Thanks to modern heating technologies, you don’t have to rely on lighting a fire for heat. Our homes stay at the perfect temperature (68 degrees) even on the coldest nights. As convenient as central heating is, I’d have to say, there’s nothing like sitting next to a fire.
But while a fireplace is cozy, charming, and romantic, it is also a very dangerous system. Especially if it isn’t properly maintained or used properly. You might not know it, but you could be committing cardinal sins when it comes to fireplace safety.
Don’t light your fireplace again without making sure that you aren’t following any of these mistakes that can lead to life-threatening situations!
#1. Not Installing Carbon Monoxide Detectrors
Carbon monoxide is scary. It’s known as the silent killer because you can’t see it, smell it, or taste it. And it kills up to 4,000 people each year! Modern homes are more air-tight. If you’re like me, you know the costs of heating drafty homes, so you’ve sealed up windows, doors, and other areas that let outside air in. After all, we’re not trying to heat the neighborhood.
The result is that polluted air can’t exit like it used to. Your chimney’s main job is to exhaust the gases that are produced by the fireplace. If your chimney is clogged and the exit route is obstructed, the gases could leak right back into your home. To avoid this, install carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home and make sure the batteries are in working order.
#2. Placing Combustibles too Close
A combustible product is basically something that can catch on fire and burn easily. It’s flammable. The National Fire Code says that any combustible material must be at least six inches from the firebox opening. Otherwise, you’re facing a serious fire hazard.
Most of the year this shouldn’t be a problem. Unless, during spring, you decorate your mantel with plants that drape over and you decide to light a fire. The big problem comes during Christmas time when families are decorating their fireplaces and hanging the stockings right from the mantel.
Your wood mantel, by code, needs to be at least 6 inches above the opening. So if it is 6 inches above, and you have a row of cotton Christmas stockings, you are putting your home at risk. Picture this: an ember or a flame sparks out and sets the stocking on fire. This leads to the mantle catching fire. Not long after, your tree, which is situated closely to the right, gets hit by an ember too. I’m sure that you can imagine now the devastating results that stem from one of the most beloved traditions.
#3. Burning One of These 9 Items
Some people think that you should only burn only hardwood. But that’s been debunked. It turns out you can burn wood, so long as it has been dried enough. Including softwoods, like pine, spruce, or cedar. When you are burning in your home, to stay as safe as possible, don’t burn any of the following:
- Treated or Coated Wood – Treated wood and wood coated with paint or wood stain and varnish contains chemicals that become toxic fumes when burned.
- Cardboard – cardboard is usually a go-to for starting fires since it catches fire quickly. But, just like treated wood, cardboard contains toxic chemicals.
- Lighter Fluid – These are designed for very specific purposes and shouldn’t be used for fuel for an indoor fire. Lighter fluid often contains methanol and petroleum-based chemicals that produce toxic fumes.
- Magazines & Colored Paper – You guessed it. The chemical pigments release toxic fumes when burned. You can use plain old black and white newspapers. But no colored paper.
- Wet Firewood – I already mentioned that you should only burn dry wood. The ideal moisture content in firewood is somewhere between 15-25%. Wet wood creates more smoke, which can lead to excessive amounts of creosote in your chimney. You definitely want to avoid that because creosote is the main cause of chimney fires.
- Allergen-Producing Brushwood – when I was 10, my older brothers and I built a fire outside using wood that we found around the house. One of us picked up some wood that contained poison ivy or poison oak (winter causes trees to lose leaves, so it wasn’t too dumb). If you’ve had poison ivy rashes, you know how bad that was.
- Wood Pallets – Maybe you began making furniture out of wood pallets, so now you have some leftover. Well, before you try to burn them, you should know that many pallets contain the chemical pesticide methyl bromide to prevent the spread of the emerald ash borer.
- Driftwood – Driftwood absorbed metal salts while it was drifting. That’s why if you’ve ever seen it burning, driftwood produces a nice lavender-blue flame. Unfortunately, those metal salts cause a toxic flame.
- Trash – When you were camping, have you ever tossed a Solo cup into the fire? Don’t do it in your home (maybe stop altogether since it’s still littering…) because trash products likely contain chemicals that produce hazardous fumes when burned.
