural gas “log,” follow instructions for installation and use. Look for the American Gas Association label.
Safe Fireplace Operation
Equip the house with fire-warning devices. Install a type ABC fire extinguisher near the fireplace. Install a screen that completely covers the fireplace opening to keep sparks from flying out. Keep combustible materials such as carpets, furniture, paper, logs and kindling at least 3 feet away from the fireplace. Arrange andirons so logs cannot roll out. Use only enough fuel to keep the fire at the desired temperature. Avoid “roaring” fires. They can start chimney fires from soot and creosote deposits in the flue. Do not use gasoline or other flammable liquids to kindle or rekindle a fire because the flammable vapors can explode. Never use fuels near a fire; explosive vapors can travel the length of a room.
Keep the damper open while the fuel is burning to provide for efficient burning and to prevent accumulation of poisonous or explosive gases. Never burn Christmas tree greens. They cause many sparks when burning and can cause a chimney fire. Remove colored comic sections before rolling newspapers into logs. The colored inks contain lead and can produce toxic gases. Do not use coal, charcoal, or polystyrene packaging in a fireplace unless the fireplace is designed to handle the excess heat and smoke which occurs when burning these materials. Do not treat artificial logs (made from sawdust and wax) the same way you treat real wood logs. Use only one at a time. If you use more, they can produce too much heat for some fireplaces to withstand. Keep children away from the fire because their clothing can easily ignite. Warn the entire family about this hazard. Be sure that all ashes have thoroughly cooled before you dispose of them. Put ashes in a lidded metal container to prevent a possible fire and provide a sturdy place to store them. Ashes make good fertilizer in gardens, flowerbeds, etc. Be sure the fire is out completely before retiring for the evening.
Safe Supply of Air (Combustion Air)
A fireplace fire requires about 5 times as much air as most houses need for liberal ventilation. With today’s tightly constructed houses incorporating weather-stripped doors, caulked windows and self-closing exhaust vents, a fireplace can set up reverse draft and suck poisonous carbon monoxide fumes from combustion-type (natural gas, etc.) water heaters or furnaces and discharge them into the living area.
In tight homes, the fireplace may also consume enough oxygen from the air in the house to cause problems to occupants. To be safe, a positive source of outside air should be supplied to all fireplaces and wood-or-coal burning stoves to bring in enough fresh air for efficient burning. This can be provided by installing an outside air vent or opening a window when the fireplace or stove is being used. To keep smoke from entering the room, turn off kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans and close the registers of forced air heating systems which are near the fireplace.
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