The crackling blaze of a family hearth can warm your toes as well as your soul, add appeal to your home and even cut down on heating costs. But much depends on how efficient and cared for your fireplace and chimney are.
Keeping the home fires burning has never been easier. Today, fireplaces come in all shapes and sizes – from the traditional masonry type made of brick or stone, to the prefabricated metal and free-standing models. They can add drama and warmth to almost any room, and many have energy-saving features and designs.
Regardless of the fireplace you have, enjoying it year after year requires some effort. A fireplace needs to be well-maintained and will only heat efficiently and safely if it was built correctly in the first place.
To work efficiently, the firebox (the area above the hearth where the fire is built) must be large enough to contain a fire: draw sufficient air for combustion, have a smoke shelf to prevent downdrafts from pushing smoke back into the room and a damper to close off outside air when it is not in use.
The chimney should be smooth and relatively straight with a cap rising above the roof to avoid downdrafts. There should be no large trees or buildings near the chimney which may divert airflow.
A fireplace build 30 or 40 years ago will often suck more heat out of a home than it contributes. Most can be made more efficient simply by installing one or more heat-saving additions. If your fireplace has no mantel, for example, you should add one. A mantel above the opening will keep the heat from rising straight to the ceiling and will send warm air into the room.
Even when a fireplace throws heat into a room, great quantities of warm air will be lost or smoke will be sent into the room if it doesn’t draw properly. To preserve your home’s heated air supply, install outside air vents to fuel the fire. Some building supply stores carry ready-to-install air vent kits that are set through the back of the fireplace. To cure a smoky fireplace, you may need to install a special chimney cap. Surrounding tall trees can cause downdrafts that bring smoke into a room. Forced air furnaces and fans or doors opposite a fireplace can also pull smoke from the firebox and force it into the room. Bird nests, beehives and leaves in chimneys can also have the same results. Be sure to turn off fans and check your chimney regularly for obstructions.
Heated air can also escape up the chimney when a fire is smoldering and the damper must still be kept open. Installing a glass door fire screen will help keep the heat in and it is also a good safety feature. Even with a fire burning and the doors closed, you can still enjoy the flames and receive warmth since the glass reflects heat into the room.
If you are really energy-conscious or want to use your fireplace to substantially increase your home’s heating efficiency, consider installing a device that converts the fireplace into a nearly airtight, wood-burning stove. Made of heavy metal or cast iron, these units are built along the same principle as a wood stove. Many have broad doors with a viewing glass to enjoy the fire’s appearance. Similar to stoves, these airtight units use draft controls so you can adjust heat output and burning rates.
Cleaning the fireplace and chimney
If you have just moved into a home with a fireplace, you should inspect it thoroughly to ensure there are no significant structural problems. This includes checking the chimney for leaks and making sure it meets all the basic requirements.
The best time to do an annual chimney/fireplace cleaning is in the fall, especially if you use your fireplace regularly over the winter months. You can hire a professional chimney sweep or do it yourself.
In addition to any obstructions, you want to get rid of any creosote buildup in the flue and chimney. Creosote is a tarry, highly-flammable substance formed when moisture expelled from the burning wood combines with combustible gases escaping unburned up the chimney flue. It can be the cause of a chimney fire if not removed regularly.
Building and fireplace supply stores usually carry basic chimney cleaning kits which will help you do the job. Chimney cleaning also means working from the roof down, so always consider your safety when doing the job yourself.
Clean the fireplace and hearth of ashes periodically during the months you use it Vacuum or brush up ashes, then wipe down the hearth. Remember, you can use ash in the garden as a nutrient, soil conditioner or even pest repellent.
- Never store any paper, wood or other combustible materials directly in front of your fireplace.
- Use a fire screen and fireproof throw-rug in front of the fireplace to protect carpeting, other flooring or furniture from sparks.
- Never saturate wood with a flammable liquid to start or rekindle a fire.
- Never pour water over the fire to smother the flames. Use baking soda: sand, dirt or plain cat lifter.
- Never leave a burning fire unattended.