Who doesn’t love the smell of wood smoke on a crisp fall day? Or the fun of making s’mores over a crackling fire in the middle of winter? With a working fireplace, that and more is possible while you warm your home just as the pioneers did.
But it’s not quite as easy as you might think. You could cause serious damage to your home if you just throw a match on a scattering of branches you’ve collected in your backyard without first ensuring that your fireplace and chimney are sound.
It’s important to keep your chimney clean and in good repair, and it’s also vital to consider the quality and quantity of fuel that you have on hand. All logs may look roughly alike, but some burn better than others, and taking a little time to find the best fuel may save you money and aggravation in the long term.
And what happens if you do end up with a fire that burns out of control, despite all your efforts? Then your best ally is a good homeowners insurance policy, from a company that stands by you when you need it.
Keeping A Well Maintained And Safe Chimney
A well-maintained chimney is your best defence against accidental house fires and ventilation shaft deterioration. Look at it this way: You wouldn’t go years without the occasional visit to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned, right? The same is true for your chimney: It needs periodic cleaning and maintenance to do the job you want it to do.
The National Fire Protection Association says you should inspect and clean your chimney once a year, and make any needed repairs. This is best done in late summer or early fall, before you’re ready to light up those winter fires.
So what’s the best way to take optimal care of your fireplace? Here are a few things to consider:
- Annual chimney inspection: Have a professional in every fall to inspect your chimney and make sure there is no damage to the lining or any of the masonry. But also note that you should take a hard look up the chimney yourself throughout the year, to see if there is anything suspicious that might need repair.
- Chimney sweeps might seem like something out of Victorian England or Mary Poppins, but the profession is alive and well. Expects suggest that you have your chimney cleaned every 50 burns, less if it’s a gas log fireplace.
- Waterproof your chimney: A sealant on the outside of your chimney can prevent water from eroding the bricks and mortar; a chase cover (for prefabricated chimneys) or a crown (for masonry chimneys) covers the rim of the chimney and keeps water and contaminants away from the masonry.
- Make sure your damper works: The damper is the vent at the top of the firebox that allows smoke out and oxygen in. It should be closed when you are not using the fireplace, and open when you are. You may not be able to get a fire started if it’s closed, and if you do, smoke is likely to fill your room. But leaving it open when there’s no fire lets warm air escape and affects your heating bill.
- Install a chimney cap and cricket: These pieces install on the outside of your chimney. A cap goes over the crown to keep birds and objects out of the chimney and a cricket is a small peaked roof that keeps water from accumulating in the gap where the chimney meets the roof and seeping into the inner part of the chimney. Installing them can extend the lifespan of your chimney and prevent unnecessary damage and breakdowns.
- Use binoculars to check for signs of damage to the crown, flashing, and masonry regularly. Loose masonry with crumbling mortar or bricks can allow water to seep in, as can loose flashing around the base of the chimney.
- Schedule work for late summer: You may have to wait a while if you try to schedule cleaning and repair work during the high season, from late fall through winter. Call your chimney professionals at other times of the year for more prompt service.
Before You Start Shopping For Wood
Not all wood is created equal — at least, not as far as your fireplace is concerned. Some wood burns better than others, and there are other differences to consider as well. But before you even go out to shop for wood, consider how and where you’ll store it.
- Wood needs to age before it burns efficiently. Green wood — wood that’s newly cut — should season for at least six months before use, or you’ll end up with a creosote-encrusted chimney and smoky fires.
- Wood stacked on a pallet or other platform will stay drier and more insect-free than if it was placed on the ground. Consider purchasing a fireplace rack for storage outside of your home.
- Sure, it’s convenient to stack your wood right outside the back door, but if you do so you will likely have small critters, from mice to insects, trying to get in your house. A better choice is a flat surface roughly 20 feet from your home.
- There are several schools of thought on how to stack your logs: some like a round stack with an open space in the middle; others prefer a more basic stacked line. One thing to avoid, though, is just dumping your logs in a pile with no organization. This leads to improper ventilation, meaning your logs won’t season and may rot rather than dry.
- You can cover the top of your stack with a fireplace cover or tarp, but leave the front and back open for ventilation purposes.
Of course, you can have your wood delivered and stacked for you, though you’ll pay more for the service. You’ll purchase your wood, most likely, by the face cord or full cord. A full cord is 8’ wide by 4’high by 4’ deep. A face cord uses the same width and height measurements but is only one log deep, or about 18” – roughly ⅓ the size of a full cord.
What Wood Is Best For You?
You don’t need to become a professional forester to build a fire, but there are a few things you should know about wood before you light your kindling. Chief among them is that choosing the right kind of wood for your fireplace is important. The wrong wood will burn too quickly and lead to creosote building, which can cause chimney fires.
Hardwoods generally burn longer and hotter, but some softwoods make excellent kindling because of their high pitch content. Artificial wood, meanwhile, may be more expensive, but it’s also more eco-friendly and easier to store and use.
All wood coats your chimney with creosote — a dark, sticky, flammable substance — but some types leave more than others. It’s the main reason you need to clean your chimney regularly. Softwoods, which burn at lower temperatures, generally leave more creosote than hardwoods. For this reason, limit the burning of conifers and evergreens to kindling use.
