15 Essential Tips for Safe & Efficient Wood Burning


If you’re like me, you love sitting by the fire. Sure, gas appliances are easier to maintain, but there’s something about a wood fireplace that makes it better. Maybe it’s all the extra work that goes into building the fire and maintaining the stove that makes it so much sweeter. 

Despite the extra work that’s involved, woodstoves and fireplaces are actually still extremely efficient and more economical than most other heating solutions. And they’re only getting better with innovation from manufacturers and the promotion of safety from companies like Patriot Chimney and trade organizations like the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) and the National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG). 

With that in mind, there are still some things that you want to keep in mind as you use your woodstove. It’s getting safer, but it’s not completely safe just yet. Chimney fires are responsible for an average of 22,300 house fires, 20 deaths, and $125 million in property damage each year in the United States. 

This is a very sobering statistic, but luckily it can be avoided. Following this information will help keep you and your family safe while enjoying the fire as often as you’d like! 

#1. Correct Installation

Safe use of your chimney and woodstove needs to begin with proper installation. If you are looking to have a new stove placed in your home you need to work with a professional company (meaning CSIA certified) that is familiar with local and regional regulations. 

A reputable company will make sure your stove complies with all of the local fire and building codes, such as proper clearance around the stove and acceptable venting. They will also ensure the stove pipe dimensions and flue and damper specifications meet the necessary requirements. Moreover, they will make sure that your chimney is built to move the smoke up and out of your stove as it should.

#2. Regular Inspections

You should have your woodstove inspected at least once a year. If you’re using it more than normal, say burning all day, every day, then you should consider getting an inspection more than once a year. This will help you know that your chimney is in working order and will give you peace of mind that the creosote deposits haven’t built up to dangerous levels. 

Just like with the installations, your inspections shouldn’t be done by just anybody. We all have a neighbor that’s into DIY and tends to inspect his own chimney. That’s nice and all, but you really should trust a professional. I’m not just saying that because I own a company that does things like this, either! Chimneys are very complicated systems and it is very easy to overlook something unless you know what you’re looking at and what you’re looking for.

#3. Keep Surroundings Safe

You should have a carbon monoxide detector, a smoke detector, and a fire extinguisher in the same room as your woodstove. Actually, you should keep your fire extinguisher in a pretty easy-to-reach area close to your woodstove just in case you need it. 

Those are some of the obvious ways to keep your surroundings safe. You should keep anything that is flammable or even potentially flammable away from your chimney. That means that if you’re installing a new carpet, be sure you don’t have it installed too close to the fireplace. Or if you have furniture, drapes, newspaper, wood boxes, or even Christmas stockings – make sure that you are giving those items enough room away from the fire. You don’t want a spark to come out and catch your stockings on fire.

#4. Safety Accessories

I already mentioned this, but smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers should be in this category too. In addition to those, you should always try to keep your safety manual handy. 

You should also consider investing in these accessories: 

  • Non-flammable gloves to protect your hands when you’re adding wood to your stove
  • A fire screen to help prevent sparks from flying out of your fireplace and to keep small children and pets from getting too close

#5. Always Correctly Dispose of Ashes

Don’t let the ashes pile up at the bottom of your fireplace or woodstove. Anything more than an inch will likely cause smokier fires since the ashes will keep sufficient oxygen from reaching and feeding the fire. Smokier fires will contribute to excessive creosote build-up. Remember, you don’t want that! 

If you can wait 24 hours after your last fire to make sure the ashes are cool enough and there are no more burning embers. If you can’t just be extra careful. Then, scoop the ashes into a fire-resistant bucket (I use a metal one). Be sure not to remove all of the ashes though. A thin layer on the bottom can be beneficial for starting fires and can protect the floor from scratches. 

Relevant —> 25 Ways to Repurpose Your Chimney Ashes

#6. Insuring Properties with Wood-Burning Appliances

Most insurers provide homeowners insurance for homes with woodstoves and fireplaces. But you should be able to answer some questions about the appliance and chimney system. Your insurer will require the woodstove or fireplace to be installed and built up to current fire codes. You’ll also need to make sure that you’re maintaining it regularly and properly. 

You’ll need to tell your insurance provider that you have a chimney and a fireplace. A lot of times they’ll send an inspector over to look at your house, so sometimes there’s no hiding it. But sometimes they won’t. And if a spark pops out of the woodstove and burns your couch or a wall, then you’ll be stuck paying the bill, since the insurance company had no knowledge a chimney was in your area. 

I’m no expert in homeowner’s insurance, even when it comes to chimney related stuff. Here are a few insurance local companies that we recommend you call and ask in the Roanoke, Lynchburg, and Blacksburg areas: 

#7. Remember These Resources

In addition to our blog, there are a lot of other resources online that I use that address the maintenance and safe operation of woodstoves and fireplaces in your home. You should bookmark these sites so that you always have them to reference. 

