6 Tips for Maintaining a Wood-Burning Fireplace
Brrr! With temperatures tumbling, there’s nothing better than nestling in some cozy blankets in front of a wood-burning fireplace. The sound of crackling wood and the heat radiating on your tootsies is just so, so comforting. However, you have to put in some work before you can relax: Your fireplace requires maintenance to ensure that it functions well and safely.
This is especially important in winter, when the risk of heating-related fires increases. Half of all U.S. home heating fires occur in December, January, and February, according to Susan McKelvey, a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association.
“Make sure your heating systems are cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified professional,” McKelvey says.
Thinking about firing up the hearth? Here are six tips for maintaining your wood-burning fireplace.
1. Regularly clean the interior
Burning wood in fireplaces can release pollutants in the air and leave a buildup of dust, ash, and creosote, which can cause fires. Also watch for any accumulation of soot, which is softer than creosote, is flammable, and must be regularly cleaned from the chimney.
The NFPA recommends chimneys be cleaned at least once a year, at the beginning of winter, to remove soot and debris.
“For serious wood burners, chimney cleaning must be done as needed to avoid chimney fires. The venting systems may need to be cleaned as often as once a month,” says Rich Sedgwick, director of sales and marketing for the National Fireplace Institute.
2. Cap it
Use a wire mesh cap to cover the top of the chimney to keep birds, squirrels, rain, and other debris from entering. Some critters can mistake chimneys for trees and build nests inside them. And the last thing you want is the horrible stench of a dead animal in your house.
“The wire mesh used on the rain cap is usually a good idea but not required,” says Rick Vlahos, executive director of the NFI.
You shouldn’t have to pay more than around $80 for a quality chimney cap.
3. Check the damper
The damper is a movable plate located above the fireplace before the flue. Homeowners should make sure the damper is properly functioning—meaning no debris should be keeping it from opening and closing. This is an important component to a properly working fireplace.
In addition to dampers, Sedgwick says other fireplace components subject to wear and tear include baffles, door latches and handles, grates, and ceramic firebrick refractories.
“Warped grates need replacing, as well as any cracked ceramic refractories. Latches may need adjustment or replacement. Wooden handles eventually scorch and deteriorate [and] should be replaced,” says Sedgwick. All of these components can be taken care of by a chimney and fireplace professional.
4. Monitor for smoke
A smoke-filled house is no fun for anyone. Leaves and animal nests can create blockages that prevent smoke from escaping the chimney. Smoke can also be caused by an unclean chimney that has creosote, soot buildup, a closed or partly open damper, or wood that is not burning completely.
“Check that your chimney is properly vented to the outside to minimize the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Install and maintain carbon monoxide alarms to alert you if this noxious gas is in the home,” says McKelvey.
5. Choose the right wood to burn
Our experts say that hardwoods such as maple, oak, ash, and birch are the best kind of wood to burn. Those woods burn longer and hotter, have less pitch and sap, and will contribute less creosote buildup.
Vlahos says you can burn any type of untreated wood but to make sure it is properly seasoned. You’ll know your wood is well-seasoned when it fades in color, is hard, sounds hollow when you knock on it, and has loose bark. You can also use a digital moisture meter to make sure your logs are seasoned enough to burn.
“You want wood that has 20% or less moisture content,” Vlahos says.
The most effective way to dry out wood is to cut it, split it, and stack it. Hardwood will take longer to dry out than soft wood.
6. Use heatproof glass doors
Glass doors can protect against heat loss and keep embers, cinders, or logs from rolling out of the fireplace and wrecking your carpet, tile, or wood floors. You can have doors installed on the frame of your fireplace or choose a portable screen ($419, Crate & Barrel) made of tempered glass.
“Keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet away from the fireplace,” says McKelvey.