#4. Underestimate These Seemingly Mild Signs
Chimney problems are like a good set of dominoes. When one falls, they all do. Especially with problems that cause chimney leaks. For example, a small crack that shows up due to normal wear and tear of the masonry can expand from the natural freeze/thaw cycle of winter. As it expands, more water enters.
Bricks and masonry material are porous, meaning they can easily absorb water unless they are treated with waterproofing. As more water enters, the more cracks can form. When water enters the chimney system, it can cause mold and mildew. And framing rot. And when mixed with creosote, it can form sulphuric acid. Keep an eye out for these four issues that may seem mild but really could indicate a much bigger issue.
- Efflorescence – this is the white staining on the outside of your chimney. This staining usually occurs when your chimney has excessive moisture that is beginning to affect the brick and mortar joints.
- Rust – you may think that this is a natural part of the aging or weather process of your chimney. While that’s true, rusting is a natural part, it doesn’t mean that it should be ignored. Rust can cause pinholes that can allow water to penetrate. And it can also cause the integrity of the metal to deteriorate.
- Water Dripping – If you hear or see water dripping, even during heavy storms, don’t ignore it. Water should not be entering your home. We see a lot of people taking a laissez-faire approach by letting it be. I’ll say, this is not the route you want to take.
- Pests in Your Home – of course, there could be many different things causing pests to get it your home. But sometimes, they could come in straight from your chimney. Cracks can be so big that mice can maneuver their way into your home. It’s not unlikely that insects make their way in too.
#5. Not Cleaning the Ashes Out of the Fireplace
There are a lot of reasons to clean the ashes out of your fireplace. For example, if you have a carpet that goes right up to your fireplace, the ashes could spill out onto the carpet. It is a real pain to clean ashes out of the fibers of your carpet. Too much ash in the fireplace could limit the amount of wood that you can place in your fireplace. Not enough fuel is a major contributing factor to excessive creosote. Furthermore, the ashes in your chimney could contain excess creosote. If you light a fire over ashes that contain creosote you risk the ashes catching fire too, since creosote is flammable.
#6. Failure to Have Your Fireplace Cleaned & Inspected Annually
Almost 60,000 house fires each year are related to heating equipment. Unsurprisingly, more than half of those are from fireplaces that weren’t clean or properly maintained. Regular fireplace inspections and cleanings are an absolute must to prevent any problems with your chimney.
Sometimes, there are obvious signs that you need to have your chimney repaired. But more often than not, you really should consult a professional with an expert eye for spotting these things. With Patriot Chimney, we always run a camera inside your flue so that we can get a top-to-bottom view of your chimney. We do this to fully understand the system.
A dirty chimney is risky business. I’ve mentioned this a couple times already, but creosote is nasty and mean. It gets deposited in the chimney lining every time you burn logs. It’s flammable, sulphuric, and not something you want to stick around. This is what’s being “swept” when you hire a chimney sweep.
#7. Hiring an Unqualified Chimney Sweep
Some people think that they can save money by either doing the work themselves or by hiring their uncle who isn’t certified or trained but has been sweeping his own chimney for a few years to save money. If a chimney technician isn’t certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) and/or they aren’t members of the National Chimney Sweep Guild, then they haven’t learned about all of the problems that can be wrong with your chimney.
Certified chimney technicians understand the whole chimney system, including the physics that’s required to make it operate safely and efficiently. Saving a few bucks by hiring someone unqualified can be a huge liability, especially if they overlook things. There’s no way to know if your chimney is up to code or even safe to use if you hire unqualified chimney technicians to do the work.
When hiring a chimney company, you should always ask the following questions before allowing them to come into your home:
- Can the company provide references?
- Does the company carry a valid business liability insurance policy?
- Does the company ensure that a certified chimney technician will be on the job?
If they guarantee all three of those, then you are in a good spot. The technicians don’t necessarily need to be certified by the CSIA, but I do recommend putting in a bit more due diligence before accepting a certification that’s not by the CSIA.
This is because certifications are a tricky thing, especially in an unlicensed industry like ours. Any company can craft a list of job-related questions and sell them as an exam and certify those who pass.
I recommend you take a few extra minutes in your research before making your hiring decision to learn more about the certification the company has.