#8. Start Your Fire Properly

Some people like to use lighter fluid when starting their fire. Don’t do that. Lighter fluid has its place, but it’s not in a woodstove or fireplace. You should only use dry wood with a mixture of small and large pieces. This will act as kindling to get your fire started.

To build a good fire, you should start by placing the largest pieces of wood at the bottom of the stove with the ends facing the front and back of the stove. This will allow the air to mix well with the wood instead of only hitting the broad side of the wood. 

Then, place 4 or 5 smaller pieces of wood on top of the first layer. This should have your wood stack at about 1/2 the height of the fireplace. On top of this layer, stack smaller layers, each one smaller than the layer before it, until you have a layer of kindling that can be easily lit by a single match.

#9. Don’t Burn These

You should only burn dry wood in your fireplace. Sure, some wood is better than others (see #12). But dry wood is better than green wood and any of these 9 items: 

  1. Treated or Coated Wood –  Treated wood and wood coated with paint or wood stain and varnish contains chemicals that become toxic fumes when burned. 
  2. Cardboard – cardboard is usually a go-to for starting fires since it catches fire quickly. But, just like treated wood, cardboard contains toxic chemicals. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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
  6. 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. 
  7. 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. 
  8. 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. 
  9. 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.

#10. Keep Small Kids (and pets) Away

This one should probably go without saying, but I still should say something. Don’t leave your kids unattended around open fireplaces or wood-burning stoves. Even if you just step away for a few seconds. That’s long enough for children to test how hot the fire is. Or maybe a spark pops out of the fireplace and lands on your child. This could cause some severe body burns.

#11. Store Firewood in a Dry Space

I already mentioned this, but smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers should be in this category too. In addition to those, you should always try to keep your safety manual handy. 

You should also consider investing in these accessories: 

  • Non-flammable gloves to protect your hands when you’re adding wood to your stove
  • A fire screen to help prevent sparks from flying out of your fireplace and to keep small children and pets from getting too close

#12. Use the Right Type of Wood

I say it a lot – the best wood is dry wood. But once you have that covered, choosing the best wood to burn in your fireplace should be based on several factors, like how easy it is to get, burn, split; how much smoke or sparks are produced; how many BTUs per cord or even how much it costs. 

If you ask some people, they may go out and shout “hickory!” or “oak!” without even thinking about it. As the great rhetorician Jay Heinrichs says in the book Thank You for Arguing: you want to hear “that depends.” You should size up the problem before giving an appropriate answer. This could be for advice, questions about economics, or even about the best wood to use.

I did create a rating system that you can check out if you’re curious about the best firewood to use in Southwestern Virginia. As I recommended, this takes into consideration the woods’ nativity to Virginia, ease of burning, ease of splitting, etc. I call it the Patriot Chimney Firewood Rating. It turns out that white ash is the best wood in the area with a rating of 3.05…


#13. Properly Season the Wood

As I mentioned in #11, you want to properly season your firewood. This is a time-consuming process as it takes anywhere between 6 months to two years to fully get your wood to an appropriate moisture level to burn. And that time frame really depends on the wood that you are seasoning. 

No matter what type of wood you are using, you want to make sure that you get the moisture content to between 15%-25%. This is the perfect range for moisture.

During this process, you want to be sure that you are cutting and storing your wood the right way. Otherwise, you can still have moist wood after two years. Or you can have dry wood, but filled with termites or mold or both! 

Relevant —> The Ultimate Guide to Seasoned Firewood

#14. Schedule Annual Sweeps

Depending on how much you use your chimney, you should have annual sweeps at a minimum. Just like with the inspections, you should have your chimney swept more frequently if you use your chimney more than normal. For example, we have a client that’s a restaurant in Roanoke that uses their fireplace all the time. We sweep their chimney once a quarter and always remove a gallon bucket-worth of creosote. 

And that’s the point of getting a sweep – to remove the creosote. A good rule of thumb is to sweep the chimney once there is a 1/8 inch build up on the walls of your liner. Any more than that and you risk potential chimney fires. 

You should also make sure that you are hiring a professional chimney company to take care of your chimney sweeps. That means the same neighbor that inspects his chimney from before shouldn’t sweep your chimney either.

#15. Prevent Debris from Building Up

Any kind of debris that makes its way into your chimney will hinder the drafting of smoke and gases. It will mess up the flow of your chimney. You want to make sure that leaves, twigs, birds, squirrels, raccoons, and snakes aren’t able to make their way into your chimney. The best way to prevent that is by having a chimney cap installed. Just like all of the other services out there, you should hire a professional chimney company so that you know that you have a custom fit chimney cap that’s installed properly.

Don’t have a Cap? Schedule an Inspection Today!

Do you need to schedule an inspection or a sweep? Or need to get a new chimney cap? Or maybe you’re looking at getting a new fireplace or wood-burning stove installed. 

Whatever the case is, Patriot Chimney has a few CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps that you can trust with your home and family. During your service, you can expect your technician to inspect, clean, and verify that the venting system is sized and installed correctly.


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