How much wood will you need? That varies depending on the type of wood. One estimate states that a single cord of hardwood is good for about seven days of burning in an open fireplace. Wood stoves use considerably less, and harder woods will burn more slowly than softwood.
Hardwoods: These dense woods have lower levels of sap or pitch, which makes them easier to dry and more efficient to burn. The wood is denser and burns hotter than softwood.
|Oak||Pros: Produces high heat levels, burns clean with little smoke, is abundant in U.S.|
Cons: smells sour; not good for smoking foods; hard to split; takes a long time to dry.
|Birch||Pros: Burns with high heat; releases little smoke; gives off attractive blue flame.|
Cons: burns quickly; should be mixed with other hardwoods to make fire last.
Softwoods: Commonly used as building materials, softwoods come from coniferous and evergreen trees. Ironically, they are not necessarily softer than hardwoods, but they do tend to be stickier with high sap levels.
|Cedar||Pros: Smells pleasantly spicy; easy to split; makes excellent kindling. |
Cons: Prone to sparking and popping; considered an invasive species in some areas.
|Pine||Pros: Good for kindling; smells nice; inexpensive; seasons quickly.|
Cons: Very messy, with abundant sap; burns quickly; low BTU output per cord; deposits lots of creosote on chimney walls.
Artificial Woods: Artificial woods can be made of a mix of sawdust, wood chips, and/or nutshells; they are environmentally friendly and efficient burners, but can be pricey.
|Wood Bricks||Pros: Carbon neutral; less ash to clean; no creosote; easier to store. |
Cons: Smaller flame; more expensive than wood.
|Wood Pellets||Pros: Burns efficiently; eco-friendly; doesn’t attract pests.|
Cons: More expensive than wood; can be messy; must have dry storage space.
Wood types to avoid completely:
|Green wood: Wood that’s freshly cut is still too damp to burn; it must be seasoned for at least six months before using in the fireplace.|
Painted wood: Paints may contain volatile chemicals such as arsenic, which could damage your health and your fireplace.Large logs: Anything bigger than 5” around won’t burn well; it should be split into smaller sections before use.
Poison oak, poison sumac, or any logs that have been in close contact with poison ivy, since they can release urushiol oil into the air, which can damage your lungs.
Burning wood does contribute to air pollution, both indoors and out, and can be a factor in deforestation. If you have the choice, use wood from a responsible supplier who manages their woodlot responsibly, cutting trees selectively rather than clear cutting, which leads to erosion.
Artificial wood emits less smoke than hard and softwoods, but increased energy is used in its creation, so it’s not blame-free. Since hardwoods burn hotter and longer than softwoods, they are generally a more environmentally conscious choice.
Another way to lessen your impact on the environment is to keep your chimney clean and well-maintained, so that it is as energy-efficient as possible. The same holds true if you have a wood burning stove: Clean it regularly, and dispose properly of any ash. New wood stoves are designed to be more friendly to the environment, so ask your dealer for a stove that is EPA certified.
If you’re using your fireplace as a heat source, make sure your home is properly insulated, with weather-stripping on all doors and windows, to keep heat in the house. It’s also important to control the airflow while your fire is burning so that warm air is not drawn up the flu and out of the house. Your fire needs oxygen to burn, but too much oxygen will actually make it burn too fast, wasting your investment in fuel.
If you’re not married to the idea of toasting marshmallows over an open flame, consider installing a gas log fireplace or wood stove instead of using your fireplace. A gas fireplace is clean energy which can be fitted to your existing fireplace vent. It’s easy to start and run, inexpensive, and provides more heat than an open fireplace.
Preparing For An Accidental Chimney Fire
Unfortunately, you may be doing everything right with your fireplace but still end up with a chimney fire if creosote has gotten too thick in one spot or your spouse decided to test the limits of just how much kindling fits in the firebox.
If you do have a fire at your home that leads to damage, one of your first steps should be to call your homeowners insurance company. Find out if the loss is covered by your policy. Usually, the dwelling coverage portion of your policy covers you for damage to your home from named perils — including, in most cases, fire.
After the fire has been put out, do what you can to protect your property from further damage, such as covering holes with a tarp, and take photos to document the damage. If you had to call the fire department to deal with the fire, you may have water damage as well as damage from smoke and the fire itself.
Fire that is contained in a chimney may not do visible damage to your home, but it’s still important to bring in a fireplace professional to see if damage to the lining has occurred, and to give you an estimate for repairs. A fire you can’t see can still do considerable damage.
Although our ancestors have been building fires since they lived in caves, maintaining modern fireplaces or wood stoves takes some practice and knowledge. Working regularly with a fireplace professional is the first step. Choosing your wood source wisely and knowing how to build a fire properly are important, too. And lastly, remember that a good homeowners insurance policy gives you the peace of mind to know that if something goes wrong, you’ve got it covered.
Mary Van Keuren has been covering auto and home insurance for Reviews.com for nearly five years, and has published numerous reviews of state-specific insurance trends and how to find the best insurance deals for your money. She earned B.S. and M.A. degrees from Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. and has been writing professionally, both in print and online, for 30+ years.